Monday, October 31, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

November is somewhat of a unique month on TCM, as it’s a month that segues from a free-basing schedule into the Holiday classics that carry over into December.

Natalie Wood is the TCM Star of the Month for November. A gorgeous and talented actress, she was one of the few to make the transition from child star to adult star. Part of the reason for her success was that, unlike other child stars, she was continually working, so audiences saw her grow up on the screen. Born Natalia Nikolaevna Zakharenko in San Francisco on July 20, 1938, she made her film debut at the age of five in Irving Pichel’s The Happy Land (Fox, 1943), as a toddler who dropped her ice cream cone. Her best-known childhood role was that of Susan Walker, Maureen O’Hara’s skeptical daughter, in the 1948 film Miracle on 34th Street, which is not part of the Natalie Wood retrospective this month.

Her problem was that she came of age at a time when the quality of Hollywood’s product was beginning its decline, and her resume reflects that fact. It seemed as if the studios were more interested in her box office appeal rather than the quality of the films in which she was starring. Thus, for every Love With the Proper Stranger, there was an Inside Daisy Clover. Wood also did a lot of television, much of which was better than her movies.

In the late 70s, she seemed to lose interest in movies, appearing as Karen Holmes (the Deborah Kerr role) in a TV miniseries adaptation of From Here To Eternity (1979). Her movies from that period: Meteor (1979), The Last Married Couple in America (1980), and Willie & Phil (1980) were artistic and financial duds. Shortly after wrapping production on her last movie, Brainstorm(1983), Wood was tragically killed while sailing aboard the family yacht with husband Robert Wagner, family friend Christopher Walken, and boat’s captain Dennis Davern, when she fell trying to board a rubber dinghy tied alongside and drowned.

Her death stirred the interest of conspiracy theorists. It was well-known that Wood, having survived a near-drowning during the filming of The Green Promise (1949), was deathly afraid of water. During the filming of Splendor in the Grass (1961), director Elia Kazan stated that Wood balked at doing the scenes at the water reservoir and the only way he got her to comply was by promising a double – a promise on which he reneged. Though her death was ruled accidental by Los Angeles Coroner Thomas T. Noguchi, rumors still persist as to another cause.

November 4: One of Wood’s early films that doesn’t get much airplay is Chicken Every Sunday (10 pm) from director George Seaton and 20th Century Fox. It’s a nice little slice of turn-of-the-century Americana with Celeste Holm as an understanding wife who takes in boarders to support husband Dan Dailey’s harebrained financial schemes. Wood plays daughter Ruth Hefferen.

November 11: The focus tonight is on Wood’s teenage and early adult roles. Since practically everyone has seen Rebel Without a Cause and The Searchers almost to death, our pick for the night is Kings Go Forth (2:15 am), a World War II drama from United Artists and director Delmar Daves with Wood as a French beauty whose charms are sought by GI’s Frank Sinatra and Tony Curtis. The kicker is that neither Sinatra nor Curtis realize that Wood’s character is half-African. Ah, a little miscegenation in the plot pot. Despite the soapiness, it’s well-made and the performances are excellent, with Wood outacting both male leads.

The TCM SPOTLIGHT this month is called “To Tell The Truth,” and it is a compilation of documentaries from the earlier years of film until today. 

The title of “To Tell the Truth” is somewhat of a misnomer, based on a belief that documentaries tell the truth. Actually, they do not. What they do is give the point-of-view of the filmmaker. If the truth happens to coincide with his P.O.V., so much the better. In the social and political world, truth is quite often the synthesis of conflicting viewpoints, and often a documentary can change the ruling paradigm, as we shall see later this month.

November 2: Amid a night of Depression-era government documentaries is an excellent feature airing at 8:00 pm called To Tell the Truth: Working for Change (Episode 1). It’s a compilation of film clips from 1929 to 1941 outlining the development of the social documentary.

November 7: Politically themed documentaries are on tap tonight, beginning at 8:00 pm with Robert Drew’s excellent Primary from 1960. It focuses on the 1960 Wisconsin primary, where young and charismatic Sen. John F. Kennedy from Massachusetts went up against the established favorite, Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey from Minnesota. Primary provides us with a compelling look inside the political workings at a time when handshakes, grassroots networking, and good old-fashioned legwork were the order of the day, as opposed to today’s world of sound bytes and media images. 

Following are three excellent looks at American politics and business: The Times of Harvey Milk (1984), about the career and assassination of San Francisco’s first elected openly gay city supervisor; Roger & Me (1989), the first documentary from Flint, Michigan, native Roger Moore. Moore is trying to get a meeting with General Motors President Roger Smith in order to find out why GM left the city and eliminated 30,000 jobs in the process, dooming the city to poverty. It’s riveting viewing, and followed by the Academy Award-winning documentary Hearts and Minds (1974), chronicling this country’s involvement in the country of Vietnam. Critics called it one-sided and anti-American, as it never stopped to investigate the atrocities committed by the Viet Cong, but director Peter Davis, a respected documentary director and producer with CBS news, was not interested in an objective film; he was simply interested in addressing the reasons we went to Vietnam, what we did there, and how the experience affected this country. Therein lies its value to the audience.

November 9: The night is devoted to documentaries from World War II and the best way to start is with To Tell the Truth: Working for Change (Episode 2) at 8:00 pm, a compilation of clips exploring the use of the documentary in World War II. It’s followed by a slew of World War II documentaries, all of which have been screened before numerous times. However, the most interesting of the bunch is December 7th (11:30 pm), co-directed by John Ford and Gregg Toland. It features a debate between Uncle Sam (Walter Huston) and Mr. C (Harry Davenport) over Uncle Sam’s over the torn allegiances of Japanese-Americans and included scenes of an American soldier, a casualty of the attack played by Dana Andrews, looking down from heaven. Due to the controversy it stirred up among the military brass, the project was shelved until 1943, when Ford and his editor, Robert Parrish, cut it down to a more acceptable version, jettisoning the debate over loyalties and the deceased soldier. Ford concentrated on the battle itself, and the recovery afterwards, mourning the soldiers who were lost. The film then shifts its concentration on the rebuilding effort, shortening the film from 83 minutes to just over half an hour. With both versions of the documentary now available, the film makes for a most interesting contrast of attitudes.

November 14: The night leads off at 8 pm with one of the best and most powerful documentaries ever made: The Sorrow and the Pity, Marcel Ophuls’ examination of the years 1940 to 1944, when France was occupied by Nazi Germany. Originally intended to be shown on French television, broadcasters refused to air it because of its assertion that, contrary to the myth perpetuated by the Gaullists after the war, the Occupation was far from one of active resistance by the French. (It wasn’t shown until 1981.) The unoccupied zone that was known as Vichy France was an active collaborator with the Nazis and in the Occupied Zone, which consisted of the north and coastal areas, collaboration was more or less passive in nature. The film is a look into the nature and the reasons for collaboration, which include anti-Semitism, anglophobia, fear of Communism with a possible Soviet invasion, and the simple desires for power with a great deal of caution. Weighing in a 251 minutes, the film is split into two parts: “The Collapse,” which features an extensive interview with former Prime Minister Pierre Mendes-France, a Jew who joined The Resistance, and “The Choice,” which features an interview with Christian de la Meziere, who as a youth embraced fascism and fought for the Nazis on the Eastern Front. There is no unified P.O.V. in the film; it shows the response of the people to occupation as heroic, pitiable, and pathetically monstrous, sometimes all at once. The most heart-wrenching part of the film is the treatment accorded to those women who served or were married to Vichy men and German soldiers. I think most viewers will be surprised by the amount of humor in the film. Without that humor, the film would be virtually unwatchable. For instance, one truly laugh-out-loud moment occurs in an interview with a Resistance leader where he says his reason for fighting the Germans was because they monopolized the best meat. This is a film that must be seen, not only for its overall quality, but for its effect on the country where it is set.

Following at 12:30 am is another groundbreaking documentary on the Nazis, this time from director Alain Resnais. Night and Fog (1956) is only 32 minutes long, but a lot is packed into those 32 minutes. It is one of the most vivid and unsparing looks at the horrors of the Nazi concentration camps, combining new color film with black and white footage from newsreels and footage shot by the Allies to tell the story not only of the camps but to also show the horror of the brutal inhumanity at the core. The title comes from Himmler’s phrase that anyone caught resisting the Nazis would be arrested and immediately whisked off to the camps in such a way that it could be said they vanished without a trace into the “night and fog.” Required viewing for French schoolchildren, Francois Truffaut calls it the greatest film ever made.

When we search for those films considered Out of the Ordinary, rest assured that TCM is not neglecting us this month.

November 13: Three excellent films – two from the Soviet Union and one from Czechoslovakia – highlight the evening’s fare beginning at 12:15 am with the classic from Sergei Eisenstein, The Battleship Potemkin (1925). It’s followed at 1:30 am by a film made during a period in Russian history known as “The Thaw,” which occurred when Khrushchev came to power. The Cranes Are Flying (1957) is a moving and touching film from director Mikhail Kalatozov set during World War II. The main character is a young woman, Veronika (Tatyana Samojlova), whose boyfriend, Boris (Aleksey Batalov), joins the army. After her family is decimated by German bombing, she moves in with Boris’ family, where his cousin Mark (Aleksandr Shvorin) falls in love with her. She marries him out of guilt over having been seduced and the fact that Boris has officially been reported as missing in action. The marriage quickly goes sour, and Boris’ family comes to realize that the immoral Mark is to blame and Veronika didn't betray Boris of her own choice. In the end, Veronika finally comes to terms with Boris’ death and that his memory and devotion still lives on.

At 3:15 am comes one of the best films from the Czech New Wave, a film that has been unjustly neglected over the years. Courage for Every Day (1964), the feature debut from director Evald Schorm, is the story of Jarda Lukas (Jan Kacer), a worker from a big machine-tool plant who had a rather meteoric career after the Communist putsch of February 1948. As one of the pioneers of the youth-movement of Stakhanovites, he skillfully engaged himself in the political work with young people, and thus quickly climbed up the political ladder. However, when Stalin's cult of personality crumbled in the mid-50s many things changed and Jarda finds himself in something of an existential crisis, unable to cope with those changes. He keeps trudging along under the old directives and is at a loss to understand why the political work for which he used to be praised has become just a reason for mockery as his life takes a dangerous downward spiral.

After the glut of psychotronic films last month, TCM can be excused if the pickings this time around are rather slim.

November 3: At 2:45 pm airs one of Hitchcock’s best early films, The Man Who Knew Too Much (1934). It employs one of the director’s favorite themes: what happened when evil comes to an unsuspecting innocent. Bob and Jill Lawrence (Leslie Banks and Edna Best) are enjoying a quiet vacation in Switzerland. When their friend, Louis Bernard (Pierre Fresnay), is shot while dancing with Jill, he tells Bob about an assassination plot about to take place in London. Fearing the Lawrences will reveal the plot, the assassins, led by the charming Abbott (Peter Lorre) kidnaps their daughter Betty (Nova Pilbeam) to ensure their silence in the matter. Unable to secure police assistance, the Lawrences return to London to take on the assassins themselves. In typical Hitchcock fashion, the kidnapping is the film’s MacGuffin; there to set in motion the dynamic between Bob and Jill, who are portrayed here as the less-than-ideal couple. It’s Lorre, however, who steals the movie as Abbott. Having fled Germany after Hitler came to power, Lorre caught the eye of Hitchcock’s associate producer Ivor Montagu, who reminded his boss of Lorre’s role in M. From that point on there was never any question of anyone else taking the part. Hitchcock remade the film in 1956 with Jimmy Stewart and Doris Day. Though fans are split over which version is better, I prefer the 1934 film for its dry humor and sheer grittiness.

November 6: The Bowery Boys move up in the world after Sach (Huntz Hall) is mistaken for a society heir in High Society (1955). It’s not to be confused with the Frank Sinatra-Bing Crosby musical of the same year, but I prefer The Bowery Boys in all their squalor to the stylings of Frank and Bing. 

At 2:00 am comes a psychotronic psychopathic double-feature. First up is Alone in the Dark (1982). Set in New Jersey, four murderous psychopaths, led by Martin Landau and Jack Palance, walk out of the Haven maximum security mental institute during a power blackout. Their targets are psychiatrist Donald Pleasance and his assistant Dwight Schultz. Critic Michael Weldon describes it as “a classic horror move with humor, a punk sensibility and a great overacting cast.” See it and judge for yourselves.

At 3:35 am is He Knows You’re Alone, from 1980. Set on Staten Island, a serial killer (Tom Rolfing) is stalking brides-to-be, but ultimately meets his match in feisty bride-to-be Amy Jensen (Caitlin O’Heaney). It’s the usual slasher-on-the loose film, with its only distinguishing feature is that it marks the debut of Tom Hanks as Elliot.

November 8: In an evening dedicated to Norman Lloyd, TCM is airing Hitchcock's Saboteur, with Bob Cummings, Priscilla Lane, and Norman Lloyd at 9:15 pm. 

November 12: After The Bride of Frankenstein (1935) at 9:15 am, it’s The Bowery Boys in Spy Chasers (1955) at 10:30 am as they get involved with an exiled king (Sig Ruman) and a band of murderous spies. Look for Leon Askin (Hogan’s Heroes) as one of the spies.

Blaxploitation returns at 2:00 am with The Muthers (1976), with Janine Bell and Rosanne Katon as modern day pirates who must rescue Jeanne’s sister from the insidious clutches of coffee plantation owner Tony Carreon. Sportscaster-turned-actress Jayne Kennedy is on hand as Carreon’s mistress.

It’s immediately followed at 3:30 am by Melinda (1972), starring Calvin Lockhart as a DJ out to avenge the murder of his girlfriend (Vonetta McGee). Rosalind Cash is on hand to add spice to the mix.

November 13: A double shot of Popeye cartoons enliven the evening beginning at 8 pm. First up is Popeye The Sailor Meets Sinbad the Sailor (1936) followed by Popeye the Sailor Meets Ali Baba’s Forty Thieves (1937). Both are in color and representative of the fine work Max and Dave Fleischer have done over the years.

At 9:00 pm, hardboiled detective Charles McGraw must protect star witness and gangster’s widow Marie Windsor on a train to Los Angeles in Narrow Margin (1952). One of the best noirs made it fell into the land of forgotten films and only now is being revived for the classic of the genre it is.

And for those who find the selection of psychotronic films rather slim, the Pre-Code fare is better.

On November 3, Warren William and Bette Davis try to accomplish the impossible and get dumb hick Guy Kibbee elected governor in the witty The Dark Horse (1932) at 11:30 pm.

On November 6, Greta Garbo forsakes husband Armand Kaliz and lover Marc McDermott for the charms of young engineer Antonio Moreno in The Temptress (1926) at midnight.

It’s Garbo again on November 9 in A Woman of Affairs (1928) with John Gilbert and Lewis Stone at 10:30 am.

On November 11, Joel McCrea is head over heels about Dolores Del Rio in 1932’s Bird of Paradise.

Those looking for The Lubitsch Touch can find it on November 12 in 1933’s Design for Living, with Miriam Hopkins as an independent woman who can’t choose between playwright Frederic March or artist Gary Cooper. It airs at 11:45 pm.

On November 14, Robert Montgomery is a cad in Sins of the Children (1930) at 3:00 pm, and Clark Gable is a Salvation Army preacher who saves troubled Joan Crawford from suicide in Laughing Sinners (1931) at 4:30 pm. 

On November 15, Howard Hawks' directs race car driving brother Jimmy Cagney and Eric Linden in The Crowd Roars (1932) at 6:45 pm.

Saturday, October 29, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for November 1-7

November 1–November 7


BADLANDS (November 5, 10:15 pm): Martin Sheen and Sissy Spacek show their incredible talents in this 1973 film, loosely based on a serial killer and his girlfriend on a 1958 cross-country killing spree. The two become more detached to reality and violent as the film progresses. The film focuses on the alienation and hopelessness felt by the two doomed young criminals. Despite their horrific actions, you feel somewhat sorry for them. An excellent script, a remarkable job by Terrence Malick in his directorial debut, and outstanding acting from Sheen and Spacek, who would go on to be major film stars. It's an exceptional film that shouldn't be missed.

ADVISE AND CONSENT (November 7, 5:30 pm): This 1962 film about the confirmation process of a secretary of state nominee (Henry Fonda) was ahead of its time. The story rings true with politics of later years that saw and still see political nominees have their entire lives scrutinized just for the sake of partisanship and not for the betterment of the country. It's dialogue heavy, but the dialogue is so good that it elevates the quality of the film. Add the excellent cast – Fonda, Lew Ayres, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, and Burgess Meredith (in a small but memorable role) – and great directing by Otto Preminger and you get a film that's interesting, intelligent and compelling. 


THE DARK HORSE (November 3, 11;30 pm): Warren William was at his best as a political fixer brought in by the Progressive Party to guide the gubernatorial campaign of dimwitted Guy Kibbee (whose character is appropriately named “Hicks”), a man who William says is “so dumb that every time he opens his mouth he subtracts from the sum total of human knowledge.” Aiding him in this seemingly impossible task is Bette Davis as his girlfriend, one of nine films she made for Warner Bros. in 1932. Co-written by the brilliant Wilson Minzer, it’s typical of the unadulterated sass the studio was famous for in the Pre-Code days. At 73 minutes, it’s perfect to get across it’s sardonic points without overstaying its visit. Although William and Kibbee are top billed, it’s the young Davis who steals the film. Although William is the leader of the duo, he proves as naive as Kibbee in his own way, and it’s Davis who time and time again figures out the right moves. Her acting here is nothing short of brilliant, for instead of being blustery and impulsive, she sits by taking events in and evaluating them before coming to judgment. It’s totally enjoyable to see her character at work, exposing the foibles not only of Kibbee, but also of William. Watching Davis and William package and sell Kibbee to an unsuspecting public only reminds us that things haven’t changed since then.

GABRIEL OVER THE WHITE HOUSE (November 7, 10:00 am): This is one of the most incredible films ever made, and it comes from MGM, yet. Produced by William Randolph Hearst, it’s practically an advertisement for fascism, as party-hearty president Walter Huston is knocked for a loop in a car accident. When he comes out of his coma, he’s a changed man and uses dictatorial powers to take over, wiping out both unemployment and crime and bringing about world peace. If you haven’t seen this one yet (and the odds are great that you haven’t as this is rarely shown), by all means record and watch it. You’ll be knocked for a loop.

WE AGREE ON ... YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (November 4, 6:00 am)

ED: A+. Jimmy Cagney in the role of a lifetime, the role he was known best for, and the one that brought him his only Oscar. He often said in interviews that this was his favorite film, and he is the show here, infusing his interpretation of George M. Cohan with a verve and a bounce we seldom saw in his other roles, as if this was the role he had been waiting for his entire life. Perhaps. Cagney’s roots were as a hoofer on the Broadway stage and here he was at Warner Brothers, where the gritty urban drama was the specialty. His enthusiasm is such that we in the audience are easily infected and share along in the joy of his every step. The surrounding cast, made up of the Warner’s Stock Company, is excellent. Walter Huston and Rosemary DeCamp hit all the right notes as Cohan’s parents, and Joan Leslie is appealing as always. Made in 1942, at the height of the Second World War, it’s the perfect morale film; the life of one of America’s most patriotic composers and a showcase for his foot-tapping tunes. Michael Curtiz directs in his usual professional style, letting the actor tell the story instead of the other way around. My only disappointment with the movie is its format. This is a film that screams out to be made in Technicolor and cheapskate Jack Warner opts for black and white. Normally I love black and white; I even prefer it most of the time. But there are occasions when the full pallet of Technicolor is called for, and this is one of those times. There is a colorized version, but after having seen it I can only count it as an act of vandalism. If you should only see one musical in your lifetime, this is the one to see.

DAVID: A+. I'm not a fan of musicals nor am I a fan of sentimental films that play with your emotions, particularly a largely fictitious biopic. Yet I'm a huge fan of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which obviously falls into all of the above categories. The sheer joy that James Cagney brings to the role of George M. Cohan is infectious. Cagney started his career as a dancer, and if you examine his performance in this film, it's obvious why he made his money as an actor playing gangsters and cops, and not as a song-and-dance man. Cagney was a competent dancer, but his style is built on confidence and deception. He was such a wonderful actor that he convinces the audience that he is Cohan. His dancing technique is to exaggerate everything from his walking and strutting – sort of like a sedated Mick Jagger, who also isn't much of a dancer, but comes across as valedictorian of the James Cagney School of Dance – to simple movements of his arms, elbows and knees. And it works to near perfection. Even the story told in flashbacks – always dangerous for films such as this – to President Franklin D. Roosevelt is enjoyable. The lines are largely quips and they are pretty funny. My favorite is when he's telling FDR he was, like the nonsensical song tells us, born on the Fourth of July. "I was six before I realized they weren't celebrating my birthday." It's completely Cagney's movie. The other actors are fine, and this is coming from a huge Walter Huston fan. From start to finish, this is Cagney's baby. He is so spectacular, so engaging, so damn entertaining, that I find myself humming along to some of the corniest songs ever written and watching with a big smile on my face.

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

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Keeping Up With The Joneses

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Keeping Up With The Joneses (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Director: Greg Mottle. Writer: Michael LeSieur. Stars: Zach Galifianakis, Isla Fisher, Jon Hamm, Gal Gadot, Patton Oswald, Ming Zhao, Matt Walsh, Maribeth Monroe, Michael Liu, Kevin Dunn, Dayo Abanikanda, Henry Boston, Jack McQuaid, Ying He, & Yi Dong Hian. Color, Rated PG-13, 105 minutes.

Jeff Gaffney (Galifianakis) lives in a suburb of Atlanta, Georgia, and works as a personnel relations manager for MBI Company. He and his wife Karen (Fisher), a home decorator, live in a charming house on a cul-de-sac. The day-to-day life includes cleaning up after Dan Craverston’s (Walsh) twin bulldogs. Dan is a rocket scientist who also works at MBI. The Gaffneys have just waved goodbye to their two sons as they're bussed away to summer camp. Coming home, they meet Dan’s wife, Meg (Monroe), a real estate agent, who has just sold the last property in the neighborhood for all cash. Karen wonders who would buy a house without using credit or putting a down payment on it. Her curiosity keeps her by the window until the new occupants arrive.

Tim (Hamm) and Natalie Jones (Gadot) are not only the most attractive couple to move in, they’re absolutely perfect. They’re worldly, he speaks fluent Chinese, he can blow glass, she raises funds for orphaned children in Sri Lanka, speaks Israeli and cooks like a professional chef. Inviting them over for coffee, the Gaffneys receive an elaborate glass sculpture from the Joneses, which proves to have a bugging device inside – Jeff’s boss, Carl Pronger (Dunn) authenticates it. Karen is sure there’s something strange about the Joneses.

Knowing the Joneses would be out for the evening, Karen drags Jeff to their house, using the spare garage door opener to get in. All seems too perfect until they go upstairs and find the computer room with MBI company ID badges displayed on the monitors for all the technical employees and Jeff. Now she’s sure. But Jeff picks up a silver retractable pen and unwittingly shoots his wife with a sedative dart. Switching between carrying and dragging her, Jeff manages to get her out of the house just as the Joneses arrive home.

The fun continues when Karen’s suspicious sleuthing involves her and Jeff in a gun battle between Tim and Natalie and the henchmen of Scorpion (Oswalt), the real bad guys. Jeff’s and Karen’s ordinary, safe life changes forever. In the process, Jeff dines at a snake restaurant run by Yang (Liu), a good friend of Tim’s and Karen, and learns the meaning of provocative lingerie from Natalie.

The comedy in Keeping Up with the Joneses is sophisticated and subtle with a little slapstick thrown in for good measure. There are no laughfests, which is good. The sound effects crew supply exaggerated sounds that make the audience wince when Jeff hits Karen’s head on a door-jamb while trying to hurry her out of their neighbors’ house. Then there’s the ridiculous situation of Jeff’s well-dressed boss living out of his van after a divorce. Absurdity, and funny. Add to that, Scorpion’s girlfriend’s (Zhao) reaction when Jeff recognizes him and reveals his true name. Very smooth humor.

Zach Galifianakis plays the role of the insouciant believer in talking things out almost to the point of being annoying but it works. Isla Fisher is great as the nosy neighbor who never realizes that a professional spy would instantly catch her following wearing a lame disguise. I would be shocked if Jon Hamm was not or is not tapped to be the next James Bond. He would fit the role elegantly. And Gal Gadot is drop-dead gorgeous in everything she wears, no matter how little. I can’t wait for her sequel to Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice as Wonder Woman, now in post-production.

Keeping Up with the Joneses is a unique comedy with a great concept. I enjoyed it. It entertained me without using vulgarity, nudity or sex, just sly, clever, and sometimes subtle humor. My favorite quote (from Tim to Jeff), “You tried to jump through a triple-paned window without breaking it first?”

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Chimichurri Grill
609 9thAve., New York

I have learned over the years that whenever I think I’ve seen or heard the strangest things, there’s always something stranger waiting around the corner. When I received my confirmation call (I thought) from Chimichurri Grill, imagine my surprise at being told that they do not accept reservations for solo diners! Gee, I just made one. This is the first time I’ve ever been instructed that I would have to sit at the bar for dinner. Then, if a table opened up (maybe), I could have it. I was ready to change reservations as the bar stools at this place are back-breaking, flat-seated, backless stools. The excuse I was given was that there is usually a Broadway show crowd occupying all the tables for two. Still having misgivings, I accepted the bar-to-table possibility even though I knew that logically anyone who had tickets would not be dining at 7:15 pm when I would be arriving.

Chimichurri Grill is not as brightly lit as several other restaurants in their neighborhood. In fact, one could miss it entirely. Its humble black awning with the name in white make it seem to take a step back from the sidewalk as compared to the garish lights of nearby, larger establishments. 

One look inside and I could see unoccupied tables with two chairs among the total of 14. The small bar in front limits the number of tables near the window, but confirmed the uncomfortable stools. I met the man I spoke with on the phone when I announced my reservation. As he seated me at a table in the center of the one-room restaurant he repeated the “no solo diners” reservation policy. I advised him to inform soon to avoid future embarrassments.

Arthur Schwartz advised me long ago to do everything at a restaurant with a smile, especially when entering and it took some effort, but I accomplished that. I told Wilmer, my server, that I would like to start with “El Gibson” – Nolet’s Silver dry gin, Noily Prat dry vermouth and house-made pickled pearl onions. Served in an elegant martini glass, it was a good drink, but not as dry as the two ingredients promised. I would like to own pearls as big as the two onions skewered on the swizzle stick. They were almost golf ball size and delicious.

The wine list was also quite impressive, with at least 20 Malbecs listed on the first page. But I pressed on to see what else I could find, eventually choosing a 2013 Almancaya Gran Reserva “Lafite Rothschild” Malbec/Cabernet Sauvignon varietal. The two grapes worked well together (in equal parts) to create a rich, intense red wine, without being over-bearing or too dry.

The first dish to arrive was the Sopa Pescado “Patagonian” (seafood soup), made with clams, mussels onions, tomatoes and other vegetables. It was like eating an excellent gazpacho, but hot with just the right hints of spices. Though I don’t like clams in general, I had to rave about the ones in this soup. They were not rubbery or even excessively chewy with a pleasant flavor, not metallic. The mussels almost melted in the mouth.

Next came the appetizer, a “Trio of Chorizo” – Argentine pork, blood sausage and red Spanish spicy – served with red and green dipping sauces. All were excellent, especially the blood sausage: delicate, rich, earthy and savory.

My main course was the Ancho boneless ribeye steak topped with caramelized Vidalia onions. Served on a dark wood plate it was easily as good a steak as I’ve ever had. The side dish – Col Risada (sautéed kale in garlic and oil) was the best kale I’ve ever tasted, better than the best steakhouse spinach sides. Cooked to a little less than crispy and drenched in garlic, it still had that exciting “green” flavor of kale. 

In my dining experiences, the dessert with the longest name is usually the simplest and best after a very filling meal. This proved true again. The Queso de Oveja Manchego y Membrillowedges of Manchego cheese with quince preserve and raspberry sauce, was as much a delight to the eyes as to the taste buds. I prefer guava paste to quince but this was really very good. 

I saw the national drink of Argentina and ordered the Mate “Gaucho Macho.” I was a bit disappointed when it tasted like nothing but hot water – nothing “Macho” about it. I told Wilmer and he treated me to a glass of port wine, mumbling something about the mate not being the same as in Argentina. Mate is a tea drink, but no tea should be that wimpy.

I would really like to return to Chimichurri Grill, but will have to bring a dining companion the next time. I know just whom I would bring. I was surprised to learn later on that Chimichurri Grill has been in business for over 18 years and has a sister restaurant on the East Side. Except for the food and the wine, it seemed like their first year.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Hell Below

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Hell Below (MGM, 1933) – Director: Jack Conway. Writers: Laird Doyle, Raymond L. Schrock (adaptation). John Lee Mahin, John Meehan (dialogue). Edward Ellsberg (book Pigboats). Stars: Robert Montgomery, Walter Huston, Madge Evans, Jimmy Durante, Eugene Pallette, Robert Young, Edwin Styles, John Lee Mahin, David Newell, Sterling Holloway, & Charles Irwin. B&W, 101 minutes.

That’s Deadpan Toler. If he smiles it’s only a gas pain.”

Hell Below is a war film about submariners that starts off well but, by the time it gets to the finish, descends into the murky waters of cheap melodrama. It's a real shame because it boasts an excellent cast.

It’s 1918 and the United States submarine AL-14 has just docked in Taranto, Italy, for a furlough after some heavy combat in the Adriatic Sea that saw its commander badly wounded. As he is taken off the ship to a waiting ambulance, the crew commiserates and congratulates the ship’s second-in-command, Lt. Thomas Knowlton (Montgomery) on what is bound to be a sure promotion to commander of the ship. However, just as the ambulance takes off, a figure comes aboard. He is Lt. Commander T.J. Toler (Huston) and he has orders from command headquarters to assume command of the submarine.

Knowlton hides his disappointment well as he gives Toler a tour of the ship. One thing Knowlton learns immediately about his new commander is that he is a no-nonsense stickler to the book and the attention to detail it entails.

As Knowlton and his fellow officer, Lt. Ed “Brick” Walters (Young), are about to disembark for their shore leave, Toler tells them that they are to attend an officer’s ball being held that night as dance partners for the wives of high ranking officers. Naturally they resent this and after arriving at the party, are looking to duck out early until they spot pretty, young Joan Standish (Evans). They compete for her attentions, and it’s Knowlton who wins out. When he finds that she’s just as anxious to leave as he is, he escorts her to a local carnival. While they are riding the Ferris wheel, the celebration is suddenly halted by an air raid. Knowlton takes Joan back to his place, where they get to know each other a bit better. When she discovers it’s his place, she insists on leaving, especially after he confesses that he’s in love with her. But it’s no good as she is married. A moment later, a knock is heard at the door. It’s Brick, and they have orders to report back to the sub as it’s under attack from enemy planes.

While Knowlton is trying to make time with Joan, a sub-plot is developing involving “Mac” MacDougal (Pallette), the ship’s chief torpedo man, and “Ptomaine” (Durante), the ship’s cook, who is studying to be a dentist through the mail. At first, they are overjoyed to discover that British marines will work as the shore patrol while they are on leave, but Ptomaine gets into a fight with one of them (Irwin) for referring to him as a “pelican” due to his big nose. Ptomaine, for his part, calls the Brit “an elk” and notes that his tormentor has a big set of choppers, perfect for an aspiring dentist.

As the crew reports to the submarine, the AL-14 is put out to sea, where they come upon a German minelayer and score a direct hit with torpedoes. As the German crew abandons their sinking ship, Toler sends Brick out in a dinghy with some crewmen to see if they can grab the German ship’s codebook before it sinks. However, as Brick and his party are about halfway to the ship, a group of German planes attack the surfaced submarine. When a bomber is spotted making its way towards the ship, Toler has no choice but to submerge and abandon the boarding party. Everyone heeds the order except Knowlton, who stays at his machine gun firing on the attacking planes. He has to be cold-conked in order to get him aboard.

Although damaged, the sub makes it back to port for repairs and the crew resumes its shore leave. Ptomaine and Mac supply one of the film’s better moments when Mac talks the cook into a taking on a boxer for $5. Ptomaine signs up, and to his distress, discovers he’s going to fight a boxing kangaroo. As the fight progresses, Ptomaine is getting the worst of it. Hearing hecklers, he notices that one of them is his nemesis, the big-toothed Brit he calls “the elk.” Ptomaine jumps into the crowd to take on his tormentor. Mac wades through the rioting crowd to rescue his buddy before the MPs arrive, and as they leave, Ptomaine displays his trophy – one of his tormentor’s large teeth.

Meanwhile, Knowlton spends his leave looking for Joan, who he knows is a nurse and is working at a nearby military hospital. There, Joan introduces him to her husband Herbert (Styles), a British flight commander who was paralyzed in an airplane crash. She also lets him know that she’s Toler’s daughter. Knowlton, totally stunned, rushes off, but Joan follows him back to his apartment, were she confesses her love. They pledge to remain together in spite of Herbert.

While on their next patrol, Toler has it out with Knowlton over his affair with Joan. Toler’s orders for the mission are to map where new minelayers, now escorted by destroyers, are depositing their mines. Knowlton, on periscope duty, spots Brick’s dinghy floating in the water and thinks he sees signs of life on the boat. He requests that Toler dispatch a rescue party. Toler refuses, as the presence of three German destroyers makes it a risk not worth taking. But when Toler leaves the bridge, Knowlton orders the ship to fire torpedoes at the destroyers. Two of the destroyers are sunk and the sole survivor attacks, dropping depth charges and forcing the submarine to descend below its maximum safe depth. Air is running out. 

After waiting for a time, Toler, who has Knowlton confined to the brig, decides to surface and take his chances in a fight rather than stay where he is and suffocate. As they attempt to surface, a crucial pump that will allow them to resurface fails. Knowlton, who has left the brig on his own, spots a chlorine gas leak, apparently caused when a torpedo got loose while being loaded. Seaman Jenks (Holloway), had his leg crushed while attempting to stop the warhead from hitting the submarine’s side. The room is evacuated, but Jenks is left behind, forgotten in the confusion. The door to the gas-flooded compartment cannot be opened or the whole ship will fill with gas. The crew must stand by helplessly and watch Jenks die as he bangs on the window for help. While attempting to repair the pump, another crewman, fearful that they are doomed, commits suicide. Finally, the pump is fixed and the ship is able to resurface and maneuver to safety. The final toll is eight crewmen dead.

Back on shore, Knowlton is court-martialed and dishonorably discharged. Joan, undeterred by the turn of events, plans to run off with him. This precipitates a battle with Toler, who is not only disgusted with his daughter for not doing her duty, but also with Knowlton, for encouraging her when he knows he faces a bleak future due to his dishonorable discharge.

Joan tells Knowlton to go to the hospital and inform her husband of his wife’s change in plans. When Knowlton visits, however, he learns that Standish is scheduled for an operation that will enable him to recover fully and walk again. Knowlton leaves without informing Standish of the change in plans, and during a later meeting with Joan and her father, pretends to be drunk and acts so callously toward Joan, who does not know of her husband’s upcoming operation, that she comes to despise him and breaks off the relationship, though Toler can see through the act. 

In the finale, Toler is assigned a dangerous mission. He must take the AL-14, loaded with explosives, to block the only port in the Adriatic from which German submarines can operate. He is to ram a fortification beside the narrowest point in the channel that leads out of port and set off the explosives to block the port. The mission is timed to that Toler and the crew have enough time to abandon ship before it hits and be picked up by speed boats.

Knowlton has snuck aboard the sub unbeknownst to Toler, but when Toler discovers his wayward crewman, he lets him stay. The mission goes according to plan, but when the ship surfaces and the man jump overboard to be rescued, Toler is trapped by the incoming fire from the harbor’s defenders. Toler orders Knowlton to join the crew, but Knowlton throws Toler overboard and takes the craft in himself to his death.


Hell Below runs the entire gamut: it’s a war film, a romance, an action picture, a comedy, and finally, a melodrama. Based on Pigboats, a novel by Commander Edward Ellsberg, it was made with the full cooperation of the Navy and even has a dedication to the Navy in a forward.

The problem with Hell Below is that it keeps bouncing from sub-plot to sub-plot, as if the main plot of submarines in war and the men who serve in them isn’t enough to sustain the film. Part of this could be rooted to America’s negative attitude about the First World War as a waste of this country’s time and men, who were seen as being sent needlessly to their deaths in an unnecessary war. Other films about the war made during this period took the same line, notably All Quiet on the Western FrontHeroes For Sale, and A Farewell to Arms. Later, when our entry into the next war seemed inevitable, the studios refashioned World War 1 into an honorable and necessary war, especially as it looked like we were once again going to be fighting the Germans.

The strength of the film is in its cast. Those out there who aren’t sure about Robert Montgomery’s acting creds should check him out here. It’s amazing to watch him change the tone of his character as the film progresses, going from light-hearted to serious and back again. He plays the role of Thomas Knowlton quite well, as both a hero and a heel; a man ruled by his passions, which in hindsight is the reason why he wasn’t promoted to be the commander of the submarine at the beginning of the film. 

Even in a scene as predictably sappy as when he pretends to longer care about Joan Standish, he comes through admirably. His tension with Huston’s Toler comes off as authentic, and his chemistry with Robert Young is nothing short of fantastic. We can understand why he is devastated at the loss of his friend and wants to rescue him, even to the point of recklessly taking on three enemy destroyers. Montgomery makes it all seem real. That he was one of MGM’s most popular leading men is no accident, as he combines matinee idol looks with solid acting. A couple of film bloggers have wondered how Montgomery could be billed above Huston, but the answer is easy. Huston was a freelancer and did a lot of character roles while Montgomery was an MGM contract player, playing the male lead while a solid draw at the box office. 

Speaking of Huston, he gives what we’ve come to expect as the typical Walter Huston performance: impeccable. Huston had quite a good run in the early ‘30s, with leading or featured roles in Abraham LincolnThe Criminal CodeThe Beast of the CityAmerican MadnessThe Wet ParadeKongo, and Gabriel Over The White House. Huston had the unique ability to play both leading men and supporting characters. Check out Huston in Kongo, a remake of Lon Chaney’s West of Zanzibar. I can think of nothing harder that trying to follow Lon Chaney (even Jimmy Cagney couldn’t do it in Man of a Thousand Faces), yet Huston pulls it off with gusto. One of the strengths of Hell Below is the relationship between Huston’s Toler and Montgomery’s Knowlton. It plays out in shades of gray rather than strictly black and white. Both have their strengths and both have their foibles.

Robert Young and Madge Evans do the best with their limited characters, though both benefit from having Montgomery to play off. Sterling Holloway, who rarely gets to show his ability in a film, makes the absolute most of his time as Seaman Jenks. His death scene, with his face in the portal begging for help as the rest of the crew watches helplessly in the next compartment, is the best and most unforgettable in the film.

If anyone comes close to stealing the limelight from leads Montgomery and Huston, it’s the team of Eugene Pallette and Jimmy Durante. They make for quite a formidable comedy relief duo and do much to lessen the tension, particularly in the scene where Durante ends up boxing a kangaroo. Pallette is often underused in many of his films, but when he gets a good part, as in The Kennel Murder Case, he makes the most of it without having to resort to the old ham bone.

The strength of the acting is complimented by the cinematography of Harold Rosson and the art direction of Cedric Gibbons. Rosson’s use of shooting through the viewpoint of the periscope lends a sense of realism and Gibbon’s design of the submarine perfectly capture the claustrophobia experienced by the crew. Lt. Comdr. Morris D. Gilmore, who served as technical adviser on the film, has to be given credit for the film’s incredible and totally believable attention to the details of life aboard a submarine in war. Hell Below would serve as the template for all later submarine epics, the most obvious being Run Silent, Run Deep (1958), with its relationship between Commander Clark Gable and his second-in-command Burt Lancaster.

MGM did its usual first-rate job with the film’s production values. They were loaned the use of USS S-31 to play the fictional submarine AL-14. The German destroyer that was torpedoed was the decommissioned WW1 destroyer USS Moody, which the studio bought for $35,000 and hired a demolition firm to stimulate the torpedo hit. There were some notable goofs in the film, however. For one thing, Evans and the other female players sport the hairdos and clothing of the early ‘30s rather than the styles of 1918, which were profoundly different. Also, during the air raid scene, check out the automobiles; all are of an early ‘30s vintage.

Although the film is definitely Pre-Code, the print run by Turner Classic is the version edited by the studio for a 1937 re-release. As a result, some of the characters are moving their lips, but no sounds are coming out. The editing to get the film passed by the censors gives us a good insight into the bluenoses who presume to dictate the entertainment for American adults. The bloodier aspects of the film are kept while any hints of “bad language” or sex is simply erased. Hell Below underperformed at the box office with a worldwide gross of $1,389,000 ($634,000 in the U.S.), which reportedly resulted in a loss of $52,000.

Overall, Hell Below is well worth watching, especially for the acting, even if the other parts of the film don’t exactly come together well.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

The Girl on the Train

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Girl on the Train (Universal, 2016) – Director: Tate Taylor. Writers: Erin Cressida Wilson (s/p), Paula Hawkins (novel). Stars: Emily Blunt, Hayley Bennett, Rebecca Ferguson, Justin Theroux, Luke Evans, Edgar Ramirez, Laura Prepon, Allison Janney, Darren Goldstein, Lisa Kudrow, Cleta Elaine Ellington, Lana Young, Rachel Christopher, Fernando Medina, & Gregory Morley. Color, Rated R, 112 minutes.

Not to be confused with the 2009 movie of the same title, this one is based on the novel by Paula Hawkins, the book that “shocked the world.” Frankly, it didn’t shock me. Classified as a mystery/thriller, it was neither too mysterious nor thrilling. It starts and ends in the worst way, with bland, slightly bored sounding narration by the title character.

Rachel Watson (Blunt) and her husband Tom (Theroux) are trying to have a baby, and failing. Even in vitro fertilization doesn’t do the trick and they are running out of funds to cover the cost. To ease the pain, Rachel slips into a bottle and becomes an alcoholic while Tom fools around with the real estate agent. Rachel’s blackouts afford Tom ample opportunity to accuse her of violence for the time she can’t recall until even she believes it. An explosive scene at a dinner party thrown by Tom’s boss Martha (Kudrow) appears to clinch her manic outbursts.

They get divorced. Rachel moves out of their house in Ardsley, N.Y., (the book is set in England) and stays with a friend, Cathy (Prepon). Tom marries Anna (Ferguson), the real estate agent, and they have a daughter, Evie.

Having been fired from her job due to her alcoholism, Rachel uses her alimony to ride back and forth to New York City on the Metro-North railroad to keep the illusion of still having a job to Cathy. When she passes the Ardsley station she sees Scott and Megan Hipwell (Evans and Bennett), who live a couple of houses down from Tom. She fantasizes them as the perfect couple, the ones who have what she never got, until she sees Megan kissing her therapist, Dr. Kamal Abdic (Ramirez). Rachel is outraged.

Megan babysits for Tom and Anna, but quits when she becomes bored of it, and disappears. When Rachel involves herself in the quest for Megan, her repeated appearances at her old house label her as a stalker and a person of interest to Detective Riley (Janney). When Megan turns up dead, all fingers point to Rachel.

The Girl on the Train is a mediocre Hitchcock wannabe with all the earmarks and plot twists, but none of the gorgeous suspense the master would include. The trailers are more thrilling than the actual film. Even Danny Elfman’s excellent music does nothing to add to the mystery and shock the movie should generate.

The hour and 52 minutes creep by and could be shortened to an hour and a half by cutting several scenes where someone asks Rachel a question and she just sits there with a blank expression on her face. I guess Emily Blunt is trying to convey mental overload at probing her blackouts but it doesn’t come across that way. 

The narration is uninteresting and fails to set up the movie for the audience. Justin Theroux, on the other hand, is the perfect cad. Haley Bennett plays the bored slut to the hilt and even I was not surprised that her character is murdered. I have no complaints about Luke Evans except that he got shorted on his part. And Edgar Ramirez had serious trouble keeping his Middle-Eastern accent.

If it weren’t for the many flashbacks, no one in the audience would have a clue as to what was going on. And then there are the “F” bombs whenever frustration arises, which are completely unnecessary. The most interesting parts for me were the two times Rachel returns to the Conservatory Gardens in the north part of Central Park and sits by the fountain sketching the nymphs and the final confrontation scene. All the rest was filler. I’ll stick with the book.

Rating: 1½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Gin Parlour (in the Hotel Intercontinental)
111 E. 48th St.New York

Inspired by Dutch and English gin bars of the 1920s” says the website of this six-month-old hotel bar, displaying a picture of cream-colored walls, a fireplace with the ornate gilded mirror above it, and a brocaded wing chairs flanking an oval cocktail table against a backdrop of striped curtains.

I had to ask a hotel employee if what I saw when I entered the hotel was actually The Gin Parlour, as it simply looked like a large oval bar set up a few stairs from the sweeping main lobby, with no indication of a title. 

There was no Captain’s Station. I walked past the bar and hoped that someone would see and seat me. Fortunately, I didn’t have to wait long. One of the servers seated me in a corner of the room facing the bar. The striped curtains were there but drawn back and inelegantly tied. I didn’t see a fireplace and there were no wing chairs. All illusion of charm was dashed, and the flat screen television playing sports on the far wall tossed the last of whatever atmosphere there was out the window.

So what was keeping me there? The fact that the website boasted 88 different gins in their stock. When I met Julio, my server, he corrected that total to 95 gins. In my dining experiences, I’ve only made the acquaintance of about a dozen of them. Julio presented me with the flip-style menu which included wines and cocktails, and, the gin list, which was most impressive. I almost wish there had been an entry listing a “flight” of gins to make comparisons. But I ordered my Beefeater martini and it was made perfectly.

In the food section of the menu there were categories of Bites, Shellfish, Small Plates, Greens & Entrées, Between the Bread (Burgers), and Desserts. I chose one “bite,” one “small plate” and an entrée, plus a Merlot from Long Island that seemed like a good choice to go with my meal. But I was informed they were out of the wine. So with Julio’s assistance I chose a lovely 2015 “Loca Linda” Malbec Mendoza Argentina. Usually Malbecs are too heavy for the dishes I chose but this one was lighter bodied, with full fruits and mild tannins and a beautiful red color.

Another server brought out the bread basket. The sourdough baguette was almost as difficult to tear as to chew. I switched to the seven-grain roll which was much more malleable and tasty.

The first dish was Alphabet City soft pretzels – truffle cheddar and garlic parsley soft pretzels with a Pork Slap beer (a New York brewery) mustard and cheese dip. It’s a weakness of mine, but I love pretzels and this was an adventure. The parsley was not intrusive in the flavor of the one pretzel and the cheddar did not overpower the other. The dip was just right.

Next was a dish I’ve seen nowhere else and just had to try it. The Broiled Oysters “Reuben” combined Gruyere, crumbled corned beef, Thousand Island dressing, and Barclay pickle relish with small West Coast oysters for a strange, but novel taste. I enjoyed it but would probably not order it again.

I’m basically a carnivore, so you know that when I order fish, the meat dishes were not crying out to me. The Montauk bass was served with chorizo, corn, local clams and summer squash in a beautiful piquant (lemons) golden sauce. The fish was delicate enough to cut with a fork and the combination with the Spanish sausage was remarkable. The two flavors worked together to create a savory whole. I doubt if the meat dishes could have compared.

Surprisingly, I did not order a side dish, because none were offered on the menu. Neither was one needed. The main course was quite complete. For dessert I ordered the “Chocolate Crunch” – dark chocolate mousse and pralines – which was almost too pretty to eat. It was like a large chocolate goose egg resting on a nest of pralines with silver and white pearls perched on top. The mousse was delicious, not the best I’ve had, but surely not the worst. A double espresso later and I was finished.

The Gin Parlour is not a bad place to dine. The food is good, at times unusual, the service is impeccable and friendly and I have to try some new gins when I return. They actually have a pink gin from Germany! Who knew? What I would like to have them recapture is the charm of the 1920s they tout on the website. But they’re young still. Hopefully, they’ll learn.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.