Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Ice Age - Continental Drift 3D

Dinner and a Movie

The Longest Ice Age Fiori

By Steve Herte

The Longest Daycare (2012)

It’s always a surprise to have an opening animated feature to a full-length movie (whereas it was a matter of course in my parents’ days) and this Matt Groenig short starring Maggie Simpson was charming, clever, poignant and wordless.

Marge Simpson carries Maggie into a daycare center where they have machines to classify and separate the “Gifted,” “Average," and “Not-Worth Bothering With.” They even have a machine to detect lice. (It’s such a joy to see cartoon lice come crawling toward you out of a 3D screen.) Poor Maggie gets classified with the third group. 

She meets a boy with a uni-brow who carries a large sledge hammer. Whenever a butterfly has the misfortune to fly near him, he smashes it on the wall with the hammer and draws a red “picture frame” around it. There’s nothing to play with and Maggie finds a pink and black striped caterpillar. She knows she must keep it away from hammer-boy so she perches it over her eyes as if she also has a uni-brow and gets it to relative safety.

She finds a plant and puts the caterpillar on it while looking through a pop-up book on butterflies. The book teaches her that the caterpillar plus the plant equals a chrysalis and becomes a butterfly. Next thing she knows, the caterpillar has already formed a chrysalis. A blue butterfly emerges from it, hammer-boy appears, and the chase is on. Maggie sees an open window and lifts the butterfly toward it. As it reaches the windowsill, hammer-boy slams down the blinds.

Marge returns to pick up Maggie, who is stressed to say the least. Back at the daycare center, hammer-boy lifts the blinds and finds the blue bow that was previously in Maggie’s hair. We shift back to Maggie in Marge’s car with the blue butterfly in her hair, which she releases to the safety of the wide-open spaces.

I like the Simpsons and in particular Maggie and Marge, so this artful 3D short delighted me. I find that dialogue-less films are more difficult to make because the creator has to depend on visual cues for communication and comedy. This one ranked with the Pink Panther and Road Runner/Wile E. Coyote cartoons.

Ice Age – Continental Drift 3D (2012) 

In this fourth chapter of the prehistoric series, our friends Manny the Mammoth (Ray Romano), Sid the Sloth (John Leguizamo) and Diego the Saber-Tooth Tiger (Denis Leary) all either have or are about to have a family. There is absolutely no explanation of where all the animals in this picture came from, but suddenly, they’re all there. Manny met his mate, Ellie (Queen Latifah), in the second episode, Ice Age – Meltdown and they now have a teenage daughter, Peaches (Keke Palmer) who was born in the third episode, Ice Age – Dawn of the Dinosaurs (the fourth-highest grossing animated film, behind Toy Story 3The Lion King, and Shrek 2).

Scrat, (Chris Wedges) the saber-tooth squirrel/rat, is obsessed with acorns and his search for a secret burial place opens a crevasse that drops him onto the iron core of the earth. His chasing the acorn causes the core to spin and foments the break-up of the continents. His bouncing around inside the Earth creates a sphinx, Mount Rushmore, and several comic surface features.

Sid’s family then opens the movie by careening down an icy slope in a hollowed out log. They stop long enough to drop off Granny Eunice (Joy Behar) and desert Sid for a second time just after alerting the group to the cracks forming everywhere. One forms between Ellie and Manny and widens until neither can cross and Manny, Sid and Diego are on one side and Ellie, Peaches, Louis the mole-hog (Josh Gad) - who is in love with Peaches - are on the other. As the chunk of ice slides downhill and into the ocean, Manny calls to Ellie to get to the land bridge and that no matter what, he’ll find her.

The ice chunk becomes a sea-going raft and in no time our crew is out of sight of land. They realize that no matter how hard they paddle, the current is too strong. They soon run afoul of the ice chunk shaped like a pirate ship belonging to Captain Gutt (Peter Dinklage), an extremely large gorilla/orangutan amalgam (he’s big enough to stand up to a mammoth) and his motley crew, including a vicious rabbit, a sexy white and black striped female saber-tooth tiger named Shira (Jennifer Lopez), and a really dumb elephant seal (as if this movie needed any more comic relief). There’s a scuffle. Manny and his group manage to split the pirate ship and sail away with Captain Gutt vowing revenge and the chemistry between Diego and Shira begins.

The exodus continues on land with several amusing scenes, including Peaches desperately trying to impress Ethan (Aubrey Graham), a male teenage mammoth and heart-throb for three other females, and rejecting Louis. When the good guys finally catch up to the others, the final conflict between Captain Gutt and Manny is actually a great action scene as well a comic battle.

I rate the film four out of five martini glasses. My only reason leaving out the fifth glass is that the movie did not suspend my scientific belief that there ever existed a sperm whale (his name is Precious) big enough to swallow a mammoth as if he were a fish (really, this creature was way too big, even for prehistoric times). I was even able to accept the reason why Ellie (remind you, a mammoth) likes to sleep hanging from a tree by her tail. When we first met her, she thought she was a sister to opossums Crash and Eddie (Seann William Scott and Josh Peck). These two do outrageous and dangerous feats throughout the movie. At one point Louis asks them why. The answer: “We’re stupid.” I still enjoyed it even though some idiot brought a baby to the theater.

The movie ends outrageously with Scrat making it to Scratlantis where he is met by Ariscratle (Patrick Stewart) and where acorns are everywhere. Ariscratle warns him to resist his obsession but he goes for the largest acorn there, pulls it up and sinks Scratlanis (it was the plug holding it afloat).

Ai Fiori
400 Fifth Avenue (36th Street)
Setai Hotel – Level two, New York City

"To the Flowers" is what Ai Fiori means in Italian and the sleek Setai Hotel is its setting. I followed a well-dressed couple through the revolving doors to the hotel and at the same time unfortunately gulped a huge breath of the lady’s heavy perfume. I managed to gasp the restaurant’s name to the doorman who graciously indicated the white marble spiral staircase with wrought iron railing. The miasma followed me up through the etched glass doors of the restaurant and did not depart until the hostess seated me and I was sipping a Beefeater martini. Phew!

The bar at the top of the stairs is fronted in white marble and topped in black granite, a glass and black-wood shelving behind it and a mirrored ceiling above. The dining area is “el” shaped and the walls are alternate black and dark green with large photos of the same archway in the four seasons. The waiter who presented me with the wine and cocktail list, and who eventually brought my drink was pleasant and helpful. I asked him to leave the wine list with me as I would have need of it later.

The menu is divided into appetizers, pastas (both half and full servings), fish (pesce) and meat (carne) entrees. When I had decided on the prix-fixe four-course dinner, a different server took my order. I started with the crispy sweetbreads, followed by the risotto with duck confit and hen-of-the-woods mushrooms, and the main course, maiale – red waddle pork loin, gnocchi, pork belly and fennel à la greque. I was about to pick up the wine list when I noticed it had vanished. I asked the man who took my order to bring it back.

About 15 minutes later, the first course arrived, but no wine list. I asked for it again and finally got it. I quickly paged through multiple lists of three-digit to four-digit, way over-priced wines. An insincere woman server asked if she could help and I replied to the negative, getting more flustered by the minute because my appetizer was getting cold. Finally I chose a 2007 Long Island Merlot (even though I don’t particularly like Merlot) that was reasonably priced. My appetizer had indeed cooled down, but it was still delicious. Unfortunatelyhowever,I hadn’t cooled down.

The wine turned out to be better than most and the risotto arrived. It was delicious: hot and on the sweet side. The waiter who brought my drink asked how I liked it. “Much better than the first course, it was hot.” I replied. “Oh, I’m sorry.” said he. “If I had the wine list as I requested originally, or even when I requested it the second time, my appetizer would have been hot and perfect,” was my final comment on the subject.

I must say that I never had to pour my own glass of wine once throughout, much to their credit.

The main course arrived. Three perfect quenelles of pork loin, a dark sauce I recognized from several other restaurants, postage stamp sized cuts of pork belly and dark-edged slices of fennel. It looked wonderful. The loin tasted wonderful, tender and juicy, but the whole dish was luke-warm and the sauce was salty (which I suspected it would be). This made the pork belly taste fatty and disgusting and the fennel didn’t help. A different server glided up to my table asking about the dish. “Is this supposed to be served hot?” I asked. “Yes” “It’s not! I don’t like it, and it’s too salty!” “Can I get you something else?” “After the dishes I’ve just had, it would have to be something light.” “How about the soft-shelled crab appetizer?” “That sounds good.”

Shortly thereafter, the soft-shelled crab dish arrived: crispy, hot, with circles of cantaloupe, topped with slices of prosciutto and resting in greek yoghurt. It elicited a “Wow!” out of me. This restaurant has the potential of being excellent, I thought. Next course, dessert.

Having seen the cheese cart pass my table once or twice caused a craving. Another different server, an Asian girl with an extreme buzz cut, arrived. I had a feeling I was meeting the entire staff. However, she completely understood my extreme tastes in cheese and brought three wonderful selections, a pale yellow cow cheese, a firm white cheese in a zesty brown crust and an excellent bleu, served with fruity raisin bread slices and raspberry compote. I complimented her on her choices and suggested a slight re-arrangement from milder to stronger.

My original waiter took my final order for a cup of their dark coffee and a glass of Strega (which I knew they had from the cocktail list) and I was starting to forget the evening’s slip-ups. When I review restaurants for Zagat they always ask the same questions at the end and the one question I answer the same way every time is: What is the worst thing about dining out? Answer: Being ignored. Of course, as with Gordon Ramsay at the London, I will give Ai Fiori a second chance (since they made that memory come roaring back.).

For the Dinner and a Movie Archive, please click here.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Mr. Wong

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

You’ve never heard of Mr. Wong? That isn’t surprising, as his name is known today only to dedicated mystery fans and diehard fans of B-movies.

Chinese detectives were the rage in the ‘30s, what with the success of Fox’s Charlie Chan series. So, Monogram Studios figured that if Fox could do it, they could do it, too.

It’s always easier for a studio, especially a Poverty Row studio such as Monogram (Jean-Luc Godard’s favorite American studio) with resources next to nil, to adapt a film character from an already established literary effort. So the studio turned to the Collier’s stories of Hugh Wiley featuring a Chinese treasury agent named James Lee Wong who worked the docks of San Francisco. The stories were typical for their time, with lots of police brutality, rough treatment of women, Chinese gangs, corrupt businessmen, drugs galore, and the required grisly murders. But they were well-written and gained quite a following. In the stories Wong is described as a Yale graduate, about six feet tall, 165 lbs. with a solid knowledge of chemistry. He lives in an apartment in San Francisco, and the other tenants are subordinates under his command.

To star as Mr. Wong, Monogram chose Boris Karloff. Boris Karloff? Why he looks as Chinese as . . . Boris Karloff in The Mask of Fu Manchu. At first, viewers may be surprised that Karloff doesn’t attempt a Chinese accent in the films. But then, why should he? Was not Mr. Wong Yale educated? Wouldn’t such a character speak with a dignified voice rather than a heavily-accented Pidgin English?

At any rate, I doubt that Monogram would have cared if Karloff played the role with a German accent. They had signed him to a six-picture deal and he still was a name at the box office. For “buddy support” the studio brought in Grant Withers, a former reporter turned silent screen star turned supporting player, as Police Capt. Sam (later changed to Bill) Street. His role was to look and act flustered and yell a lot when the police fouled up. Given the success of the first film – Mr. Wong, Detective (1939) – the studio added Marjorie Reynolds as nosy reporter Bobbie Logan. Besides being Street’s girlfriend, her job was to make the mystery even worse and a bigger task for Wong.

Five films followed Mr. Wong, DetectiveThe Mystery of Mr. Wong (1939), Mr. Wong in Chinatown (1939), The Fatal Hour (1940), Doomed to Die (1940), and The Phantom of Chinatown (1940). The last was made without Karloff in the title role, as he completed his contract with Monogram by starring in the preposterous horror film. The Ape (1940). Sans Karloff, the studio instead cast Keye Luke as Jimmy Lee Wong and actually made a better film. It was the first time an Asian was to play the lead as an Asian character. As for Karloff, he drifted around, starring for RKO, Universal and Columbia in a few B’s playing mad scientists and villains. Seeing that the future in Hollywood didn’t look exactly rosy, he left for Broadway to play a part in a play titled Arsenic and Old Lace that was written especially for him by playwright Joseph Kesselring. He would return to Broadway four more times. And as for Hollywood, he returned to steady work as a supporting player and sometimes star.

Here are summaries of two Mr. Wong films:

DOOMED TO DIE (aka The Mystery of Wentworth Castle, 1940): Shipping magnate Cyrus Wentworth is depressed over a disaster to his ocean liner “Wentworth Castle” (which was carrying an illegal shipment of Chinese bonds). He is shot in his office during the very act of kicking out Dick Fleming, his daughter’s fiancée. Capt. Street arrests Fleming, but Bobbie Logan is convinced of Fleming’s innocence and enlists the help of Mr. Wong to find the true killer. It’s a routine plot that moves like a snail, containing more red herrings than the Fulton Fish Market. That, coupled with Monogram’s typical dark photography and the recycling of footage from previous Mr. Wong films, makes it a little hard for the viewer to follow or want to follow. It is only the performances alone, particularly Karloff and Reynolds (Bobbie Logan) that keep the viewer interested.

THE FATAL HOUR (1940): This is one of the better entries in the series. Capt. Street’s best friend, Dan O’Grady, is murdered while in the middle of an investigation of a smuggling ring. Distraught, Street enlists the help of Mr. Wong. Wong discovers that it’s jade that is being smuggled, and after several deaths he tracks down the criminal mastermind, only to be confronted with his own death. But he is saved in the nick of time by Bobbie Logan. It looks like Monogram actually spent a few bucks on this one and the film is helped by a tight script, which makes it more of a crime thriller than a straight mystery, with plenty of clues for Wong to winkle out. There is also a large cast of victims and suspects to keep us occupied, which alleviates some of the cheapness in the Monogram production. They may have spent more money from the look of it, but it still looks cheap. 

Sunday, July 29, 2012

TCM TiVo Alert for August 1-7

August 1 – August 7


CLASH BY NIGHT (August 4, 8:00 am): Well-acted and well-directed (Fritz Lang) with Barbara Stanwyck as a woman returning home to Monterey, California, to start a new life after an affair with a married politician. She dates a humdrum fisherman (played by Paul Douglas), but has the hots for Douglas's bitter and hostile best friend (played by Robert Ryan). Babs marries Douglas for stability but can't get Ryan off her mind, even after having a baby (a bit of a stretch as the characters aren't spring chickens; Stanwyck was 45 years old when the film was made). The two have an affair, but all's well that ends well. Though the plot has been played out many times, there's a certain freshness to this story - and a wonderful job capturing the loneliness of people and what they'll do to avoid it. It's the first movie with Marilyn Monroe's name above the title, but she's not much more than a bit-player in this film.

EDGE OF THE CITY (August 7, 12:15 am): John Cassavetes was taking acting roles at the time in order to afford his budding (though inconsistent) career as a director. (His directing debut would come two years later with Shadows, a critically-acclaimed though incredibly overrated improvisation film.) This is one of his finest acting performances. He plays a drifter who finds work as a longshoreman. Sidney Poitier is great as a longshoreman supervisor and the two interact wonderfully in roles that are somewhat groundbreaking with a white man and a black man becoming close friends. The two are excellent, but the film's most compelling character is Jack Warden's bigoted longshoreman supervisor who provokes both Cassavetes's and Poitier's characters. Great tension throughout the movie that comes to an incredible conclusion. 


GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES (August 4, 4:15 pm); A wonderful adaptation by screenwriter Charles Lederer and director Howard Hawks of the 1925 Anita Loos novel of the same name. Two gold diggers, played by Jane Russell and Marilyn Monroe, travel to Paris, get involved with a range of men from rich to poor, straighten out the tangles they created along the way, and live happily ever after. It contains some great songs and dance numbers, and a wonderful performance by Russell, who steals the movie. Monroe, however, manages to shine as Lorelei Lee and is fantastic in the number, “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend.” The chemistry between the leads couldn’t be any better, which adds to the fun. Look for the mishap in the Russell number with the bodybuilders where she accidentally gets knocked into the pool. Trouper that she was, Russell finished the number, saw the rushes and convinced Hawks to keep it in the film. If you love musicals – and even if you don’t – you can’t go wrong with this movie.

THE PRIZEFIGHTER AND THE LADY (August 2, 11:45 am): This was originally a story in the mold of The Champ written by Frances Marion under orders (she thought it warmed over soup) from L.B. Mayer as a vehicle for Clark Gable. But when she finished the article, Gable was on another assignment and, instead, Max Baer was signed for the film. The story, about a boxing champion falling for a society girl, was kept, but Marion reworked her script to accommodate Baer. W.S. Van Dyke, known for his speed in getting a film done, replaced the original director, Howard Hawks (who begged off) and Van Dyke brought in Myrna Loy to play Baer’s love interest. Loy, who the studio was brining around slowly, was happy not to have to play an Oriental villain for once and she turned in a stellar performance that boosted he stock in the studio and led to The Thin Man. It’s said that Baer walks away with the film, but watch for Loy’s beautifully-timed acting style, for, without it, Baer would have hit the canvas for the 10-count. The film also features Jack Dempsey, Primo Carnera, Jess Willard, and Strangler Lewis. Fans of B-movies of the 40s should recognize Frank Moran, an ex-boxer who plays a boxer in the film, and who became a supporting staple in several Monogram horror features of the ‘40s.

WE AGREE ON ... 3:10 TO YUMA (August 6, 8:00 pm)

When one of the best Westerns ever made comes on the screen, attention must be paid. And this is one of the very best, from a story by Elmore Leonard, with Van Heflin as down-on-his-luck farmer Dan Evans. Needing money desperately to dig a well he accepts an assignment to secretly transport notorious gang leader Ben Wade (Glenn Ford, who was made for Westerns), to a nearby town where Wade will placed aboard a train that will take him to Yuma. This is a tense, psychological drama directed by Delmar Daves that concentrates on the relationship between captor and prisoner. The story departs from most other Westerns of the time in that much of it takes place not in the great, open, expanses of the West, but in a single room where the characters battle it out as Wade stalls for time so the rest of his gang can come to his rescue. The film was needlessly remade in 2007 with Russell Crowe in the Ford role and Christian Bale as the farmer. Stick with this one – it’s heads and tails better.

For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert for the week of August 1-7, click here.

Saturday, July 28, 2012


Dinner and a Movie

Battleship Chifa

By Steve Herte

Note: Our “Galloping Gourmet” is visiting Philadelphia. Steve writes: “I spent time at the National Constitution Center, an entire museum dedicated to the Constitution and the nation that developed from it. There was a wonderful multi-media presentation followed by exhibits such as voting booths to figure out who you would vote for this year depending on the issues alone, a trivia contest about elections, various presidential memorabilia, an interactive screen to tell you how your tax dollars are spent, and an opportunity to make a Stump Speech (only six words) and publish it on a big marquee. It was a lot more fun than I figured.”

Battleship (2012)

Hasbro merges with Transformers, and Industrial Light and Magic to create a race of lizard people who want to “phone home” from Hawaii but the Navy stops them by bringing the USS Missouri out of mothballs and crewing her with retirees. That’s the entire story behind Battleship, a movie based on a game.

Taylor Kitsch (great name) plays Alex Hopper, the screw-up brother of Commander Stone Hopper (Alexander Skarsgård) who is forced into the Navy by his brother to teach him responsibility.  He falls in love with Samantha Shane (Brooklyn Decker), the Admiral’s (Liam Neeson) daughter. He screws up again on duty and is about to get kicked out of the service.

Meanwhile, Cal Zapata (Hamish Linklater) has successfully sent a communication to “Planet G” through a network of transmitter dishes in Hawaii by bouncing the signal off a satellite. Next thing he knows is there are five UFOs zeroing in on Earth from that exact location in space. One of them crashes into a satellite, goes off course and trashes Hong Kong. The rest land in the ocean and transform into enormous battle machines that enclose the entire Hawaiian Island group in a gargantuan force field cutting off communications in the Navy.

Commander Stone Hopper’s destroyer is destroyed by the aliens and all looks hopeless until  Lt. Alex has to join up with Capt. Yugi Nagata (Tadanobu Asano), a former rival, to track the alien ships without radar (enter Hasbro) using tsunami buoys. They manage to destroy most of the alien ships, except the mother-ship. All destroyers are lost and they recruit the retirees to bring the Battleship Missouri back into action. The mother-ship is destroyed and the satellite link is disconnected using “antique” technology (Oh, brother!).

Aside from the spectacular special effects (we expect nothing less from ILM) the movie is a bit lame and a lot unbelievable. There may be a nomination for effects. The dialogue and the acting are routine and predictable, leaving me glad I watched it On Demand at the hotel and didn’t pay top price to see it in the theater.

Chifas (Peruvian/Cantonese)
707 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

Don’t let the loud façade of this Latino(Peruvian)/Asian restaurant fool you. When you enter Chifas, you’re in a sleek bistro with a sexy bar lit in red on black walls and gauzy curtained alcoves for dining. The sunlight coming through the front windows provides great mood lighting but at no time is the restaurant too dark.

The specialty cocktail list looked interesting, so I chose the Diego Vega, a frothy martini-style drink mimicking a traditional Pisco Sour, with Peruvian Brandy and lime juice, which was fascinating as well as tasty. The menu had so many varieties that, with the concurrence of my waitress (who was also the bartender) I chose the Chef’s Tasting Menu - $55 – four courses (according to her). My only request was that the Red Curry would be one of the dishes. I had no idea of the feast coming. I ordered a 2010 Chilean Pinot Noir from Morandé vineyards which proved its excellence by complimenting every dish.

To keep this review from becoming extremely wordy, I decided to list the dishes with comments:

Amuse Bouche – Corn puff with spicy, fruity paste – fluffy and intriguing.

Mizuna Salad – Jicama ribbons, smoked marcona almonds, pickled ginger dressing – great greens (almost like dandelion greens) in a nutty dressing with surprise kumquats.

Ecuadorian Ceviche – Oysters, spicy tomato, chives, yellow tomato gel, avocado – two half-shells of pure delight.

Nikkei Ceviche – Ahi Tuna, garlic, ginger, lemongrass, soy-yuzu, sesame – a shiny steel bowl of flavorful fun accompanied by toasted chick peas.

Pork Belly Bao Bun – Hoisin Glaze, pickled diakon & carrot, togarashi mayo – a fluffy, rich pork sandwich.

Braised Beef Short Rib and Taro Puff – shredded carrot, sweet chili – an amazing one and a half inch ball filled with shredded, well-seasoned short rib meat.

Duck Taco – duck confit, house kimchi, sliced radish, flour tortilla – thank goodness the tortilla was soft, the spiciest dish in the feast but still rich in flavor.

Red Curry – Jumbo lump crab, coconut, tofu, eggplant, white rice – a black wooden bowl filled mostly with white rice and topped with the crab mixture in a creamy lightly spiced sauce.

Mussels – coconut-rum broth, lemongrass, rocoto, Thai basil – delicate little shellfish in a soupy, wonderful sauce (beware the sliced hot green peppers).

Wok Fired Greens – seasonal selection – a wonderful nutty, oniony mixture that effectively cut the spice of other dishes.

If that weren’t enough, there were two desserts. The chocolate cake with raspberry compote and almond ice cream and the Strawberry Panacotta with coconut puffs. Believe it or not I finished everything with the exception of some of the rice from the Red Curry. A delightful Indian Masala Chai crowned the feast appropriately and returned to my hotel satisfied and believing I had most of the menu for my dinner. Viva Chifa!

For the Dinner and a Movie Archive, please click here.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Field Marshal Rommel Films

Films in Focus

Early Film Takes on Field Marshal Rommel

By Ed Garea

Erwin Rommel was indeed an enigma. A professional soldier who served with distinction as a lieutenant in World War I, he was awarded Prussia’s highest honor, the order of Pour le Merite, for his actions in the Battles of the Isonzo, in what is now known as Slovenia.

He rose through the ranks as an instructor between the wars, writing of the essential textbooks on infantry tactics, Infanterie Greift (Infantry Attacks). Promoted first to colonel, he headed Hitler’s personal protection squad, Der Fueher-Begleit-Bataillon, and when World War II began his success in the battle of France led to his promotion to the rank of field marshal and the command of the Africa Korps. It was here he earned his greatest fame as a soldier. Nicknamed Der Wustenfuchs (The Desert Fox) for his genius in battle, he was also known for his humane treatment of POWs and his refusal to kill commandos and Jewish soldiers, and civilians. Illness forced him from Africa before Gen. Bernard Montgomery could and he was assigned to the defense of France.

Rommel never joined the Nazi Party and was later accused in the conspiracy to kill Hitler in 1944. Because of his fame, Rommel was given the choice of suicide by poison. It was announced that he died of wounds sustained from a British attack on his car and was buried with highest state “honors.”

We encounter the character of Field Marshal Rommel in film three times from 1943 to 1953, and as this article is about how he was portrayed, we will concern ourselves mainly with that.

FIVE GRAVES TO CAIRO (Paramount, 1943): An early effort by director Billy Wilder (only his second stab at directing an American film), this is a wartime thriller starring Franchot Tone as a British soldier left behind when the Germans advanced past the British lines. Hiding at a hotel he discovers it is the headquarters for Field Marshall Rommel (Erich Von Stroheim), he must play an elaborate cat-and-mouse game to discover where Rommel has buried vital war supplies for his drive to Cairo.

Although the hotel’s proprietor (Akim Tamaroff) is allowing Bramble to pose as a decreased barkeeper, the tension in the film comes from the character of the chambermaid, Mouche (Anne Baxter), whose prime interest is getting her brother released from a German POW camp. Will she turn Bramble in? Will Bramble learn the hiding places of Rommel’s materiel? Thus lays the plot for the twists and turns of the movie. Von Stroheim plays Rommel as a haughty, menacing Prussian, which was the popular perception of the Field Marshal at the time. New York Times film critic Bosely Crowther, while giving the film a mixed review, noted that Von Stroheim is miles ahead of his competitors in playing huns: “ . . . whenever he appears in this picture . . . he gives you the creeps and the shivers.” (Review of May 27, 1943). In a little note of trivia, Wilder tried to get Cary Grant for the starring role, but without success. Although Tone was excellent in the film, Grant, however is without peer, and we can only imagine what the film would have been like if he had taken Wilder up on his offer.

THE DESERT FOX (20th Century Fox, 1951): Cut to the Postwar ‘50s and we now get a chance to glimpse a three-dimensional Erwin Rommel, thanks in large part to a biography of him by ex-British prisoner of war, Desmond Young. It’s an intelligent and sympathetic look at the life of the famed German Field Marshal from his days in the Afrika Korps to his role in building Fortress Europe to his eventual disillusionment with Hitler and his role in the failed assassination attempt of July 20, 1944.

It’s a tour de force for James Mason, who we come to see as Rommel himself, as he delivers a flawless performance. Mason is ably supported by the inimitable Leo G. Carroll as Field Marshal Gerd von Rundstedt and Sir Cedric Hardwicke as the German patriot Dr. Karl Strolin, who draws Rommel into the conspiracy to kill Hitler. As Frau Lucie Rommel, Jessica Tandy is not given much to do, but her performance is such that we remember her long after the film itself has ended. Even if war movies are not your cup of soup, you will like this one at any rate because of the intelligent script, the flawless performances and the firm hand of director Henry Hathaway. TCM is showing this film at 3:15 pm EST on July 28.

THE DESERT RATS (20th Century Fox, 1953): 20th Century Fox took quite a number of hits from critics and ex-servicemen for their earlier sympathetic portrayal of Rommel, and so it was decided to again retain Mason as The Field Marshal for this story of how Australian and Kiwi soldiers held out against the might of Rommel and the Africa Korps at the Libyan port of Tobruk during the early days of Rommel’s Africa campaign.  

It’s an enjoyable movie, centered on the character of Major “Tammy” McRoberts (Richard Burton) and his relationship with his troops, especially Sgt. “Blue” Smith (Chips Rafferty), his former teacher in England who later emigrated to Australia and has become a dissolute drunk. McRoberts saves him from a court-martial and Smith becomes one of the Major’s most ardent troops. Burton is a wonder to watch, and Rafferty practically steals the movie with his portrayal of Sgt. Smith’s redemption.

Rommel’s part in the film comes when McRoberts, wounded and captured, is receiving medical attention with Rommel entering for treatment of a wounded shoulder. It’s little more than a cameo, but Mason manages to make Rommel’s character harder and more villainous than in The Desert Fox and the dialogue between them is priceless. Major goofs by the producers have the Germans using Thompson submachine guns instead of MP 40 burp guns, which were standard issue in the Wehrmacht, and the Germans also using the Vickers water-cooled machine gun instead of the air-cooled German standard MG34. The story, though, is impeccable. Trivia note: The photo of McRoberts’ wife is actually that of actress Sybil Richards, who was married to Burton at the time.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

TCM Celebrates a Night of Dick Tracy

Dick Tracy

By Ed Garea

If you’re a fan of Dick Tracy, you either want to stay home Friday or set the recorder for a full night of films starring Chester Gould’s celebrated detective.

Dick Tracy has been a part of American pop culture since artist Chester Gould debuted the comic strip in 1931 for the Detroit Mirror. The strip proved so popular that a radio series of Tracy’s adventures went on the air in 1934 with voice actor Bob Burlen as Tracy. In 1937, Republic debuted a 15-chapter serial simply titled Dick Tracy with Ralph Byrd in the title role. It proved so popular that two other serials followed: Dick Tracy Returns (1938), Dick Tracy’s G-Men (1939), and Dick Tracy vs. Crime, Inc. (1941).  Unlike the comic strip, where Tracy was a detective in a large Midwestern city, Dick was now a G-Man working out of California. He’s also somewhat of a superhero along the lines of Batman as he faces villains named The Spider, mad scientist Dr. Zarnoff, Pa Stark (think Ma Barker), and the Ghost. Movie buffs might just want to check out Dick Tracy’s G-Men, because in the role of Tracy’s girl Friday, Gwen Andrews, is a young Jennifer Jones.

In 1945, RKO brought Tracy back to the screen in a series of four quickly made B’s that ran about an hour each: Dick TracyDick Tracy vs. Cueball (1946), Dick Tracy’s Dilemma (1947), and Dick Tracy Meets Gruesome (1947). Morgan Conway starred as Tracy in the first two and Ralph Byrd was brought back to reprise the role in the last two.

Byrd also starred in a short-lived television adaptation for ABC. It ran only one year, 1950-51, but additional episodes were filmed for syndication until 1952 when Byrd’s sudden death brought the series to a close. There was also a cartoon series produced by UPA (1960-61), where Tracy sits in his office and doles out the work to his detectives, Hemlock Holmes, Heap O’Calorie, Joe Jitsu, and Go-Go Gomez. The cartoons are considered way too politically incorrect to be aired in these puritanical times, but can be purchased on DVD.

Following is the lineup on TCM. All times are Eastern:

8 pm: DICK TRACY (Touchstone, 1990) – The background of this film goes back to 1975 when Warner Brothers developed the concept of a big-screen adaptation of Dick Tracy. It went through many studios, from Warners to United Artists to Paramount to Universal, and finally, to Disney. Directors like Steven Spielberg, John Landis, Richard Benjamin, and even Martin Scorsese were considered for the project, and actors such as Clint Eastwood, Tom Selleck, Richard Gere, Harrison Ford, and Mel Gibson were considered for the lead. Finally, Warren Beatty agreed to star in the film – if he could also direct. Disney was hesitant at first, because Beatty’s last directorial project, Reds, lost over $40 million at the box office. But finally a deal was struck that Beatty could direct and star if he kept the costs under control. The result was a splashy Technicolor-stylized homage to the strip by simply using the colors yellow, blue and red to maximum effect. The plot, originally developed by Landis, is centered about villain Alphone “Big Boy” Caprice and his plan to control crime in the city by uniting all the classic Tracy gangsters and eliminating Tracy. Caprice finds himself bedeviled not only by Tracy, but also by a criminal known as The Blank. In the climatic showdown on a raised drawbridge, the only ones left as Caprice, the Blank, and Tracy. Caprice shoots The Blank, who turns out to be Madonna (she was a singer he inherited when he took over a nightclub for his headquarters from his former mentor Lipps Manlis, played by Paul Sorvino). Tracy then knocks Caprice down into the bridge’s gears, killing him. No gangsters are left to survive in a later sequel, which, I suspect, is the way Beatty plotted it all long.

9:55 pm: DICK TRACY SPECIAL (Turner, 2009) – Leonard Maltin hosts this half-hour retrospective on the history of the comic strip and the many spinoffs it as produced over the years.

10:30 pm: DICK TRACY (RKO, 1945) – The first of four RKO productions featuring the detective. Tracy must go up against Splitface (Mike Mazurki), a vicious killer who has escaped from jail and is intent on killing every member of the jury that found him guilty. Though it’s somewhat plodding, the nourish B&W photography is wonderful and Mazurki makes for an effective villain. With Anne Jeffreys as Tracy’s sweetheart, Tess Trueheart; Lyle Lattell as Pat Patton, and the always great Milton Parsons as Deathridge the Undertaker. Also, keep a sharp eye out for Jane Greer in an early role as Judith Owens.

11:45 pm: DICK TRACY vs. CUEBALL (RKO, 1946) – Morgan Conway is back as Tracy as he goes up against another vindictive criminal. This time it’s Cueball (Dick Wessel) who is intent on rubbing out the former gang members that double-crossed him. Along with his sidekicks Simon Little (Byron Foulger) and Rudolph (Skelton Knaggs), Cueball is in possession of a cache of stolen diamonds and operates out of the Dripping Dagger, a run-down gin-joint managed by Filthy Flora (Esther Howard). To trap Cueball, Tracy uses Tess Trueheart to act as a buyer, but things go wrong. Anne Jeffreys is back as Tess.

1:00 am: DICK TRACY’S DILEMMA (RKO, 1947) – Ralph Byrd replaced Conway as Tracy in a film closer to the spirit of the comic strip than the previous two. This time Tracy’s antagonist is The Claw (Jack Lambert), a criminal so named for the various tools he attaches to the appendage he wears in place of his missing right hand. This film is faster-paced and has good comic relief in the character of Tracy’s friend Vitamin Flintheart (Ian Keith) and “Sightless” (Jimmy Conlin), an informant who hangs out in front of The Claw’s watering hole, The Blazing Skull. Like the others, it clocks in at an economic 60 minutes. 

THE GREAT PIGGY BANK ROBBERY (WB, 1946): This spoof of Dick Tracy, done by director Bob Clampett, story writer Warren Foster and animators Bill Melendez and Rod Scribner, is one the best cartoons ever to come out of Termite Terrace, if not Hollywood. The premise is simple: Daffy Duck is ga-ga over Dick Tracy and gets so involved while reading Tracy’s adventures in a comic book that he knocks himself unconscious. In his dream he is Duck Twacy and must solve the mystery of who is stealing all the piggy banks. During his quest he runs into such characters as Mouse Man, Pumpkin Head, Double Header, 88 Teeth, Wolf Man, Rubber Head, Pickle Puss, and finally, Neon Noodle. It’s a smart and funny take on Chester Gould and his roster of outrageous villains. Flattop is even seen launching planes from the top of his head. (A nice play on words because the slang term for an aircraft carrier was “flat top.”) Since Turner owns the rights to the cartoon it would be a shame if they skipped it.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Philadelphia Films

Dinner and a Movie...Tour

By Steve Herte

A Philadelphia Movie Tour

Over the past week I vacationed in Philadelphia and hoped to view some movies on the On-Demand channel in my hotel in my spare time between touring and dinner. But the gods of electronics were not smiling upon me and that particular feature of my television hook-up was a mixture of “audio only,” “no signal,” blank screen, or worse, multicolored pixels that froze on the screen changing occasionally to reveal a different pattern. Though complaints were made and electricians reported for duty, it was never resolved.  But weren’t there a lot of movies situated in this town that could be remembered just by touring?

Arriving in Philadelphia via Amtrak at the 30th Street Station I couldn’t help but remember the scene from Witness (1985) where a young Amish boy witnesses a murder there. Independence Hall had a brief scene in National Treasure (2004) when Nicholas Cage discovered a coded message on the back of the Declaration of Independence. And who could forget the zombies of George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (1978) at one point shambling along the streets of Philadelphia?

Unlike Rocky Balboa, whose triumphant statue stands at the bottom of the 72 steps to the plaza facing the Art Museum, I finished the remaining 28 steps and actually roamed the fantastic halls and galleries within. This museum is not just about painting and sculpture. There are rooms of period furniture, suits of armor and medieval weaponry, an entire Hindu temple and a complete Japanese Teahouse.  The collection is so enormous that the Annex was opened a block away to house more of the vast collection.  The 1980 movie Dressed to Kill used interior scenes from the Art Museum as well.

The double-decker bus tour took me to the University of Pennsylvania (started by Ben Franklin himself to ensure that anyone could attend college, not just the wealthy) where the opening scenes of Transformers – Revenge of the Fallen (2009) were shot.  Also a stop on this tour was the Eastern State Penitentiary - started using Quakers principles to achieve “penitence” in the inmates through solitary confinement - where further scenes from Transformers were filmed as well as scenes from 12 Monkeys (1995).

The largest City Hall building in America was featured most often in movies - being the most prominent feature of center city - in 12 Monkeys, Jonathan Demme’s Philadelphia (1993), and most notably in Trading Places (1983), particularly the view from the giant clothespin statue at 15th Street and Market, where Dan Akroyd and Eddie Murphy performed their antics. Also in that same area, is the Macy’s department store where I shopped, previously Lord and Taylor and originally, Wanamaker’s, the first department store. It was into one of Wanamaker’s store-front windows that a car chase ended in the 1981 movie Blow Out.

Lastly, the charm and quaintness of Old Town near Penn’s Landing become strangely sinister when I thought of the Sixth Sense (1999), where several scenes were filmed. And of course, the ever-present murals bring back Detective Rush and the Cold Case team from television. Even though I saw no movies per se, I felt as if I was directly involved in the making of many by being there.

Union Trust Steakhouse
717 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia

The last dinner of a vacation is always so bittersweet and somehow needs to be special. When I planned all my reservations, this slot was meant to be the only restaurant to be a re-visitation. The Prime Rib is not only an excellent steakhouse but a second home for me in Philadelphia. Not for lack of trying however, a reservation was not to be had, being the height of tourism season for this restaurant in particular. Union Trust Steakhouse had big shoes to fill indeed.

The name suggests its previous incarnation and once you see the building looming in front of you, you are sure this was a major bank at one time. The heavy-burnished iron doors lead you into the cavernous, arched-ceilinged interior, built when people paid special attention to the ornamentation and artistry of architecture. The eight soaring arched windows cast pastel lighting on the deep-red velvet plush booths and the long, slender, mesh-encased light bulbs hanging from the ceiling add to the grandeur and romance of Union Trust.

While I sat awestruck, the waiter arrived, all smiles and cordiality, took my martini order, explained the menu and listed the specials assuring me that anything that could possibly be done for me would be. The martini was exactly as I would have made it at home. His description of the Latin Smoked Oysters hooked me. Served on the half-shell with a touch of avocado and a light vinegary taste bordering on ceviché, they were delightful.

Another server brought the bread basket containing three different bread items. A sour-dough biscuit, Date-nut Bread and Pretzels! “I love this place,” I told the waiter.  I’ve been in town all week and haven’t had a Philly pretzel (though I was seriously tempted at the zoo), and here they are. After the two in the basket were gone, I ordered two more.

Below the list of steaks on the menu are the lists of toppings, crusts, and rubs available to ameliorate the dining experience. I chose the Rib-Eye Filet Mignon with an Espresso Rub and topped with a Seared Foie Gras cooked “Black and Blue” (crispy on the outside, rare on the inside). For a side dish, there was only one I haven’t had before. It was Patty pan Squash sautéed in garlic and oil with Baby Zucchini. A 2008 “Quivira” Zinfandel from Dry Creek California was the perfect accompaniment.

Once I traded in my dull steak knife for a sharp one I was in carnivore heaven. The Filet Mignon was cooked to my tastes and temperature, the rub gave the steak a breathy, coffee flavor and the foie gras was the sweet icing on top. The side dish was also amazing (I think I’ll try growing Patty Pan Squash next year).

I only had to glance at the dessert menu to know what I wanted, so I turned the menu face-down, asked my waiter to guess. He answered, “S’Mores.” Absolutely correct! After devouring the slightly frozen marshmallow/chocolate/graham cracker confection the only thing left for me to cap a perfect evening meal was a double espresso and fine glass of Sassicaia Grappa and I was ready for karaoke at the Crowne Plaza hotel. Union Trust not only filled those big shoes, they overflowed them.

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