Sunday, June 30, 2013

Monsters University

Dinner and a Movie

Blue Monster Max

By Steve Herte

My quartet is having its reunion in White Plains so I rescheduled my dining and movie night. Also, I’m in Connecticut for my third week of vacation with my sister and brother-in-law and part of the adventure is a stay-over at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods (wish me luck). I won't need to bring my laptop on this trip because they're very computer literate (in fact he's a software trouble-shooter for Traveler's Insurance) and I won't be out of the loop on anything. Who knows, maybe we'll be totally decadent and stop by Mohegan Sun as well. Enjoy!

The Blue Umbrella (Pixar, 2013) – Director: Saschka Unseld. Color, 7 minutes.

This adorable short from Pixar is a mix of animation and imagination. The scene is a city street as it starts to rain. Normally inanimate things such as a downspout, a traffic signal, the window of a café, and a manhole cover develop facial features (but within the limits of what they really are) and begin to smile. A sea of black umbrellas open up as the rain becomes heavier but the one blue umbrella is the only one with a face and he’s happy to be open in the rain. As the crowd passes, a red umbrella catches his eye and she sees him. They both act coy as love blossoms between them. 

But then her handler goes one way and his handler tries to enter the subway. Fortunately, the wind from the oncoming trains blows him high into the air and he soars over the crowd. Eventually, he sees her. He gets tossed back and forth by the wind and the other formerly inanimate objects repeatedly save him from destruction until he’s lying upside down by the curb. We see the boots belonging to his handler and a gloved woman’s hand holding the red umbrella. The camera pans back and the couple, with their umbrellas, sit at the window of the café and all is happy. It’s a very clever story: there’s no dialogue, and only a simple tune ties this little adventure/love story together. Directed by Unseld, this petit gem deserves some recognition, maybe an award at Cannes?

Monsters University (Pixar/Disney, 2013) – Director: Dan Scanlon. Voices: Billy Crystal, John Goodman, Steve Buscemi, Alfred Molina, Helen Mirren, Peter Sohn, Joel Murray, Sean Hayes, Dave Foley, Charlie Day, Julia Sweeney, Nathan Fillion, John Ratzenberger, & Noah Johnston. Color & 3-D, 104 minutes.

The Disney Corporation is very fortunate to own Pixar because their animation far exceeds that of Disney proper. The prequel to Monsters Inc. is every bit as entertaining and fun to watch as its predecessor. Scanlon’s direction and his story and screenplay (in conjunction with Daniel Gerson and Robert L. Baird) give us a beautiful back-story that flawlessly flows into the hiring of Sully and Mike at Monsters Inc.

The story starts with Mike as a little monster (Johnston), on a field trip with his class to Monsters Inc. Because he’s smaller than everyone else in the class, his classmates ignore him. However, his ambition to be a “Scarer” towers over his physical proportions. A group of professional Scarers pass the children and one recommends Monsters University to him. In an effort to see them in action, Mike steps over the line into the “danger” zone and follows the same Scarer into one of the doors to the “real” world. Everyone is horrified except the Scarer, who is impressed that he “didn’t know Mike was in the room with him,” and hands him a Monsters University cap. Mike is hooked.

Then the timeline switches to older Mike (Crystal) getting off the bus to attend Monsters University. In the dormitory he’s paired up with Randy (Buscemi) a slithery lizard-like creature who can disappear at will. They go to their first Scarer class taught by Professor Knight (Molina), and just as Mike is answering a question Sully (Goodman) appears with a roar – right on cue – and takes a seat. Professor Knight is impressed by both Sully’s entrance and his heritage (he’s a Sullivan), and Mike is ignored again. Dean Hardscrabble (Mirren) makes a dramatic and frightening entrance and Professor Knight yields to her commentary. She’s extremely unctuous in speech for a dragon-winged centipede but she makes her point. Those who are not scary do not belong in this class. Mike and Sully are by now competitors and in the process destroy a canister containing her famous scream. She boots both of them out of the class.

To prove themselves worthy of re-entering the class Mike decides to enter the Scare Games. In order to qualify he has to be a part of a fraternity but none of the cool fraternities want him. He’s relegated to Oozma Kappa (we’re OK!) where he meets Squishy (Sohn) a multiple-eyed pale, plump (not scary) kid, Don (Murray) a Dutch Uncle type with a bat-wing mustache and octopus arms (also not scary), Terri (Hayes) and Terry (Foley) a two-headed creature with four arms and tentacle feet (too silly to be scary), Art (Day) a purple furred monster consisting of two big legs and a face in between and two tiny arms dangling down (maybe scary) and the house-mother, Ms. Squibbles (Sweeney), who is also Squishy’s Mom. None of these frat brothers could possibly win the competition if they tried. But Mike is determined and they need six contestants to compete (and a two-headed monster only counts as one) so Sully becomes the sixth in their group, much to Mike’s protests.

The competition is in six stages with one team being eliminated in each. Oozma Kappa makes it to the final stage under Mike’s coaching and with a little luck. They only have to beat Roar Omega Roar (the really cool guys – by the way, they accepted Randy right away when they saw him disappear) and two by two they compete in the final round, with the score tied before the last heat. Now Mike has to break a record scream to win against Johnny Worthington (Fillion) – a huge, purple, horned creature. No one is more amazed than Mike when he wins.

But there’s a fly in the ointment. Sully recalibrated the final test so Mike would win and thereby cheated. In his outrage Mike sneaks into the room of doors to the real world and enters one but gets trapped when he fails to scare any of the bunkhouse full of children. Sully barrels in to save him and between the two of them they manage to totally frighten a group of adults, thus exploding the door and lighting up all the scare canisters in the room of doors, and escape.

This surprises Dean Hardscrabble and she tells them so but nevertheless they both are expelled – Sully for cheating, Mike for not being scary. They’re buddies now and both apply for job in the mailroom of Monsters Inc. where their first boss is a Yeti (Ratzenberger) and they work their way up the corporate scale.

Monsters University goes beyond great animation. The writing is clever, the background scenery is amazing, the 3D effects are only used to enhance the action on screen (not just to throw things at the audience), and it’s just plain good clean fun. In writing this article I noticed that even Frank Oz had a part, the character Fungus, a fair-weather friend to Mike who deserts him in the beginning of the film. The time flew by without my getting saddle sore. It fully deserves my four and a half rating and I love Dean Hardscrabble (my kind of character). Rating: 4.5 out of 5 Martini Glasses.

Max Trattoria Enoteca – Tribeca
181 Duane Street, New York

Walking from Greenwich Street up Duane Street one can find this seven-year old bôite on the north side just before Duane Street forks and continues across downtown Manhattan. Inside is a Spartan, yet cozy, space between open-brick walls with bare wood topped pedestal tables and solid non-cushioned benches. Jaime, the acting captain led me to one of the six small tables just past the bar and I was surprised that he sat me next to two chattering girls (usually a restaurant likes to space their customers – but not this one) and I asked if I could be relocated to one of the four other tables. “No, they’re all reserved.” was my answer. “Strange,” I muttered and sat down.

Jaime brought me a glass of ice water, the menu, and the wine list and returned to his duties as captain. The two-sided menu has an impressive amount of Antipasti listed in a column down the left side, with Insalate (salads), Pasta, and Secondi (Entrées) on the right. On the reverse side they feature their Pizza selection and toppings, Side Dishes and Soup (only one, the Zuppa Del Giorno). I was so taken aback by Jaime that I deliberately took longer to study the menu until someone else noticed me and asked her if they had Beefeater’s gin. “No,” she said and listed three flowery, disgusting Yuppie gins. How about vodka? They had Stolichnaya so I ordered a Stoli martini straight up with a twist (very James Bond). Jaime brought it to the table and I noticed the small glacier of crushed ice riming the surface. But otherwise it was well made. I didn’t order a second.

After another deliberately long study of the menus and the “Specials” blackboard on the wall facing me, I told Jaime I intended to make it a three-course dinner consisting of antipasto, salad and pasta. Frankly, the main courses did not interest me and I saw the size of the pasta dishes at the next table as clearly as I heard “like” every second word and “really?” every third. Jaime brought out the bread basket and a dish of olive oil.

I started with the Polpette di Max – three good-sized beef meatballs with a hearty tomato sauce served in a steaming crock – and it was very hot. The meatballs were fork-tender and delicious. I ordered a Pinot Noir from the Piedmont Region of Italy (Monte Degli Angelo) 2012 and it was wonderful. The two parrots to my left were paying their bill and leaving and I sighed that I might actually enjoy the meal in relative quiet. No such luck. A rookery of three cawing yuppie women was seated to my right. I started to wish I were seated upstairs at one of the dozen or so tables there when a family of five (three of them pre-teen girls) arrived and mounted the stairway. Oh well, carry on.

The nice crusty bread helped finish that thick tomato sauce and my Insalata Tropicale arrived – an eleven-inch plate mounded with frisée (did I mention it’s my least favorite green?) and hiding the hearts of palm, chunks of avocado, and halved yellow and red grape tomatoes, topped by slats of Parmigiano cheese in a vinaigrette dressing. It was better than I thought, especially with freshly ground pepper, and I finished it. Meanwhile the Alpha female at the next table was explaining Burrata and how it was made with Mozzarella cheese. She was correct, but I couldn’t help injecting that it can be made with Ricotta as well – I’ve had it that way. You should have seen the stare I got.

Since the Lasagna was touted as “Fatta in Casa” (homemade) I chose it as my main course. Like the meatballs, it was served in a crock and, also like the meatballs it was hellishly hot. However, the pasta was delightfully tender and the ground beef filling with béchamel was mouth-watering and yummy and the sauce tangy. The lasagna must have been a good two inches high and I realized it would be a challenge to finish it. Hey, I had a good wine, and I took my time, enjoying every bite. It got to the point where I could just barely hear the racket to my right.

The “ladies” inhaled half of their food and had the remainder packed to go when Jaime asked them about dessert – three dull choices, including tiramisu (which I’m tired of) – and this helped me eschew dessert. That’s right, no sweets, no coffee, no after dinner drink! I wanted out. The noise was getting to me and I was full anyway. I paid the check, bid them a fond “Buona Sera.” and left. I think if I ever come back to Max I’ll see if I can get the upper level; either that or order to go.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, June 28, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for July 1-7

July 1–July 7


THE GOODBYE GIRL (July 1, 11:00 pm): Before Richard Dreyfuss thought he was a brilliant actor, he was a brilliant actor. This 1977 film, in which he won an Oscar for Best Actor (becoming, at the time, the youngest to win the award), is a perfect example of that. The screenplay, written by Neil Simon, is good, but the acting and interaction between Dreyfuss, Marsha Mason and Quinn Cummings (the latter two were nominated for Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress, respectively) are outstanding. Cummings, who was 10 when the film was released, is marvelous as Mason's precocious daughter. It's a very charming and entertaining romantic comedy.

THE DEVIL DOLL (July 7, 9:30 pm): Because Lionel Barrymore was so wonderful and likable in nearly every role he played, it's somewhat difficult to imagine him playing a vengeful criminal (wrongfully convicted, of course). His character escapes Devil's Island and plots his revenge against those who framed him in this 1936 film directed by Tod Browning, who co-wrote it. Oh, and he dresses like an old woman at times. But Barrymore was such a pro that he handles himself exceptionally well in this science fiction classic in which he shrinks people to one-sixth their size. Maureen O'Sullivan is good as his daughter and Rafaela Ottiano is amazing as his partner in crime who takes evil to a new level.


1776 (July 4, 1:30 am): A musical about the signing of the Declaration of Independence? You’re kidding, right? No, we’re not kidding, and furthermore, it’s quite good. Based on the play, it retains many of those originally performed it. William Daniels is splendid as John Adams, Ken Howard makes for a most effective Thomas Jefferson, and Howard DaSilva is the spitting image of Ben Franklin. Throw in Virgina Vestoff as Abigail Adams and Blythe Danner as Martha Jefferson, and the film really rocks. Watch out, however, for John Cullum as Edward Rutledge of South Carolina. He brings down the house with “Molasses to Rum to Slaves.” Other numbers to look for include “But Mr. Adams,” “Cool Cool, Considerate Men” (My favorite), and the heart tugging “Mama Look Sharp.” American history was never this much fun.

STOLEN KISSES (July 5, 10:30 pm): In my opinion, this is one of the most beautiful films Truffaut made, and more than a step forward from his Nouvelle Vague days. It follows the continuing adventures of Antoine Doinel (Jean-Pierre Leaud), whom Truffaut introduced to the world in The 400 Blows. Doinel has just been dishonorably discharged from the army for questionable character. He takes on a series of odd jobs while trying to find his niche in life. And, of course, there’s the love of his young life – Christine Darbon (played with a combination of gentleness and verve by Claude Jade). His only problem in regards to Christine is they can’t manage to find themselves on the same page, and this is the basis for much of the film’s humor. Watch for the scene where Antoine proposes. The camerawork is excellent and the score enhances the action on the screen. It’s just a wonderful film to sit back and watch.


ED: A-. One of best musicals from a studio renowned for its musicals, MGM, Anchors Aweigh features seamless performances from stars Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra and Kathryn Grayson. Kelly and Sinatra were so good together that the studio later starred them in two other musicals, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and On the Town. The film is also noted for Kelly's dance with Jerry the mouse, a breakthrough in combining live action with animation (though Warner Bros. did it first in 1940 with You Ought to Be in Pictures). Kelly does what he does best, dancing; Sinatra does what he does best, singing. The score by Kahn and Styne is superb and Jose Iturbi impresses on the piano. (Only at MGM could Iturbi be turned into a star.) Do we fans of musicals need any more than that? I don't think so. 

DAVID: C+. As a rule of thumb, I dislike musicals. And dance musicals? They're typically even worse. This isn't a bad dance musical, but there's nothing extraordinary about it to make it stand out among the dozens and dozens of dance musicals from what was the golden age of the genre. If you confuse this 1945 film that pairs Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra as sailors on leave in Los Angeles with On the Town, a 1949 film that pairs the two as sailors on leave in New York City, you are forgiven. The plots are similar and there is nothing special about either. Sinatra's better movies - SuddenlyThe Man with the Golden Arm, and The Manchurian Candidate - were dramas and not musicals. It's obvious Kelly worked hard in his films and was a special talent, but even he and Sinatra couldn't do anything to turn this weak film into anything more than a mediocre movie. Kelly dances with Jerry Mouse. It's a cute camera trick, but nothing more than that. Besides, I'm a Tom Cat fan.

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

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Hell's Kitchen


Trial by Fire

By Jack Webster

Hell’s Kitchen – Fox, Thursday, 8:00 pm

Whenever I get together with my friends over a pizza or two, we catch up and discuss everything under the sun. Sooner or later, television shows are discussed, and when I tell them I enjoy watching Hell’s Kitchen, they look at me as if I were sprouting rabbit ears. “What are you watching that piece of s*** for?” they ask. Well, I answer, why do people go to the zoo? Or stop and watch an auto accident? The answer is that the show is my guilty pleasure.

The premise of the show is simple: 20 contestants (victims?) compete for a chance at first prize, which is head chef at whatever new eatery the host, Gordon Ramsay, is opening this week. That is, if you can survive Ramsay. Ramsay is a world-famous chef and restaurateur, but he’s also a major piece of work, in desperate need of anger management therapy. Slip up and he’ll go nutzoid on you, throwing the food back at you, reaming you out in front of everyone else, and generally driving you insane. But sometimes I think he has every right to be wigged out: I wouldn’t trust these “chefs” to boil water, much less prepare a gourmet meal for customers. After watching the first three episodes of a season I always ask myself: where they find these people?

And then I realize that some of these “contestants” are chosen not for their ability, but because they’re plain nuts. For the past four years I’ve been watching the show with my uncle (he got me hooked, so blame him), we write down the first contestant to go, fold the paper and give it to each other. To date we have always agreed. It’s no great feat of deduction. There always seems to be someone so unqualified that they just beg for elimination. I think it’s all part of the game. Each season we see the same types: the cute blonde, the fat, sassy woman who’s street-wise and talks incessantly about her anatomy, as in her hoo-has, the self-important blowhard who couldn’t make a Caesars Salad if his life depended on it, the smooth guy with a foreign accent, the fat sloppy guy whose health inevitably breaks down during the season. And some of the men are so grungy you’d be very hesitant to let them cook your dinner. Some of them look as if in need of a good bath and shave. Yet, they’ve all come to be harangued, belittled and broken by Ramsay.

As I wrote, it’s not that I can blame him sometimes. By the fifth episode, a chef should at least know how to make a risotto or sea scallops, but not these bozos. This season, one of the contestants had trouble with cooking lamb. Not that she made it medium-well instead of medium-rare, but it was raw. And she did this not just once, but a couple of times. As is usually the case with this show, when Gordon assigns a chef to do something, like cook meat or fish, we cut to the chef, who tells us he or she is an expert at this. So what happens? Right, the fish, meat, appetizer, etc. has something wrong and Gordon takes the pan over to the table, slams it down and goes ape on everyone on the team. The cutaways must be inserted post-production, as I figure the chefs are paid for their time in competition. (Come on, what idiot would put up with all this abuse for nothing?)

And for what victims are the chefs cooking? If you’ve never witnessed this hour of carnage, the answer is that Hell’s Kitchen is a restaurant in Los Angeles. And it actually has customers, including a few D-list celebrities who are highlighted during the show. Given all the times Gordon cancels service because of the chefs’ slip-ups, the “customers” must be eating free; otherwise, why subject oneself to a possible case of food poisoning? But in the restaurant there is no closed-off kitchen, and when Ramsay is on a rampage, everyone in the restaurant hears it, including all the profanity. Gordon drops F-bombs in just about every sentence he utters. My uncle says it’s gotta be like listening to Hitler during his last days in the bunker. All I know is that, if I’m sitting there waiting for my dinner and ordered the chicken – if Ramsay starts yelling that the chicken he just received to be served is raw, I don’t care if it’s my order or not, I’m out of there.

Being a veteran viewer of the show, I can usually tell by Episode 5 who’s going to win. There’s a trick to winning the show: keep your mouth shut, listen, and do not screw up. This year two chefs have stood out: Ja’Nel and Jon. I predict they’ll be in the finals and Ja’Nel will win. I think I’ve been watching this show too long.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

This is the End

By Melissa Agar

(Columbia, 2013) – Directors: Evan Goldberg, Seth Rogen. Cast: James Franco, Jonah Hill, Seth Rogen, Jay Baruchel, Danny McBride, Craig Robinson, Emma Watson, David Krumholtz, Jason Segal, Paul Rudd, Michael Cera, & Mindy Kaling. Color, 107 minutes.

A group of friends get together for a housewarming party. Alcohol flows. Drugs are liberally sampled. Sexual innuendo flies. And then suddenly, all hell literally breaks loose as the Earth shakes, hellmouths open to suck revelers into the fires, and six survivors barricade themselves inside and try to figure out what to do now. It sounds like pretty typical apocalypse/zombie horror fare until you factor in that the plucky friends are played by a group of famous faces playing themselves – or parody versions of themselves – and you have one of the crudest, grossest, offensive, and ultimately hilarious films of the year.

The film opens with Baruchel (Undeclared, Tropic Thunder) arriving in Los Angeles for a weekend of bromantic adventures with best bud Rogen. When Seth suggests they go to Franco’s housewarming party, Jay reluctantly agrees despite the fact that he knows the party will be filled with people he doesn’t know, doesn’t like, or who never remember his name.  At the party, the friends encounter an assortment of faces familiar to those who have seen any film starring Rogen or Franco – Hill, Segal, Cera, Rudd, and more. For the first 20 or so minutes, the film is largely party hijinks where the stars play exaggerated versions of themselves or play against type. (Particularly shocking and hysterical is Cera’s alter ego, a cocaine-snorting sexual deviant belying the awkward nerd that Cera typically plays.) 

When Seth and Jay go on a snack run, the movie takes a sudden turn. The Earth shakes, people are pulled to the heavens in a beam of blue light, and Jay and Seth dodge explosions to return to the party. After a huge sinkhole eliminates most of the guest list, Jay and Seth are left with the only other survivors – Franco, Robinson, Hill, and McBride. Tensions flare, villains emerge, demons attack, and it quickly becomes apparent that what the friends originally think is just a huge earthquake is something much more sinister and Biblical in nature. 

A large part of the fun of this movie lies in the willingness of the stars to mock themselves. Franco is a vain intellectual whose house is filled with pretentious art. Hill is a wannabe saint who likes to remind anyone listening that he was in Moneyball – even God. McBride is a crude, thoughtless cretin who wastes resources without an ounce of remorse. Rogen reveals himself more than once to be a coward. Baruchel is a cynic disgusted by the superficiality of Hollywood culture.  Like most of the films he’s appeared in (Pineapple Express, Hot Tub Time Machine, not to mention his years on The Office), Robinson steals the show and emerges as a hero. The six come to realize there’s a reason that they were saved like those pulled up in the beams of light and must come to terms with their own flaws and wrongdoings – some of which involve fallen Hollywood ingénues. 

There’s no denying that the film is exceptionally crude. One lengthy exchange between McBride and Franco when a defiled Penthouse magazine is discovered is particularly profane. If you struggle with drug humor, this is not the film for you. There are times when I will admit to feeling slightly guilty that I was laughing as hard as I was. Ultimately, though, the film emerges as an ode to friendship and being willing to stick your neck out for someone. 

At the same time, the film skewers celebrity culture and our own obsession with it. When Rogen meets Baruchel at the airport, he must go through a TMZ-esque interrogation as to why he always plays the same part on film. Throughout the movie, the celebrity status of the party guests is on display. Segal bemoans the inanity of his sitcom plots. Franco and Rogen discuss plans for Pineapple Express 2. (One particularly funny segment finds the friends using the videocamera from 127 Hours to film a trailer for their sequel.)  Baruchel is uncharacteristically charmed when Kaling tells him she loved his work in Million Dollar Baby. For all their fame and fortune, though, the stars are unable to cope with their crisis. They realize their celebrity has not led them to lead good lives or develop the skills that would help them survive. Their vanity is their downfall in more ways than one. 

Maybe I’m ascribing a bit too much subtext and meaning to what is ultimately a goofy little apocalypse comedy. The film is certainly not perfect. The violence is a bit over the top and squirm inducing. (I can handle a good dirty joke, but severed body parts usually send me running for the door.) The third act got a little crude and ran just a touch long, although it was saved by a fabulous finale. Overall, though, This is the End is fun, raunchy counterprogramming in a summer that has so far seemed driven by superheroes and testosterone. As long as you can handle the raunch and gore, you’re in for a fun couple of hours. 

Grade:  B+

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for June 23-30

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

June 23
2:30 am The Story of the Last Chrysanthemum (Shochiku Eiga, 1939) – Director: Kenji Mizoguchi. Cast: Shotaro Hanayagi, Kokichi Takada, Kakuko Mori, Gonjuro Kawarazaki, Tokusaburo Arashi, & Yoko Umemura. B&W, 142 minutes.

Hailed by critics and historians as the first masterpiece of director Mizoguchi, it’s the tale of a servant who sacrifices everything to advance the career of her lover, a socially-higher-born Kabuki actor.

Hanayagi stars as the adopted son of a famous actor (Kawarazaki) in 19th century Tokyo. While he’s far from mastering his craft as an actor, all who are around him lavish praise because of his social status. Only Otoku (Mori), the nurse of his newborn brother, will tell him the truth. This, in turn, forges a bond that defies social convention. She encourages him to strike out on his own to discover if he can truly master the Kabuki art. His quest to become famous is also aided by his hope that once he does so, he can marry Otoku, for she has lost her job due to the budding romance.

Pre-World War II Japanese films are both a rarity and a treat, for they open a window into a world that changed dramatically with Japan’s surrender in 1945 and the re-ordering of traditional morays. Because of that, and the director’s style of long takes and medium shots, it’s a Must See. For those not that familiar with Mizoguchi, his most well-known film is Ugetsu (1953). TCM previously screened his 1952 film, The Life of Oharu, a couple of months ago.

5:15 am To Be Or Not To Be (UA, 1942) – Director: Ernst Lubitsch. Cast: Carole Lombard, Jack Benny, Robert Stack, Felix Bressart, Lionel Atwill, Stanley Ridges, Sig Ruman, & Tom Dugan. B&W, 99 minutes.

It’s hard to believe now, but when this film opened in 1942, it was savaged by critics for its “lighthearted tone” about the Nazis and ignored by the paying public. Over the years, however, it has caught on with both critics and the public and is now hailed as a comic masterpiece. Bosley Crowther’s review in The New York Times (March 7, 1942) states that “To say it is callous and macabre is understating the case.” We had just entered World War II and no one was in the mood for humor, much less a dark comedy about Polish underground fighters battling the Nazi conquerors. Had the film come out a year sooner, it would have garnered the critical praise and audience reaction that Lubitsch films had come to expect.

Regardless, it’s a hilarious film and it contained the role of a lifetime for Benny, who does not disappoint. It was also the last film for the beautiful and talented Lombard, who matches Benny line for line as his long-suffering wife. To say it should be on the Must-See List for any film fanatic is an understatement.

Trivia: After Lombard’s death in a plane crash, the line “What can happen in a plane?” was deleted from the film. 

June 26

12:15 pm Destination Murder (RKO, 1950) – Director: Edward L. Cahn. Cast: Joyce MacKensie, Stanley Clements, Hurd Hatfield, Albert Dekker, & Myrna Dell. B&W, 72 minutes.

This is a great low-budget noir about a woman (MacKensie) searching for the thug who killed her father. But never mind the plot, watch this for the great list of actors it contains: Former East Side Kid (“Stash”) and Future Bowery Boy (“Duke”) Clements, Hatfield, Dekker, and John Dehner, among others. Clements, for instance, is playing a playboy hit man (!).
June 27

10:00 am Donovan’s Brain (MGM, 1953) – Director: Felix Feist. Cast: Lew Ayres, Gene Evans, Nancy Davis, Steve Brodie, & Tom Powers. B&W, 83 minutes.

Based on (and remarkably faithful to) the 1942 sci-fi classic novel from Curt Siodmak, it’s the story of a scientist (Ayres) who saves the brain of a millionaire industrialist and keeps it alive in a tank. But the brain has a mind of its own (groan!) and imposes its powerful will on the scientist, using him as a tool to gain revenge on his enemies.

Jokes aside, this is a solid film that could have easily become silly were it not for the tight pacing and excellent performances from the cast. Ayres in particular gave a finely nuanced performance as the scientist whose mind no longer is his own. This was Ayres’ last starring role. His career had been badly damaged by his choosing conscientious objector status in World War II, even though he became a medic and risked his life on several occasions to save wounded soldiers. Future first lady Davis is fine as Ayres’ wife and Evans turns in a decent performance as Ayres’ assistant. For a supremely cheesy moment, though, watch for the scene where the brain turns blackmailing news photographer Brodie into a zombie and send him to his death in a car crash.

Trivia: Republic Studios first made the book into a movie in 1944 as The Lady and the Monster, directed by George Sherman, and starring Erich Von Stroheim and Vera Ralston . . . Steve Martin made his version in 1983 – The Man With Two Brains.

12:45 pm The Beast of Hollow Mountain (UA, 1956) – Director: Edward Nassour & Ismael Rodriguez. Cast: Guy Madison, Patricia Medina, Carlos Rivas, Mario Navarro, & Eduardo Noriega. Color, 81 minutes.

This rather unusual combination of the Western and horror genres comes from a story by animator Willis O’Brien, most famous as the man that animated King Kong. But the producers couldn’t afford for O’Brien to animate the film, so they went with a cheaper process. The plot is simple: American Madison has his ranch in Mexico. His cattle are disappearing. He sets out to find out why. And he does. It was remade in 1969 as The Valley of Gwangi with Ray Harryhausen handling the animation.

June 28

8:00 pm The Leopard Man (RKO, 1943) – Director: Jacques Tourneur. Cast: Dennis O’Keefe, Margo, Jean Brooks, Isabel Jewell, James Bell, & Margaret Landry. B&W, 66 minutes.

Producer Val Lewton adapted Cornell Woolrich’s novel, Black Alibi, for this moody tale of psychological horror foisted upon a small New Mexico town when a publicity stunt goes badly awry. RKO head Charles Koerner changed the name to The Leopard Man in order to capitalize on the success of Lewton’s earlier Cat People.

O’Keefe is press agent Jerry Manning. He convinces client, singer Kiki Walker (Brooks), to incorporate a black leopard in her act. The stunt backfires when the cat escapes and begins murdering people in the nearby town. After a while, however, Manning begins to suspect if the cat is indeed responsible for the killings. Could the killer be human? That question forms the basis for his quest throughout the rest of the movie.

The film is at its best when it uses the power of darkness to play on our childhood fears. In its most memorable scene, a teenage girl (Landry) is sent by her mother on an errand to purchase cornmeal for the family’s dinner. After a walk to the store and home, made all the more spine-tingling by Tourneur’s use of empty streets and a pitch-black riverbed, she makes it back home only to be attacked on her doorstep. All we hear are her screams combined with the sight of her blood running underneath the door. Though we never see the cat or the attack itself, the scene is most terrifying.

Trivia: The black leopard used in the film was named “Dynamite,” and had previously appeared in Cat People.

June 29

10:00 am The Falcon in Hollywood (RKO, 1944) – Director: Gordon Douglas. Cast: Tom Conway, Barbara Hale, Veda Ann Borg, John Abbott, Rita Corday, & Sheldon Leonard. B&W, 67 minutes.

The Falcon is on vacation in Tinseltown, losing at the racetrack when he becomes involved with two gorgeous women (Hale and Corday) and an apparently stolen handbag. This takes him top the backlot of Sunset Pictures, where he discovers the body of dead actor Ted Miles. Of course, there’s the usual carload of suspects, but the writing is intelligently done and the steps to discovering the killer are all logical.

Borg, as Billie Atkins, a wisecracking, brassy taxi driver that becomes the Falcon’s assistant, steals the film. The best scene comes when Billie and the Falcon pay a visit to the dead man’s apartment and lament on how sad a dead man’s room is, and if he had been “worrying about tragic things like a broken shoelace” that day. It’s not just for those fans of the series. 

June 30

2:00 am Tokyo Drifter (Nikkatsu, 1966) – Director: Seijun Suzuki. Cast: Tetsuya Watari, Chieko Matsubara, Hideaki Nitani, Ryuji Kita, & Tsuyoshi Yoshida. Color, 89 minutes.

Nowhere is the influence of the French New Wave better seen than in this highly-stylized gangster flick from director Suzuki. Paroled ex-con Tetsu (Watari) wants to go straight, but the odds are strictly against him. Hounded every step of the way by former gang members, rivals, and cops, Tetsu keeps on the move, playing enemies against each other while coming to the rescue of victimized nightclub singer Chiharu (Matsubara). The action varies from neon-lit Tokyo to snow-covered country vistas and features beautifully designed sets, quick editing, and stark color schemes that will stay with the viewer long after the movie has ended. 

Suzuki helped begin the yakusa craze among Japanese audiences with 1963’s Yaju no seishun (Youth of the Beast), but by 1966 had grown tired of rehashing the same film and changed the palate with Tokyo Drifter. The studio was so outraged they made him change the ending and issued a warning to Suzuki that they would accept no more films like this. Suzuki, however, paid no attention and continued along his new track, making Fighting Elegy (1966) and Branded to Kill (1967). The latter film was thought to be so terrible by studio executives that they shelved it. Suzuki took the company to court, and since his contract stated that the studio was obligated to release his films theatrically, the court found in his favor and Nikkatsu had to pay damages in addition to releasing the film. This led to his firing, and with a bad reputation, it would be 10 years before he worked again on a feature film.

For other Cinema Inhabituel films, click here.

Friday, June 21, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for June 23-30

June 23-June 30

THE STORY OF THE LAST CHRYSANTHEMUM (June 23, 2:00 am): This is a early film (1939) of director Kenji Mizoguchi, best known for two classics, Ugestu in 1953 and Sansho the Bailiff a year later. This film tells the story of Otoku, a common woman, who falls in love with Kikunosuke, the adoptive son of a legendary Kabuki actor during the late 19th century. Kikunosuke, played by Shotaro Hanayagi in his film debut, isn't a good Kabuki actor and doesn't work hard at his craft, but gets major parts because of his adoptive father. Otoku, a wet nurse for the family (played wonderfully by Kakuko Mori), believes the actor has great potential, but won't realize it until he works hard to do so. The two fall in love, which is a big no-no and is forbidden by Kikunosuke's adoptive father. The story is compelling and fascinating, and the acting is magnificent. The only flaw in the film is there are two lengthy Kabuki scenes that slow it down. The scenes are unnecessary and eat up about 20 or so minutes in an otherwise fine 142-minute film. Those scenes aren't necessary because the story and actors do such an excellent job convincing us that Kikunosuke wasn't good and becomes great without us needing to see him perform.

THE LADY IN THE LAKE (June 28, 3:00 am): You can't go wrong with any of the Philip Marlowe detective films TCM is showing on the 28th. It starts with Dick Powell in 1944's Murder, My Sweet at 11:00 pm, followed by Humphrey Bogart in 1946's The Big Sleep at 1:00 am, and ends with Robert Montgomery in 1947's The Lady in the Lake. Montgomery, who also directed the film, is charming as Marlowe, the hard-boiled, street-smart private detective. This movie is fascinating for its gimmick of having nearly all of it filmed as if the viewer is Marlowe. The story is sometimes hard to follow, like many detective film noirs of the time with several plot twists, but it's definitely worth watching and Montgomery brings a sense of humor to the Marlowe character that isn't as developed in the other two films.


DETECTIVE STORY (June 24, 8:00 pm): The problem with “topical” films is that they lose their punch with the passage of time, and this film is no different. It’s based on Sidney Kingsley’s play about life at a NYPD precinct house and reflects what was important during that time. Still, I recommend this highly for two main reasons: (1) although the film is dated by time, the power of Kirk Douglas’s performance remains fresh and powerful. Released in October 1951, and coming off Douglas’s performance in Ace in the Hole (released in June 1951), we can safely surmise that Douglas had one hell of a year in 1951. (2) Having a good director at the helm can help a film overcome the ravages of time and Detective Story has such a director in William Wyler. His handling of his actors and the mise en scene he creates lifts this up from merely a filmed play to a superb piece of moving cinema. Douglas is surrounded by a stellar supporting cast, particularly Eleanor Parker as his neglected but devoted wife, William Bendix as a sympathetic colleague, and Lee Grant (her first – and almost last – film thanks to the Blacklist) reprising her stage role of a shoplifter and turning a small part into a Supporting Actress nomination.

ALL THROUGH THE NIGHT (June 26, 5:00 am): Humphrey Bogart had many good qualities as an actor, but the ability to take a bad film and elevate it with his performance was not one of them. However, give him a good film and he often elevated it with the quality of his performance. This is a perfect case in point – a film with a lead that, in the wrong hands, could potentially sink it. Bogart, however, takes to it like a fish to water and comes off totally believable as a gangster who finds himself up against Nazi saboteurs led by Naughty Nazi Conrad Veidt. The performances supplied by such as Judith Anderson as Veidt’s assistant, Peter Lorre (in a wonderful turn as a sadistic henchman), William Demerest as Bogie’s sidekick, Jane Darwell as Bogie’s mom, and Kaaren Verne as a singer in peril give the film a luster that raises it above others released that year. The fact that this was made as Bogie began to catch fire with movie-going public as an actor to watch certainly helped, but we must also give kudos to director Vincent Sherman (his first film) and producer Hal Wallis, who kept a close watch on the movie as it was shot. It’s a film that works on every level.


ED: A. This is Billy Wilder’s tribute to Ernst Lubitsch, and a better tribute there isn’t. Forget the fact that Gary Cooper and Audrey Hepburn make for a most unlikely couple and just concentrate on the doings in this wonderful romantic comedy. Maurice Chevalier shines as Audrey’s private-eye father. Also watch John McGiver in a great turn as Monsieur X. And remember above all that this is a romantic comedy, so check your sense of reality at the door and just surrender yourself to the art of Billy Wilder.

DAVID: C-. While Billy Wilder's filmography is among the most impressive in the history of cinema, Love in the Afternoon is among his worst. The casting of Gary Cooper is curious at best and awful at worst. A longtime running joke between Ed and I is Cooper acts as well as a block of wood in some of films, mostly during his final years in Hollywood, earning the nickname Gary Cooperwood. Ed asks us to forget the fact that Cooper and Audrey Hepburn make for a most unlikely couple. But with Cooper as the star of this film and only a handful of supporting cast members, that's an impossible request to honor. There is zero chemistry between the two leads primarily because of Cooper. Not only is his acting bad, but he looks like he's preparing for the early-bird special more than convincing viewers he is a rich jet-setting playboy. Part of that is Cooper's health was declining while making this 1957 movie. He died three years later. So can this film be saved by a great plot and the legendary Wilder's directing ability? Nope. The story is flat, dull, lifeless and drags on until its predictable end. This is one of those films I repeatedly checked to see how much was left until it was over. It's 130 minutes in length yet it seems to be considerably longer.

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