Sunday, December 30, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for January 1-7

January 1 –January 7


HERE COMES MR. JORDAN (January 2, 5:30 pm): A very funny film about a boxer/amateur pilot Joe Pendleton (played by the charming Robert Montgomery) who crashes his plane and is mistakenly taken to heaven by angel. He survives, but the angel doesn't want him to suffer. A check by the angel's boss, Mr. Jordan (played by the charming Claude Rains) show Pendleton is correct. But by the time they go to put him back in his body, it's too late. The body has been cremated. The angels have to find Pendleton another body - one that can be a champion boxer. They find a rich guy who is killed by his wife and his personal assistant who are lovers. This 1941 movie is a joy to watch. Warren Beatty uses the exact same story (except he's a quarterback for the then-Los Angeles Rams) with many of the same character names in the excellent Heaven Can Wait in 1978. I haven't seen the 2001 remake, Down to Earth, with Chris Rock. But based on the reviews of that film, I'm probably lucky.

GASLIGHT (January 7, 9:30 am): Those who pay attention know I'm a huge fan of Joseph Cotten. The same can be said for Ingrid Bergman. So when you get the two of them together - both in their acting primes - in this 1944 thriller with an outstanding plot, the end result is a classic. I'm not much of a Charles Boyer fan, but he is deliciously evil and conniving in his role as Bergman's husband who is slowly and successfully driving her crazy. Cotten is a Scotland Yard inspector who gets third billing, but steals many scenes. This is also Angela Lansbury's film debut. She was 18 years old at the time and plays a maid who's looking for the opportunity to get with Boyer and shows no sympathy toward Bergman. To me, it's her best film role, and a rare one in that she actually looks young. Seventeen years later, at the age of 35, she'd play Elvis Presley's mother in Blue Hawaii. Elvis was 26 at the time. 


RIFIFI (January 1, 8:00 pm): It’s the greatest caper movie ever made: So good, in fact, that its director, Jules Dassin, managed to remake it into a smart, sophisticated comedy named Topkapi in 1964. However, Rififi is not a comedy. Besides being the best caper movie it’s also the best French noir. The plot in a nutshell is that four men plan the perfect crime, but being human, that which can go wrong will go wrong, which happens in the aftermath of the crime, when the gang should be happily splitting the loot. Look for director Dassin in the role of the womanizing Cesar (under the name “Perlo Vita”). It’s a Must See and is definitely a film to be viewed multiple times.

JACK ARNOLD NIGHT (January 4, 8:00 pm): Universal made some of the best B-budget sci-fi in the 50s and Jack Arnold was the man responsible for these wonderful films. The night begins with the classic The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Then comes the underrated Tarantula, followed by The Incredible Shrinking Man, boasting a script by Richard Matheson based on his novel. And last comes the piece de resistanceIt Came From Outer Space, one of the most intelligent sci-fi films ever made. A feast for the sci-fi fan, these films are good enough to entertain even the non sci-fi fans among us.


ED: A. John Ford directed so many great Westerns that one is at a loss to pick just one as his or her favorite. And I’m not about to break stride, but this is one hell of a Western – one helluva film. John Wayne is in fine form as a Calvary officer facing an Indian uprising on the eve of his retirement. In a stretch for him, he plays a man much older than his charges with a softer side to his character. (Watch for the scene where he fumbles for his bifocals to read the inscription after accepting a watch as his retirement gift.) And he’s actually good - well, as good as he’s ever going to get, at any rate. And as long as John Agar is in the cast, Wayne cannot be the worst actor. Look for familiar faces Victor McLaglen and Harry Carey Jr. (who just passed away) providing support, as well as the great Western star, George O’Brien, as Wayne’s commander. And if you look hard, that’s Fred Graham as Sergeant Hench. Graham is well known to psychotronic movie fans for his role as the sheriff in The Giant Gila Monster. At any rate this is a great Western and it’s interesting to see Wayne try to break type. 

DAVID: B-. This movie, a Western directed by the legendary John Ford, is beautifully filmed in Technicolor with spectacular scenery. But the plot is flimsy at best and the acting at times borders on the ridiculous. Regular readers know I consider Katharine Hepburn to be the most overrated actress in the history of film. My feelings about John Wayne as cinema's most overrated actor are about the same. It's interesting that this is the first Wayne film to receive our "We Disagree" treatment. While Ed enjoys a lot more Wayne films than I, he recognizes his limitations. Ed's not going to give Wayne's True Grit an A++. When Wayne is bad, he's awful. Wayne has moments - StagecoachThe Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Red River, come to mind - as a solid actor in great movies. I digress to give you some context for She Wore a Yellow Ribbon. As I previously wrote, the scenery is incredible, which counts for a lot because as far as Westerns go, this one is nearly devoid of action. Ford could be a stickler for historic accuracy, but what is shown in this film is largely a work of fiction. That's fine, but Wayne unconvincingly playing a man much older than he, and the silly love story falls miserably short in a movie with some of the most incredible cinematography you'll see. It's pretty to see, but ugly to hear.

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

Friday, December 28, 2012

Jack Reacher

Jack Reacher

By Jon Gallagher

(Paramount Pictures, 2012) – Director: Christopher McQuarrie. Starring Tom Cruise, Rosamund Pike, Werner Herzog, & Robert Duvall.

Those of us who are Lee Child fans have been waiting a long time for one of his books to be made into a movie. Child has penned 17 novels over the last 15 years, all of them featuring the ultimate loner Jack Reacher as the protagonist. Reacher is an ex-Military Policeman who has no home, carries no credit cards, and owns only the clothes on his back and a folding toothbrush which he keeps in a pocket. In the novels, Reacher always seems to just be roaming around the country when he happens upon an injustice, which requires him to kill several people while saving the day. He manages to live off his Army pension by having money wired to himself from the one thing he does own which is a bank account.

When it was announced that a movie was going to be made of one of Child’s novels, I was pretty excited. When I found out the movie was going to be based on his 2006 novel One Shot, I was even more excited. One Shot was one of the better novels Child has written and featured an intricate plot filled with twists and turns that kept you turning pages and guessing till the end.

I think I finished the book in two days. Usually a novel and I are partners for at least a week, sometimes 10 days.

Then came the bad news. Tom Cruise had been cast in the lead role. Now personally, I don’t have anything against Tom Cruise. In fact, I like most of his movies. There was just one small (pardon the upcoming pun) problem and that’s Cruise’s size. Child’s character is always listed at 6’5” while Cruise, at 5’6” is almost a full foot short of that. He’d be better suited to play a member of the Lollipop Guild rather than Jack Reacher.

I was also afraid they’d screw with the plot. On his website, Child assured his fans that Cruise was a good choice for Reacher and that he was happy with the script. Good enough for me.

The movie starts in Pittsburgh – the entire movie is filmed in the city – where a random shooting takes place. A highly-trained sniper shoots five random people along a walkway, then flees the scene. He leaves behind a plethora of evidence including a spent shell casing, tire tracks and shoe prints in some concrete dust, video of his van and its license plate pulling in and out of the structure, a pristine bullet which missed victims but lodged itself in a liquid dispenser, and a quarter with his thumbprint, found in the parking meter inside the garage.

It looks like a slam dunk for the prosecutor as they find the alleged sniper, passed out on his bed at home with the van in the garage and his boots by the door. They find the gun used in the shooting and his workshop for making his own ammunition. He had been trained as a sniper by the United States Army. While he is being questioned, he writes a note that says, “GET JACK REACHER.”

Before the police can attempt to contact Reacher, the suspect is beaten into a coma by other inmates. While the cops and DA puzzle about how to find this Reacher character, he shows up.

We learn, as Reacher begins to work with the suspect’s attorney Helen Rodin, daughter of District Attorney Rodin, that Reacher had come to find the suspect after hearing about the shooting on the news. Reacher, as an MP, had arrested the suspect in Iraq for going rogue and killing four “innocent” Iranian citizens, using the sniper techniques he’d been taught and had practiced for years. The suspect had gotten off on a technicality, but Reacher promised him that if he ever did anything like this again, he would come looking for him.

Reacher is convinced of the guy’s guilt from the get go. But when all the evidence seems to be too good to be true, and thugs start showing up to try and take him out, Reacher decides to stick around and dig a little deeper into the case. Thus, the rest of the movie is spent watching Jack Reacher beat up bad guys, run from cops, and try to save the female attorney he’s managed to put in danger.

The movie is decent. I enjoyed it and I went in thinking the worst (because I usually like the book better). In this case, the movie was every bit as good as I remember the book (I read it six years ago – I grab Lee Child’s books before the ink is dry). The dialogue seems to be forced at times and that did bother me, and there was a chase scene that I could have done without, but screenwriter (and director) Christopher McQuarrie stayed relatively loyal to the book (dialogue is the hardest thing to write for some people).

The villain is played by Werner Herzog, a director in his own right with more than 50 documentaries under his belt, and he is excellent. Rosamund Pike, a Bond girl from 10 years ago tackles the role of the female attorney, but the role still managed to rush for a first down plus. She was not impressive.

Robert Duvall plays a gunshop owner and is entertaining as he lends assistance to Reacher in the end. Old crusty men must be an easy role to play because I’ve given good reviews to several of them now.

Detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and DA Rodin (Richard Jenkins) seem like they’re also just filling roles, but I’ll blame that on McQuarrie since he not only wrote the characters, but also told them how to play them. Jai Cortney is very good in the villainous second-banana role and deserves a mention.

Finally, Cruise did a good job with his performance. Personally, I would have cast someone else in the role had I been directing. Jim Caviezel of CBS’s Person of Interest comes to mind immediately, but his character on that show is more Jack Reacher-ish than the one seen in this movie. Dwayne Johnson might have been a good choice as well. I can’t fault Cruise for his performance because it was good; I just can’t say it was the right person for the role. Though if I had to give out the Best Actor of the Movie here, it would go to Cruise.

Part of the reason I’m going to rate it so high is because of the ending. I won’t say more than that so that it’s not ruined for you, but I thought the ending alone warranted a slightly higher rating of the movie overall.

Having said that, I enjoyed the movie and the ending enough to give it an A-. I thought the action sequences were good, I enjoyed the few humorous parts that were sprinkled in, and the plot itself was at least solid (if not a little unbelievable). I’ll probably rent this one again once it comes out, and to be truthful, I wouldn’t mind owning it once it hits the DVD shelves.

The opening weekend for the movie was good, so I wouldn’t be surprised to see one of Child’s other 16 books start filming in the very near future.

I do have to admit that the beginning of this movie made me extremely uncomfortable. Granted it was filmed quite a while ago, but it was released just a week after the tragedy in Newtown, Connecticut. In the opening sequence, when the sniper is sighting his victims, we see the crosshairs of his scope trained on several potential targets, including a small child. In fact, when the sniper fires a shot in her direction, we’re not sure till much later in the movie whether the small girl was hit or whether it was the person carrying her.

I certainly hope that theaters in and around the Newtown area had enough sense to postpone the opening of this movie for a while. This is neither an argument for or against gun control; it’s observation based on compassion for an area of our country that could use a little right now.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

This is Spinal Tap & Anvil! The Story of Anvil

By David Skolnick

Editors’ Note: We’re always looking to branch out, which leads us to a new feature. Message in the Music is about films in which music plays a significant role, but the movies wouldn’t be considered musicals. It’s kind of a musical non-musical. Unlike West Side Story, Grease, Oklahoma! or an Elvis movie, actors in these films don’t suddenly break into song. That is, unless they’re in bands – real and fake. For starters, I’m reviewing one of my all-time favorite films, and a documentary I recently saw that is pretty funny even though it’s about a real band.

This is Spinal Tap (Embassy Pictures, 1984) – Director: Rob Reiner. Starring Michael McKean, Christopher Guest, Rob Reiner, & Harry Shearer.

I’ve seen This is Spinal Tap close to 50 times, and I’ll likely see it 50 more. This groundbreaking “mockumentary” has some of cinema’s funniest and most clever lines – and many of them were ad-libbed. The film tells the story of fictitious aging English hard-rock band Spinal Tap on a tour of the United States in support of its latest album, “Smell the Glove.”

This is Rob Reiner’s directorial debut, playing Marty DiBergi, a documentary director following and filming Tap’s tour. The band’s three main characters are David St. Hubbins (Michael McKean), the lead singer and rhythm guitarist; Nigel Tufnel (Christopher Guest), the lead guitarist; and bassist Derek Smalls (Harry Shearer).

The music plays a key role in the film, with McKean, Guest, Shearer as well as David Kaff, who plays keyboardist Viv Savage, and R.J. Parnell, who plays drummer Mick Shrimpton, all performing.

While the band plays a number of songs in their entirety such as “Big Bottom,” about a woman with a, well, big bottom; “Hell Hole,” “Stonehenge,” and “Sex Farm,” there are snippets of other songs supposedly from years ago when they were somewhat famous. On the DVD, you can see complete performances of several of those songs. The DVD also includes more than an hour of scenes not in the movie, and commentary from McKean, Guest and Smalls in their Spinal Tap characters. The soundtrack is excellent and I highly recommend it. I’ve had the cassette since 1985.

The film has numerous running gags, including the strange and funny deaths of their drummers. One dies in a “bizarre gardening accident” that authorities said was “best (to) leave it unsolved.” Another died choking on vomit – someone else’s vomit. “You can’t really dust for vomit.” And everyone’s favorite: spontaneous human combustion. “Dozens of people spontaneously combust each year. It’s just not really widely reported,” St. Hubbins says matter of factly.

There is a delay in releasing “Smell the Glove” because of the album cover. Bobbi Flekman, an executive with the band’s record company and easily Fran Drescher’s best role (which isn’t saying too much), tells the band’s manager, Ian Faith (Tony Hendra), the cover is “sexist,” and stores won’t stock it for sale.

Flekman tells Faith: “You put a greased naked woman on all fours with a dog collar around her neck, and a leash, and a man’s arm extended out up to here, holding onto the leash, and pushing a black glove in her face to sniff it. You don’t find that offensive? You don’t find that sexist?” Faith responds: “Well, you should have seen the cover they wanted to do. It wasn’t a glove. Believe me.”

(Later, Ian tells the band about the problem with Nigel naively responding, “Well, so what. What’s wrong with being sexy?")

This results in the album being released with an all-black record sleeve with no title or the band’s name to be found. The band is deflated despite Ian trying to put a positive spin on it. Nigel kinds of buys it, saying, “It’s like, how much more black could this be? And the answer is ‘none. None more black.’”

Gigs get canceled, including one in Boston with Faith telling the band, “I wouldn’t worry about it though. It’s not a big college town.” At a show in Cleveland, the group tries to find its way to the stage but gets completely lost. Several real bands have said over the years that’s happened to them. Actually several bands have said a lot of the scenes in the film really occurred and the movie hits a little too close to home.

A big production number with what is supposed to be a replica of Stonehenge for the band’s song of the same name is priceless. Instead of using feet, Tufnel draws the dimensions of Stonehenge on a napkin in inches. Rather than not use the mini-Stonehenge, Ian hires two midgets to dance around the replica with hilarious but embarrassing results. “There was a Stonehenge monument on the stage that was in danger of being crushed by a dwarf.”

Finally, St. Hubbins’ girlfriend arrives, causing Yoko-esque tension between St. Hubbins and Tufnel as well as with Faith, who quits after Jeanine (June Chadwick) is recommended by her boyfriend to be the group’s co-manager. The band is in disarray with the final straw being a gig at an Air Force base that leads to Nigel quitting. The next stop is at an amusement park in Stockton, California, where a puppet show is listed on a sign above the band. Jeanine sees it and says, “If I told them once, I told them 100 times to put Spinal Tap first and puppet show last.”

The best parts are the free-flowing interviews DiBergi does with the three Tap principals as McKean, Guest and Shearer are wonderful improv comedians. Discussing reviews for their albums are highlights. “The review for ‘Shark Sandwich’ was merely a two-word review which simply read ‘Shit Sandwich.’” For the “Rock and Roll Creation” album, a reviewer wrote: “This pretentious ponderous collection of religious rock psalms is enough to prompt the question, ‘What day did the Lord create Spinal Tap, and couldn’t he have rested on that day too?’” “That’s a good one. That’s a good one,” Smalls responds.

The most memorable scene has DiBergi in Tufnel’s house looking at his collection of guitars. One guitar has never been played. Tufnel freaks out when he thinks DiBergi is going to touch it, telling him to not even point or look at it. In the room is an amp that goes to 11 rather than 10. Tufnel goes into an explanation about it being “one louder.” DiBergi asks why not just make 10 be the loudest. Tufnel looks at him completely confused and says, “These go to 11.” Many musicians since then have had amps that go to 11 in honor of the scene.

The film ends with the band getting back together to tour Japan where “Sex Farm” has hit No. 5 on that country’s singles chart. Shrimpton dies on stage, a victim of spontaneous combustion. What are the odds?

The movie is a perfect parody of rock-and-roll excess with great music and excellent acting. Guest, McKean and Shearer have done several other improv films over the years. While many are wonderful, none can touch their first collaboration.

Anvil! The Story of Anvil (Abramorama, 2008) – Director: Sacha Gervasi. Starring Steve “Lips” Kudlow & Robb Reiner.

Around the same time This is Spinal Tap was released, a heavy-metal band, Anvil, was at their peak. In the early to mid-1980s, the Canadian band played at rock festivals with this documentary initially focusing on a 1984 show in Japan that also included Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, Whitesnake and the Michael Schenker Group (though the latter and significantly less successful band isn’t mentioned in this documentary).

While Bon Jovi, the Scorpions, Whitesnake and other hair/metal bands of the time – including Metallica and Motorhead – enjoyed commercial success, Anvil didn’t. Director Sacha Gervasi, who grew up an Anvil fan and was a roadie during the band’s peak years, frames the film that members of other bands – including Metallica, Motorhead, Guns N’ Roses, Anthrax, Slayer and Megadeath - all greatly admire Anvil and are shocked more than two decades later that the group never made it.

After years of the disappointment and poor sales of 12 albums, Steve “Lips” Kudlow, the band’s singer and guitarist, and drummer Robb Reiner are the only original members left. While they both have mundane jobs - Reiner’s naïve simplicity parallels Christopher Guest’s Niles Tufnel - they haven’t given up their dream of being rock stars. The two other members of the band from the early 80s have moved on, replaced by others.

When you listen to them play, though, it’s obvious why they never reached that top level. Despite the musical shortcomings of Bon Jovi and Whitesnake, for examples, Anvil is even worse. One scene in which Kudlow is in the studio singing is unforgettable as he is terrible. But that’s not the point of the film. Also ignored is that the band made some bad business decisions and Kudlow had an opportunity to play guitar with Motorhead, but opted to stay with Anvil.

Kudlow and Reiner, longtime friends from childhood, have problems similar to Spinal Tap, except Anvil is a real band. Anvil gets booked for a European tour, which turns out to be an absolute disaster. You may feel bad for the band, but you will also find yourself laughing at what happens.

The European tour starts out well with the band playing at the Sweden Rock Festival and they run into Michael Schenker and former Vanilla Fudge drummer Carmen Appice, who comes across as having no idea who they are. (In the mid to late 70s, Appice was Rod Stewart’s drummer and with Rod co-wrote “Da Ya Think I’m Sexy?” and “Young Turks.”) It’s similar to when Tap run into Duke Fame, a famous musician, in a hotel lobby and he doesn’t know who they are.

That festival show is the highpoint of the tour. They get lost in Prague trying to find the bar where they are to perform. At least Spinal Tap got lost inside a concert hall in Cleveland. They show up two hours late, perform to a near-empty audience and get into an argument, that becomes a little physical, with the bar owner who won’t pay them. The band misses train connections, runs out of money, has gigs canceled and when they actually perform there’s hardly anyone there to listen. Reiner is ready to quit and go home, but Kudlow convinces him to stay.

The last show of the tour is akin to Tap’s airbase and amusement park concerts. Anvil plays at a Transylvania show in a 10,000-seat arena. They play in front of 174 people.

“Everything on the tour went drastically wrong. But at least there was a tour for it to go wrong on,” Kudlow says.

Despite one disaster after another, Kudlow and Reiner decide to give it one last shot by hiring the producer of what they considered their best-sounding album. They believe they just haven’t been produced properly and that’s why they keep failing to make it big. But without a record label, they’ve got to come up with the money, about $20,000, to make the album. To raise the money, Kudlow works for a telemarketing company selling sunglasses. It’s an epic failure. His sister, Rhonda, gives him the money. They end up making the album in England and the frustration of the project and decades of failure leave the two of them arguing and Reiner quitting again. Once more, Kudlow convinces Reiner to finish the album.

They love the end result, but can’t get any label to sign them despite sending it everywhere. Kudlow is proud of the record even though no one wants to hear it. Like Spinal Tap, Anvil is asked to go to Japan. They’re under the impression they are to be headliners, but it turns out they are the opening band for a three-day rock festival. They anticipate yet another letdown, but the movie ends on a high note as they get to play in front of a decent and excited crowd.

Based on this film, Anvil received a few opportunities to open for some bigger bands, most notably AC/DC, play some festivals and appear on a handful of television shows.

As a film, Anvil! The Story of Anvil is interesting and shows how much the principals in This is Spinal Tap know about the music industry. The quality of the documentary is excellent, even though it does ignore some of the band’s shortcomings, and you do feel bad for Kudlow and Reiner as they face one obstacle after another. Their misadventures are so tragically funny that you can’t help but laugh at their repeated failures and inability to recognize that they’re never going to make it.

Monday, December 24, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey

Dinner and a Movie

The Hobbit in Russia

By Steve Herte

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey 3D (New Line Cinema, 2012) - Director: Peter Jackson.  Starring Martin Freeman, Ian McKellen, Richard Armitage, & Sylvester McCoy. 169 minutes.

J. R. R. Tolkien’s beloved tale gets the full respect it deserves, thanks to today’s technology and 3D effects. Several times I sat there wondering, “How’d they do that?” The special effects department pulled out all the plugs to assemble a traveling company of 13 dwarves, a hobbit and a wizard (Ian McKellen as Gandalf) who towers over all of them, Orcs riding Wargs (fearsome wolf-like creatures), goblins, huge trolls, elves and spectacular scenery that could only be Middle Earth.

The movie begins with the back-story of the dwarf kingdom inside Erebor, the lonely mountain where they have built an entire city from the minerals mined from the mountain. You want gold, emeralds, diamonds, sapphires and rubies? Erebor delivered all to the artisan hands of the dwarves under their king Thror. But Thror got greedy for more and more gold. When the miners discover the Arkenstone (an immense multi-colored precious gem) he sets it over his head in the back of his throne. Unfortunately all this wealth draws an even greedier, and much more powerful creature, Smaug the dragon. Smaug attacks and incinerates what he doesn’t destroy, ousts the dwarves and takes over, sleeping on a huge mound of gold and gems. The king of the elves decides it to be folly to fight the dragon and leads his people away. Therein starts the distrust between dwarves and elves. In a battle with the Orcs, Thror is beheaded by the Pale Orc and Thorin slices off his left hand. Still, the dwarves are a people without a home.

Gandalf gathers 12 of the surviving warrior dwarves at Bilbo’s (Martin Freeman) hobbit house much to his dismay (Hobbits do not party without invitations or go on adventures). They are joined by Thorin “Oaken Shield” (Richard Armitage), son of Thrain, grandson of Thror. The 13 want to return to and take back Erebor from Smaug and the Orcs. But Orcs can smell dwarves. “That is precisely why I chose Mr. Baggins as the 14th member of our company,” says Gandalf. “Hobbits can go unnoticed by most fell creatures and Orcs cannot smell them.” Although he doesn’t want to, Bilbo signs on and they depart, meet the elves in Rivendale, a wizard named Radagast (Sylvester McCoy) who rides a sledge pulled by rabbits, face Trolls who steal their ponies for food, Orcs who want to destroy them and Goblins who capture all but Bilbo.

In the dark recesses of the goblin stronghold, Bilbo meets Gollum, a loincloth-clad pale-skinned creature with big blue eyes who talks to himself and possesses one of the rings of power, which he calls “my Precious.” While trying to gobble a goblin Gollum drops the ring and Bilbo puts it in his pocket. With only his elvin-bladed sword to fend off Gollum, he agrees to a riddle contest and eventually gets away when the ring drops on his finger and he realizes that he’s invisible. Bilbo could easily have slain Gollum but has pity on him and escapes.

Getting toward the two-and-a-half-hour mark, there is a final encounter with the orcs and Thorin realizes the Pale Orc is not dead as he thought. There is a horrific battle between the party and the Wargs forcing them to climb trees at the edge of an extremely high cliff. Galdalf speaks quietly to a butterfly, which flies off and summons the Eagle King and his minions who rescue the party and fly them off to a pinnacle.

The movie is two hours and 46 minutes long and at this point the party looks out and sees Erebor, hundreds of miles away. A thrush flies by them and alights at the gate of Erebor and tries to crack a nut. The scene shifts to a mound of gold inside the mountain. A bluish-green claw emerges and Samug’s eye opens and the movie ends. Seriously? I felt hornswoggled. That’s only half the story. Oh well, I guess another two-hour-plus movie is coming.

On the other hand, the New Zealand scenery is indeed fantastic and enhances the adventure beautifully. The musical score and choral backgrounds are majestic glorifications of the action onscreen. Cate Blanchett dazzles the audience as Galadriel, the Lady of Lorien. Elijah Wood makes a cameo appearance as Frodo and the great Christopher Lee returns as the foreboding wizard Saruman the White. The Hobbit could stand some scene shortening to get it under two hours, but on the whole it’s an exciting, beautiful tale - even if it isn’t finished. 

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Nasha Rasha
4 West 19th Street (just off 5th Avenue), New York City

Restaurants serving authentic Russian food seem to be proliferating in New York City and it’s actually becoming a cuisine. After the Russian Tea Room, Caviar Russe and the Brasserie Pushkin, I thought I couldn’t be impressed further. But I was wrong. The moment I entered the canvas “air-lock” door I was dazzled by the basically red (surprising?) and gaudily neon-lit interior – there is a four-foot red neon star over the bar and an equally large hammer and sickle on the adjacent wall backed by an amazing selection of vodkas.

The girl at the captain’s station led me to an isolated table by the window where I was dwarfed by floor to ceiling red velvet drapes and white gauze curtains. Three menus were left on the table with a tall pitcher of ice-cold water for my plastic tumbler and the Russian bread with butter. One was the wine list – very affordable. One was the dinner menu and one was a list of 126 Infused Vodkas. I was agog. Any flavor of vodka was at my beck and call. Choosing was very difficult – peach, pear, pepper, cinnamon, vanilla, pumpkin, aloe vera… In Communist Russia this place would be classified as decadent. I chose Truffle Vodka and it was unbelievable. The smell was exactly the deep earthy aroma of black truffles and the flavor proved the infusion. I couldn’t wait to order dinner.

A soup I’ve never tasted caught my attention first. Called Solyanka, it’s a hearty tomato-based soup flavored with dill and made with assorted smoked meats. With a bit of sour cream in every spoonful, it was an exciting adventure. I ordered a bottle of 2009 Erath Pinot Noir from Oregon which, even though screw-topped cap, was a delightful accompaniment to the whole meal.

Next course I chose Pellmeni Nasha Rasha, their own version of a Mongolian dish of tender ground lamb in wonderful steamed dumplings and served with a dark red horseradish sauce that made the flavor pop. I love Pellmeni but these were the apex of dumpling-hood. And…they were served from under the skirt of a beautiful Russian doll as a cozy. This made me anticipate the main course even more.

Assuring my waitress that I had all the time in the world, the extra time needed to cook my dish passed easily. The Chicken Kiev was about the size of an oven-stuffer leg, served on the bone and coated in a firm but delicious bread-crumb crust. It was much larger than I’m used to and when cut into didn’t gush garlic butter as expected. I noted this to the waitress and suggested that the chef make them smaller and maybe serve two. Nevertheless, the chicken was still moist and well-cooked and I enjoyed it, along with the side dish, Buckwheat. I guess you could consider it the wild rice of polenta. I finished the chicken but had the buckwheat wrapped to go home.

My waitress asked if I wanted dessert but they only had one, Blinis – a Russian form of crepe – and I chose to order another vodka instead, Bacon Chocolate Vodka. You have to smell and taste it to believe it. After my waitress assured me that Brasserie Pushkin has moved on (to my surprise – but not considering their wine prices), I’m hoping to revisit Nasha Rasha several more times for their amazing infused vodkas and hearty Russian cuisine. And, talk about caring, the menus come with their own attached flashlights for easier reading in low lighting. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Cinéma Inhabituel for December 23-31

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 

To say that there was nothing worthy of this list last week is an understatement. After all, it is the holiday season. And for the final week of the yeark we could find only one worthy for the list. So, here goes nothing. 

December 30

2:30 am The Children Are Watching Us - I bambini ci guardano (Invicta, 1944): Director: Vittorio deSica. Starring Emilio Cignoli, Luciano De Ambrosis, & Isa Pola. 84 minutes.

I have three different dates for this movie: 1942, 1944, and 1947. That’s because it was filmed in 1942, released in Italy in 1944, and later worldwide in 1947. Made before his masterpieces ShoeshineThe Bicycle Thieves and Umberto D, it tends to be forgotten in the body of DeSica’s work. But many that have seen this picture rate it right up there with the previous two, and some rate it higher.

Like the others, it has the Neo-Realist cast: no big-name actors and a story that follows ordinary people trapped by an ordinary situation. The film is concerned with Prico (Lucano De Ambrosis), a precocious little boy whose selfish mother has been cheating on her husband. Eventually she leaves and the husband is left to raise the boy. Unfortunately, he receives no support from either his family or his wife’s family. The neighbors offer only gossip.

Eventually his wife returns and they try to patch things up. He takes her and Prico on a vacation, but when he has to return to Rome on business, the boyfriend shows up and Mom doesn’t try very hard to put a damper on his ardor. She completely ignores Prico, who, though only about four or five years old, realizes that three is a crowd and tries to run off for Rome, nearly killed by a train in the process. The cops return him to the hotel, but Mom isn’t interested. She sends him back to his father and runs off again with the boyfriend, sending Dad a telegram explaining the situation. But Dad is out of options and sends Prico off to a Catholic boarding school. A short time later Dad commits suicide and Mom visits the school to see her son, who wants no part of her, walking away as the film fades out.

To say this is a gut-wrenching film is to put it mildly. A box of Kleenex is not only suggested, but a requirement. Look for the scenes where Dad greets his son after Mom sends him back, and the final scene between mother and son. It stands as a testament to the skill of DeSica that these scenes, though emotionally powerful, never degenerate into schmaltz. Credit must also be given to DeSica’s frequent collaborator, writer Cesare Zavattini, for not pulling say punches and giving the film a happy ending, which would have been unreal and destroyed the theme of the film for a few moments of tears.

I first saw this film years ago at a DeSica festival in New York with my friend Paul. It greatly moved me back them and still moves me now. I find it has lost none of its power when I saw it recently again and I’ll be watching it on TCM. 

Saturday, December 22, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for December 23-31

December 23–December 31 

12 ANGRY MEN (December 30, 10:15 am): Take a great story, have Sidney Lumet as the director, and add a brilliant cast including Henry Fonda, Lee J. Cobb, E.G. Marshall, Martin Balsam, Jack Warden and Jack Klugman, and you end up with an outstanding film. Even for those of us familiar with the plot, this is an engrossing movie. And except for a few moments, the entire movie takes place inside a jury room with the 12, none identified by name, deliberating a case. Lumet's direction makes the viewer feel as if they're sitting with the 12 of them. While it can be a little overdramatic at times - probably because it's based on a Studio One teleplay - it is an excellent film.

THE APARTMENT (December 31, 10:00 pm): Director Billy Wilder's follow-up to the incredibly overrated Some Like It Hot, this wonderful comedy-drama stars Jack Lemmon as an opportunistic office worker who sort of sleeps his way to the top. Well, he lets four of his office managers use his apartment as a place to have sex with their various mistresses. Because of that, he gets promoted to the personnel department, where his supervisor, Fred MacMurray, always excellent at playing sleazy characters, convinces his new assistant to let him have the apartment on an exclusive basis. MacMurray's latest mistress is the company's elevator operator (Shirley MacLaine), who Lemmon's got the hots for. A fabulous cast with one of Hollywood's best directors and an intelligent, funny script, and you have 1960's Oscar winner for Best Picture. It was nominated for nine others, winning an additional four. Of course, the Academy often makes mistakes. In this case, MacMurray wasn't even nominated for Best Supporting Actor.


GRAND ILLUSION (December 23, 2:00 am): This is a “Must See” in every sense of the word. Jean Renoir directed this classic about three French prisoners in a German POW camp and their relationship with the Commandant. Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Marcel Dalio (Remember him as the croupier in Casablanca?) are the prisoners and Erich Von Stroheim is the Commandant. It was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar, but more importantly, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned any showings during World War II. That alone should ensure it immortal status.

NIGHT NURSE (December 26, 5:45 am): What is it about Barbara Stanwyck Pre-Codies that so intrigues me? She’s great as a nurse who discovers that an alcoholic mother and her chauffeur lover are starving her two children to death by for the inheritance. This is a sordid, well-paced story directed by studio regular William Wellman full of double entendre remarks and plenty of shots of Stanwyck and co-star Joan Blondell running around in their underwear. Clark Gable makes an impression as the evil chauffeur and his scenes with Stanwyck retain their ability to shock even today.

WE DISAGREE ON ... LITTLE WOMEN (December 23, 8:00 am) 

ED: B+. Let me begin by saying that I’m no fan of the early Katharine Hepburn. As one of the leading stars of RKO, her lackluster performances in many questionable films fully set the stage for her being named “Box Office Poison” in a poll of theater exhibitors. And it was a judgment she truly earned. She took dull subject matter like A Woman Rebels and Quality Street and made it not only duller, but also painful to watch. However, put in an ensemble as in Stage Door and this film, she not only did better, she actually added to the film itself. And with Little Women she had an excellent supporting cast as well as a friendly director in George Cukor, who always seemed to get the best out of her. This was a major production by RKO, which couldn’t afford to make many mistakes, and the care they took with the casting and production values is impressive. This was the third filming of Louisa May Alcott’s novel and the first sound version. There were two later sound remakes, and though I feel the 1994 version was the best, many film fans will vouch for this one. And they might well be right, for one of my major reason for preferring the ’94 version is that Hepburn’s not in that one. My point is this: that even if you don’t like Katharine Hepburn – and I know there are a lot of them who haven’t seen this movie because of that – there is much in this film to overcome her deficits. So sit back, relax, and be entertained by a film that has much to recommend in it.

DAVID: C-. Since starting this website, Ed selects all of the films for the week, gives a synopsis and letter grade for each. I don't know how he does it. What I do know is I and our readers are incredibly lucky to have such a brilliant and articulate film lover do this week after week. Because he gives the letter grades, I read the reviews and pick out one or two that I recommend for the We Disagree feature. Ed's knows me well. When I suggested Little Women this week, he knew exactly why. Then he tries to take the wind out of my sails by correctly anticipating what I hate about the 1933 film and uses it to sell readers on the movie. I dislike nearly every film Katharine Hepburn ever made so I couldn't resist selecting this movie. As usual, Hep overacts as Jo, the tomboy among the four March sisters in the first talkie version of the Louisa May Alcott book. Hepburn isn't the only problem with this film. Don't get me wrong, she drags this movie down as only Hepburn can. The storyline of the Civil War family is a bit too basic, dull and old-fashioned for my tastes. It's essentially a "chick flick" with a lot of courting, the melodramatic and drawn-out death of one of the sisters, and the cliche happy ending. It's hokey, too sentimental and simple. The movie came out one year before the Motion Picture Association of America began enforcing the Hays Code. But there's nothing in this film that would draw any attention from Hollywood censors, assuming they were able to pay attention to this snoozer.

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

Thursday, December 20, 2012


Dinner and a Movie

Hitchcock Toscana

By Steve Herte

After a ridiculous workday - ever have one of those days where everything that could have arrived any other day all comes at once? - I was ready for an entertaining movie night and I was not disappointed. So with a “Good Evening” nod to the central character, I present my latest Dinner and a Movie.

Hitchcock (Fox Searchlight, 2012) Director: Sascha Gervasi. Starring Anthony Hopkins, Helen Mirren, Scarlett Johansson, Danny Huston, James D’Arcy, & Jessica Biel. 98 minutes.

Two grime-covered men are digging in the dirt and one berates the other for his stupidity. The second man goes off camera for a moment and clobbers the first in the neck with the shovel, killing him. Charles Gounod’s "Funeral March for a Marionette" begins to play and the camera pans right to Anthony Hopkins in profile as Alfred Hitchcock, just like the opener to every Alfred Hitchcock Presents show on television, except that it’s in color. Admittedly, Hopkins isn’t an exact copy of the great director but he tries very hard and the make-up department should be commended for their illusion. He manages to beautifully capture Alfred’s voice style, poses and mannerisms, right down to the mouth shape when he speaks and the hands-behind-the-back when he walks.

Helen Mirren plays Alfred’s long-suffering wife, Alma Reville. She’s constantly after him to lose weight and cut down on the drinking. In one scene, he’s in the bathtub and she’s dressing for an important meeting they’re both expected to attend. She tells him he really should do something about his weight and emphasizes that he also needs to get dressed and ready for the meeting. He responds with the question, “Why? You’ve already told me I’m too heavy to be seen in public.” Helen plays the role so well you forget that she’s just played a queen of England and the Prime Minister, but you know how great an actress she is.

The story of Hitchcock is about the making of Psycho and the trials and tribulations of creating and presenting such a radical horror film in 1960. Paramount wants another film like North by Northwest and refuses to fund it, so Alfred mortgages his home to pay for it himself. The censors have a real problem with the shower scene and the nudity and violence it could depict. At one point he makes a deal with them. “If you let me have my shower scene intact, I will let you on my set and I will do the love scene to your exact specifications.” He says. No more is heard from the censors.

One might say this movie is a love story between Alfred and Alma and the true love they share as equals in intelligence and movie-making clinches it at the end, when the first viewing of Psycho falls flat on its face – is “stillborn,” per Hitchcock. Alma works with him on editing the film, sprucing it up and adding the signature screeching violin sounds at the shower scene to make it his greatest hit. Before the credits roll a note is put on the screen that he made six films after it but none achieved the greatness of Psycho.

As this rocky love story progresses we see a Hitchcock who has a fantasy blonde that he needs to pursue and Alma knows it. She comments on his obsessions with all of his leading ladies (this time Janet Leigh, played convincingly by Scarlett Johansson). Alfred is seen many times peeping through holes in the wall or finger pried-up blind slats to either catch a glimpse of female flesh or to check up on the actions of Alma (who is assisting Whitfield Cook, played by Danny Huston, as he revises his script hoping Hitchcock will produce it while simultaneously trying to seduce her). We see a potential philandering Hitchcock who is at the same time jealous of anyone paying attention to Alma.

On the stage set, Hitchcock is all business. He makes the entire cast and crew take an oath not to divulge any of the plot, scenes, or many secrets of Psycho (especially, not the ending) to anyone, including the outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower. When Janet doesn’t scream to his satisfaction in the shower scene he terrifies her by wielding the knife himself and gets the reaction he wanted. He sits un-phased while Anthony Perkins (James D’Arcy) nervously recounts that he’s very close to his mother and that this movie might hit too close to home. He casts Vera Miles (Jessica Biel) in the movie, all the while regretting that she previous chose the life of a housewife (she lost a role in a previous movie by becoming pregnant) to being the big star he wanted to make of her.

Throughout the film, Alfred is “haunted” by Ed Gein (Michael Wincott) who was the real-life character who inspired the book, Psycho, even to appearing in a nightmare featuring a bloody female corpse in a bathtub.

At long last, the movie is ready for its première and another problem arises. It will only be screened in a limited number of theaters. Hitchcock goes to great lengths to play the horror of the film up by having armed guards for crowd control and taped warnings played outside the theaters. The crowds flock to the theaters. Though Alma saved him a seat, he stands in the lobby listening. When the shower scene plays he directs every audience reaction like a concert conductor and they respond exactly as he directs. Everyone loves the film, the Hitchcock home is safe again and Janet Leigh tells him that the blonde he always fantasizes about doesn’t really exist. Alma compliments her on being so professional, and the love story has the happy ending when Hitchcock confesses to Alma that his fantasy blonde has red hair.

But it isn’t over yet. The theme song plays yet again on the Hitchcock estate and once again he appears saying that he’s now looking for his next inspiration for a movie. A large raven flies in and lands on his shoulder, they do a double take, and it flies off. “Good evening!” says Hitchcock. Beautifully done. 

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Dolcino Trattoria Toscana
517 Second Avenue (Bet. 28th & 29th), New York City

The beautiful romantic name of this Kips Bay Italian restaurant does not prepare you for the understated décor. Outside is an unremarkable sidewalk café surrounded by a red canvas and aluminum “fence” under a matching awning. Inside, only potted poinsettias adorn the whitewashed brick walls and the simple tables on a dark rust tiled floor for Christmas, one on each table. The front door doesn’t have a second door to prevent cool breezes from entering and I was hesitant to sit at one of the first tables but it proved to be not as bad as I thought. The two window tables are up a step from the main floor and sport a black and yellow tape along the edge to alert customers to watch their step (except the colors really detract from the aesthetics).

I ordered my martini and scanned the two-page laminated menu, 10 Appetizers, 2 soups and 6 salads, 13 pastas (which can be half orders), 4 Risottos, 6 Chicken entrees, 5 Fish entrees, 6 Veal entrees, 4 Steak and Chops entrees, and 8 side dishes. It seemed like a simple selection until I started reading and found two of my favorite pastas and the specials chalkboard on the wall.

The Grilled Portobello Mushrooms won the appetizer slot and were substantial slices, nicely grilled and juicy, truly living up to their moniker “the steak of mushrooms”. They were served over iceberg lettuce. At this point I asked my waitress for the wine list and found a definitive list of Italian and American wines, all very affordable. So I chose a fruity, medium bodied 2010 Villadoro Montepulciano and it was perfect.

The pasta war was between the Gnocchi al Pesto and the Papardelle in Veal Stew. Sorry, flat noodles, I love gnocchi as well as basil. A half order was a good-sized bowl of these tender potato-pastas in a well-prepared pesto sauce. The sliced Italian bread, which arrived with a glass of water, helped to get every bit of pesto from the bowl.

Having viewed the menu online I knew my main course and the specials did not deter me. The Striped Bass Livornese seduced me from the start. When it arrived at the table it caressed me with its aroma and tantalized my taste with its capers, olives and tomato sauce. A side of sautéed mushrooms added an earthy, sensual note to the already erotic meal. I was rapidly becoming sated.

After wrapping up the remaining sautéed mushrooms (I finished the bass, even though it too was a fairly large serving) I checked the dessert menu, but decided against it. The only one that was interesting was a Tartufo and I had no room. So I ordered a double espresso and paid the bill. Dolcino deserves a second visit to try other dishes, but not when a family is celebrating a toddler’s birthday at the next table.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.