Saturday, August 31, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for September 1-7

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM 

By Ed Garea

I’ve been thinking of a getting a t-shirt that only other cinephiles will appreciate.

Lettered across the front will be “I Survived Summer Under the Stars.” Another month has passed, and while there were some nice touches, such as the Catherine Deneuve, Randolph Scott, and Glenda Farrell days, there were just too many days of the same old stars with the same old movies. (For instance, I love Humphrey Bogart, but he had a day back in 2011 as well as this year. Henry Fonda, Bette Davis, and Clark Gable were all featured in 2009.) I realize it’s the popular stars that garner the ratings, but the honchos at TCM could add few more “wild cards” into the mixture.

For instance, how about Eugene Pallette, Walter Brennan, Lionel Atwill, Aline MacMahon, and Miriam Hopkins from this side of the ocean? I know some of these may have been featured in past years; the list of those featured each year tends to become a blur. But all have been in films that are rarely, if ever, screened, and thus, “must sees” for us. Deneuve and Jean Gabin (featured in 2011) are a good start. Now, how about Michel Simon (a great actor in his younger days who became the Grumpy Old Man of French cinema), Albert Remy, Jeanne Moreau, Jean-Paul Belmondo, Arletty, Isabelle Huppert, and Simone Signoret from France? Or Wolfgang Preiss, Gert Frobe (he did more than Goldfinger), Maximilian Schell, Peter Van Eyck, Warner Peters, and Hildegard Knef from Germany? Giuletta Masina, Anna Magnani, Vittorio Gassman, and Silvana Magnano from Italy? There was a day dedicated to Toshiro Mifune in 2012, but how about a day dedicated to Chishu Ryu, Setsuko Hara, or Takashi Shimura? And Joan Greenwood, Dennis Price, Andre Morell, Peter Cushing, and Rita Tushingham from England? I’m sure you readers can also fill in your own blanks as well. The point I’m trying to make is that there is a load of potential for “Summer Under the Stars,” so we film fanatics should have more to feast on rather than Davis, Fonda, Katharine Hepburn, and Gable, all of whose movies always seem to be readily available.

However, let’s get real. Gabin was the first to “cross” the line and have a dedicated day back in 2011. In 2012, the designated foreign star was Mifune, and this year it was Deneuve. It looks as if the foreign stars will be limited to one per festival in the future, unless TCM gets a sudden burst of creativity and breaks out of what seems to be a xenophobic state of mind.

Readers, let’s hear from you. Tell us who you would like to see get a day on “Summer Under the Stars” and what films of his or hers you’d especially like to see.

It’s September, and TCM is taking a different direction. First, beginning on September 1 and continuing for each Sunday in September is what TCM calls “Sundays with Hitch,” a day’s worth of films directed by the Master. It doesn’t matter how many times we’ve seen them in the past; we’re always up for another showing. But rather than just leaving it with the popular films, they’re showing some of Hitchcock’s lesser-known titles, including several silent features. If you’re as much of a Hitchcock fan as I, then you’ll especially want to see the lesser-known films. Watching Hitchcock is always a great way to spend the day.

On September 2, TCM premieres a 15-part documentary that aired on BBC in 2011: The Story of Film: An Odyssey. Directed, written, and hosted by filmmaker Mark Cousins, the documentary follows the history of film according to Mr. Cousins. I haven’t seen it, but from what I’ve read, viewer criticism of the series on IMDB ranges from Great to Awful. Below is a small sample:

Don’t Miss This: I'm just enjoying my second voyage into film with the excellent Mark Cousins. Don't pay any heed to the criticisms of his narrative style, and his Ulster brogue; the only reservation I would have on that score is that sometimes I get so transported by his seductive tones, that I stop listening to what he is saying and just get transported by the sound of his voice (bit like Alistair Cooke).

Beyond DreadfulHowever technical failings would be excusable if Mr. Cousins had anything interesting or insightful to say. He does not. He rambles on in pretentious half-sentences that frequently mean nothing. He jumps between decades without reason or meaning, moving from 1912 to 1928 to 1915 and back again, preventing any coherent narrative forming. He also leaves out key information; he joyfully tells us that women were heavily involved in film-making in the early years (half of all script writes from 1910-1935 apparently) without telling us why.

Me? Oh, I’ll be watching regardless. I’m a sucker for documentaries on film history, having cut my teeth in high school on the excellent PBS series The Men Who Made the Movies. They don’t get any better than that one, so we’ll see.

The real treat, however, is the panorama of world cinema shown by TCM in conjunction with the documentary series. On September 2, TCM shows a collection of Thomas Edison and Georges Melies silent movies. Oh yeah? So what, they’ve been on before. Don’t judge the middle by the beginning. By the time this really gets going later in the month, some of the choices will astound and delight you. By September 17 it really gets rolling, unless they alter the schedule. The highlight is one you’ll have to record, owing to it late slot: Kenji Mizoguchi’s wonderful Osaka Elegy (1936), a look at the oppression of women in prewar Japan. Let’s hope they don’t dump this one.

The trouble with scheduling is the last-minute changes the station is always making. Again, with regard to the recently concluded Summer Under the Stars, August 31, the day featuring Rex Harrison, had his wonderful thriller Escape scheduled. The last I looked (this column is being written on August 30), TCM has substituted the Harrison–Vivien Leigh–Charles Laughton opus St. Martin’s Lane aka Sidewalks of London. It’s a good film; only I’ve seen it about five times already, whereas I haven’t seen Escape in years and years. Looking ahead to next month, TCM has scheduled I Am Curious (Yellow) at 3 am on October 15. If they don’t replace it with another film, I’d be very, very surprised. I remember earlier, when they had Fritz the Cat scheduled in a late-night slot. I remember saying to myself that they can’t really be showing this because, though animated, it truly deserves its “X” rating. And I was right; they substituted another film in its place as the day drew closer.

The Star of the Month for September is Kim Novak. Among the 16 featured films being shown are those we’ve seen time and gain, but can always watch (VertigoPicnic); some we’ve seen once and once is enough (Jeanne EaglesOf Human Bondage); and those we haven’t yet seen that are worth a peek (Five Against the House, directed by Phil Karlson). Plus, as a bonus, TCM is airing one of Kim’s real bombs – in fact, one of the all-time bad movies – The Legend of Lylah Clare. It’s one of my guilty pleasures. Reportedly Moreau was offered the lead, but she took one look at the script and got the hell out of Dodge; one of her better career moves. So Kim signed on after a three-year absence, proving that absence does not necessarily make the heart grow fonder.

Other Highlights:

September 4: Bob’s Picks – These include Captain of the Clouds (1942), The Black Swan (1942), You’ll Never Get Rich (1941), Dance, Girl, Dance (1940), and Holiday in Mexico (1946).

September 11: Guest programmer Madeline Stowe, who picks The More the Merrier (1943), Splendor in the Grass (1961), The Bicycle Thief (1948), and I Confess (1953).

Fridays: Future Shock – A collection of sci-fi films about the future, usually dystopian. Among the gems being offered are Metropolis (1927), Things to Come (1936), Brazil (1985), Minority Report (2002), A.I.: Artificial Intelligence (2001), Total Recall (1990), World Without End (1955), The Omega Man (1971), and A Boy and His Dog (1974).

Films Worth Your Time: September 1–September 7

September 1

1:43 am – The Devil’s Cabaret (MGM, 1930): Eddie Buzzell, Charles Middleton. A seldom seen two-strip Technicolor short about the establishment of a nightclub by the Devil’s assistant to get people to go willingly to Hades. Buzzell later gravitated from acting into directing.

September 5

10:45 am – The Office Wife (WB, 1930): Dorothy Mackaill, Lewis Stone, & Joan Blondell. Gold-digging secretary MacKaill lures boss Stone away from his straying wife. Lewis Stone?? Oh, well. Blondell steals the flick as Mackaill’s sister who always seems to be in some form of undress. (It is Pre-Code, you know.)

September 6

2:15 am – Brazil (Universal, 1985): Jonathan Pryce, Robert De Niro, & Michael Palin. Director Terry Gilliam’s dark satire about a timid, daydreaming clerk in a future bureaucratic society who finally meets the girl of his dreams, but then the lovers find themselves fingered as terrorist bombers because of a bureaucratic error.

Friday, August 30, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for Sept. 1-7

September 1–September 7

METROPOLIS (September 6, 8:00 pm): One of the 10 greatest films ever made, which is remarkable when you consider it came out in 1927. Directed by Fritz Lang (who co-wrote it without taking the credit), it tells the remarkable story of a futuristic dystopia in which the rich live above ground with the poor underground providing the power, through dangerous and back-breaking work, needed to keep the wealthy living in comfort. The workers rise up which leads to disaster. Finally, the two classes work together. It’s a silent film with a brilliantly-written script. My favorite line is: "There can be no understanding between the hand and the brain unless the heart acts as mediator." Its message isn't outdated 86 years later. And what can be said of its special effects, set designs, and scenes with hundreds, if not thousands, of extras? They are jaw-dropping to this day. 

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (September 6, 12:30 am): There is so much to love about this 1981 near-future science-fiction film. The year is 1997 and the country has turned Manhattan into a maximum-security wasteland without any actual prison buildings and no guards. I'm guessing John Carpenter, who directed and co-wrote the film, probably laughs at what Manhattan actually became. The dirt, hookers, crime and grit has been replaced by tourists, tons of (gigantic) chain stores and restaurants in Time Square, and largely a safe place. Air Force One is hijacked and crashes on Manhattan and the president of the United States is held hostage. It's up to Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell), a former soldier and current imprisoned criminal, to rescue the president. If he can get the job done in a day, he's a free man. If not, well, the government injected an explosive into Snake that kills him. It's a fun ride with a lot of action and good performances by Russell, Ernest Borgnine as "Cabbie," Harry Dean Stanton as "Brain," and Isaac Hayes as "The Duke."  


THE BIRDS (September 1, 5:45 pm): It’s Alfred Hitchock’s classic tale of Nature-gone-wild as birds suddenly begin rearing up and attacking people. In the middle of this mess are lovers Tippi Hedren and Rod Taylor, along with Taylor’s mother (Jessica Tandy) and his daughter (Veronica Cartwright). This gives it the human touch it needs to keep us riveted and from becoming just another horror film. And that’s the genius of Hitchcock – taking what could be just another horror film and raising it to the level of the sublime by just adding a simple touch or two to the story, humanizing it, as it were.

THE BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (September 7, 3:30 am): In my opinion this is the greatest horror film ever made, though the way James Whale directs it, it could also be seen as a black comedy. One of the decisions he made – to have the monster speak – was derided at the time and for a while later, but now is rightly regarded as a brilliant move on Whale’s part. It gives the monster a touch of humanity and frees him, for a time at least, from merely becoming the automaton he was to become in later films.

WE DISAGREE ON . . .  ROPE (September 1, 12:00 pm)

ED: A-. Even I would say that Rope is not Hitchcock’s best. It’s been written that he was glad when it didn’t get much play later on television. So, then, why did I give it the grade I did? I gave the grade for effort – an “A” for effort. Rope may not be hugely entertaining, but it was the realization of a notion Hitchcock had played with for years: creating a film in one uninterrupted take. Financial reasons also came into play, for Hitchcock thought that if he were to shoot the full length of the 10 minutes of film contained in a Technicolor camera in one burst, he could speed through shooting in record time and save on the budget. He would then create the illusion of a continuous take by changing reels web the camera’s vision was obscured by an actor’s back or other anything else. But what the director hadn’t counted on was the inevitable flubs that occur when filming a scene – any small detail that went wrong, such as a flubbed line of dialogue, ruined the full 10 minutes of shooting. Even star Jimmy Stewart, normally one of the easiest-going actors on a set, lost his patience with Hitchcock’s method and told the director so. That he would even attempt such a radical style marks the film down as a historical oddity of sorts, and thus an essential film for serious film fans. And that is why I gave it an A-minus.

DAVID: B. That I don't consider Rope to be among the 10 best films directed by Alfred Hitchcock and still give it a B is a testament to his talent and compelling performances from James Stewart and Farley Granger. But the plot isn't particularly strong and the supporting actors aren't anything special. While lesser directors could score points for effort for innovation and creative filmmaking, Hitchcock was such a cinematic master that he doesn't deserve that courtesy. While Hitch tries to "create the illusion of a continuous take," as Ed mentions above, it really doesn't matter whether it's achieved or not. It's entertaining, but nothing special. It's a movie that depends a lot on dialogue, and while it's fine, it's not exceptional. Also, it's one of the director's least suspenseful suspense films. 

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

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel: Glenda Farrell

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

Glenda Farrell Gets Her Day

By Ed Garea

This week this column is dedicated to a single day for a special actress. Upon hearing the words “brassy fast-talking blonde,” the name that comes first to my mind is Glenda Farrell. On August 29, TCM is devoting a day of its annual “Summer Under the Stars” to Farrell. Several of the movies being shown have not been seen on television in years, so this is a “Must See” for all cinephiles.

Born in Enid, Oklahoma, on June 30, 1904, Farrell had been acting since the age of 7, when she appeared as Little Eva in a production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Realizing she had found her life’s work, she would continue on the stage through the early ‘30s, taking time off only to finish her education and to marry Thomas Richards, a film editor, in 1921. The marriage lasted until 1929 and produced a son named Thomas.

Her film career began in 1928 with a bit part in the film Lucky Boy for Tiffany-Stahl. Warner Brothers signed her in 1930 and immediately placed her in a Vitaphone short, The Lucky Break, to see what she could do. Impressed by her performance, her next role was a featured one later that year in Little Caesar. Warners kept her busy throughout the ‘30s in roles centered around her persona as a brassy, hard-boiled, wise-cracking blonde. She gained good notice for her role as Paul Muni’s scheming wife in I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang. But for the greater part of her career at Warners, she was cast in supporting roles as the girlfriend, sidekick, or friendly adversary of the hero/heroine. Farrell realized early on that it was a man’s world at Warner Brothers and this would be her glass ceiling. She was frequently paired with Joan Blondell, another brassy, wise-cracking blonde whom the studio had no idea about what to do with, in a series of B comedies. 

In 1936 came the role that would cement herself permanently in the hearts of film fans – that of Torchy Blane, the fast-talking reporter with a nose for news and a habit of getting herself into such trouble that she always had to be rescued by her boyfriend, police Detective Steve McBride (Barton McLane). Their first film, Smart Blonde, released in 1937, was just supposed to be a one-shot B programmer, but like so many of the B series in Hollywood history, it just took off with audiences and distributors alike, and a series developed. Farrell and MacLane did seven films together, all moneymakers.

Farrell’s star faded in the ‘40s, but in 1941 she married Dr. Henry Ross, a West Point graduate and Army physician who served on General Dwight D. Eisenhower’s staff. When not traveling with her husband she worked on stage and in a few select movies. In 1954 she again was in the spotlight with her role as Mrs. Winston in the Charlton Heston adventure epic Secret of the Incas (Paramount), a film that directly influenced 1981’s Raiders of the Lost Ark. In the ‘60s she won an Emmy for her work on the television series Ben Casey, and had a supporting role in the 1964 Elvis Presley film, Kissing Cousins. She was starring on Broadway in Forty Carats in 1969 when she got news that she was diagnosed with lung cancer. She continued in the play until her health gave out and returned home to die on May 1, 1971. She is interred in the West Point Cemetery, West Point, New York.

Below is the day’s schedule, along with a short synopsis. All films this day were made for Warner Brothers save for the last, The Talk of the Town, made for Columbia in 1942. The year and director are in parentheses.

A note of trivia: Farrell’s son, Tommy also went into acting and billed himself as Tommy Farrell. He performed mainly as a supporting character, and later went into television with some success.

6:00 am – Little Caesar (Mervyn Le Roy, 1930): Farrell’s first feature. Her dancer Olga takes Joe Massaro (Douglas Fairbanks, Jr.) away from Rico (Edward G. Robinson) and his gang, leading to Rico’s downfall. A+

7:30 am – I’ve Got Your Number (Ray Enright, 1934): Farrell has a small role as Bonnie, a fortuneteller exposed by telephone repairmen Terry (Pat O’Brien) and John (Allen Jenkins) as a fake. But she does get some revenge by dating John. B

9:00 am – The Personality Kid (Alan Crosland, 1934): Farrell’s in solid form in this blue-collar romance as Joan McCarty, the wife and manager of brash upcoming boxer Ritzy McCarty (Pat O’Brien). When Ritzy gains success he wanders away from Joan, with the predictable results. B-

10:15 am – Kansas City Princess (William Keighley, 1934): Farrell and Joan Blondell are a couple of fast-talking grifters on the lam over a mix-up involving a diamond engagement ring given to Blondell by gangster boyfriend Robert Armstrong. Aboard a ship to Paris, they find new marks to con. Farrell is particularly adept at handling the script’s fast dialogue. She was timed speaking 390 words a minute while on Broadway. B

11:30 am – Snowed Under (Ray Enright, 1936): Pat O’Brien is a playwright with writer’s block who has retreated to a snowbound cottage to write the play’s third act. Genevieve Tobin is his first wife, sent to the cabin by O’Brien’s producer to nudge him along. Farrell is his second wife who shows up at his retreat for her alimony. Patricia Ellis is the neighbor who wants to have fun. So we find O’Brien stuck in a snowbound chateau with three women and a jug of applejack. C+

12:45 pm – Fly Away Baby (Frank McDonald, 1937): A routine entry in the Torchy Blane series, as Torchy takes to the air to track a band of killers. C

2:00 pm – The Adventurous Blonde (Frank McDonald, 1937): Jealous that Torchy Blane is getting the scoops, rival reporters plan a fake murder to fool her and embarrass her paper. But to their surprise, the fake turns into the real thing. C

3:15 pm – Blondes at Work (Frank McDonald, 1938): Steve McBride promises his captain not to let Torchy in on his cases, but she continues to scoop the other reporters. And in this film she even scoops the police. C+

4:30 pm – Torchy Gets Her Man (William Beaudine, 1938): A notorious counterfeiter passes himself off as a Secret Service agent to Steve and gets him to unwittingly bilk a race track of its receipts. Torchy manages to penetrate the counterfeiting ring and bring the man to justice. C

5:45 pm – Torchy Blane in Chinatown (William Beaudine, 1939): Not only are Torchy and boyfriend Steve on the trail of a Chinese gang, but they must also deal with a phony Scotland Yard inspector trying to extort $250,00 from a rich young man who is trying to marry a senator’s daughter. C

6:45 pm – Torchy Runs For Mayor (Ray McCarey, 1939): Torchy conducts a one-woman campaign against a corrupt mayor and crime boss, and when the reform candidate is murdered, she takes up the banner. C

8:00 pm – Smart Blonde (Frank McDonald, 1937): In this, the first in the Torchy Blane series, Torchy and boyfriend Steve McBride team up to solve the murder of an investor who just purchased a popular local nightclub. B

9:15 pm – The Mystery of the Wax Museum (Michael Curtiz, 1933): Reporter Farrell discovers something’s fishy in the city’s new wax museum run by Professor Igor (Lionel Atwill). With Fay Wray and Frank McHugh. A-

10:45 pm – I Am a Fugitive From a Chain Gang (Mervyn Le Roy, 1932): Farrell gives a solid performance as escaped fugitive Muni’s landlady, who forces him to marry her when she discovers the truth about his past. A classic. A+

12:30 am – Gold Diggers of 1935 (Busby Berkeley, 1935): In this entry about another show on the rocks Farrell has a minor role as hotel secretary Betty Hawes, who nonetheless plays a crucial role in keeping the show’s backer from discovering her daughter has married hotel desk clerk Dick Powell instead of millionaire Hugh Herbert. Great musical numbers and Gloria Stuart is show-stopping gorgeous as the female lead. A-

2:15 am – Gold Diggers of 1937 (Lloyd Bacon, 1936): Another contrived backstage musical, only the numbers themselves are not enough to redeem the script. But tough Termite Terrace was able to put the songs to good use in the Merrie Melodies cartoons. Farrell is Joan Blondell’s pal, who’s trying to land a millionaire. C

4:00 am – The Talk of the Town (George Stevens, 1942): Farrell has a good supporting role in this comedy about an unjustly accused arsonist Cary Grant, whom Jean Arthur champions to vacationing law professor Ronald Colman. Farrell is a beauty parlor owner who knows the truth of what really happened that night. A

Tuesday, August 27, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

Damon = Yogurt and Morton = Steak

By Steve Herte

The Blue Moon this past week had a strange effect on me. My office laptop went “blue screen of death” when the security program caused the Intranet program to fail and I was out of action (well, doing someone else’s filing) for almost two days. Then on Tuesday, I left my house keys in the front door and the charger to my cell phone in the laptop bag at home. I was able to work out the door thing with my Dad but the phone thing wound up in using a public pay phone after karaoke (you never know who’s been on those or even if they’ll work.) But things got better, especially with the surprise restaurant availability.

Speaking of restaurants, it didn’t surprise me when I learned a while ago that the Michelin ratings ignored American restaurants in the past because of their transiency and impermanence. For example, in the early years of my employment I visited the location 148 Chambers Street six times under six different names and varying cuisines:

1.              The Laughing Mountain – Nouvelle Cuisine
2.              Okapi – African
3.              Boomerangs – American
4.              Kansas City Stockyard – American
5.              Elana’s – Italian
6.              Bombay Mahal – Indian

After the last incarnation it wasn’t a restaurant anymore. And yet, some places have been in existence since George Washington’s days like Fraunces Tavern where he made his farewell speech to his troops or Delmonico’s, which was the first restaurant to have white tablecloths, the first to allow women to dine with men, and responsible for the creation of Lobster Newburgh, Baked Alaska, Chicken a la King and of course the Delmonico Steak. But enough about restaurant history, you want to read the latest Dinner and a Movie. Don’t let me stop you. Enjoy!

Elysium (Tri-Star, 2013) – Director: Neill Blomkamp. Writer: Neill Blomkamp. Cast: Matt Damon, Jodie Foster, Sharlto Copley, Alice Braga, Diego Luna, Wagner Moura, William Fichtner, Faran Tahir, Emma Tremblay, Josefina Mora, Maxwell Perry Cotton, & Valentina Giron. Color, 109 minutes.

In 1970, Larry Niven wrote Ringworld about a ring-shaped alien artificial habitat in space the diameter of the Earth and with 99.2% of Earth’s gravity encircling an artificial star. Then in 1972, Arthur C. Clarke wrote Rendezvous with Rama, another artificial alien habitat, this one cylindrical in shape, but with the same concept of mountains, streams, trees and meadows all kept in place by the centrifugal force gravity of the spinning vehicle. Niven set his story in the year 2850 AD, Clarke in 2130. Thus, in 2013, we have Blomkamp writing and directing Elysium using the general design of Ringworld and concepts of both stories to depict a haven for the wealthy of Earth while the poor scrabbled for survival on a depleted, polluted and diseased home world in 2154. After his success with District 9, a film that quite obviously states that South Africa learned nothing from the inhumanities of apartheid set in Johannesburg (Blomkamp’s hometown), he now has triple the budget to flog the dead horse conflict between the rich and the poor.

The story opens with an old woman (Mora) telling young Max (Cotton) about the world circling above them (Elysium) in Spanish – after all, they do live in L.A. – and how he should never forget where he comes from. She gives him a locket with a picture of the blue Earth as seen from space inside, something that comes off as both weird and corny. His childhood involves his good friendship with Frey (Giron) as they vow to be friends forever and write this in pen on their arms.

Max grows up to become Damon (poor child) who works at a factory that makes the brutal robot policemen who patrol Earth. His boss knows that he can make him do anything dangerous at the job with the threat of being fired. The huge device he works gets jammed when a palette slips out of place and Max reluctantly squeezes inside to free it. Predictably, he does and is trapped inside and subjected to a lethal dose of radiation. The doctor robot gives him five days to live and he decides that he must go to Elysium where they have machines to cure anything. However, where and how is he to get the money for the costly trip? He visits his friend Spider (Moura), a 22nd century version of a “coyote,” and agrees to do a “job” for him with a trip to Elysium for himself and his best buddy Julio (Luna) as payment.

In preparation for this caper, Max undergoes the extremely painful operation that literally bolts and screws a steel “exoskeleton” to his body and connects a data terminal to his brain. The job is to get the information on how to reboot the entire Elysium system from his boss John Carlyle (Fichtner) by downloading it from his brain.

Meanwhile, on Elysium all is not peaches and cream – although it looks perfect. President Patel (Tahir) is at odds with the homicidal decisions being made by his Security Chief, Delacourt (Foster), who uses her underworld connection with a bounty hunter named Kruger (Copley) to shoot down fugitive space ships attempting to land on Elysium. She doesn’t react well to his disciplinary advice and decides a change in leadership is needed. She contacts Carlyle to bring the reboot data to Elysium in hopes of becoming the new President.

Max and Spider’s cohorts shoot down Carlyle’s transport and download the data into Max’s brain. Deeply wounded by Kruger after a battle, Max knows his childhood friend Frey (now played by Braga) has grown up to be a major doctor/nurse and goes to her for repair. There he learns that Frey’s daughter Matilda (Tremblay) has terminal leukemia and that she also desires to use the healing machines on Elysium.

In the September 2013 issue of Discover Magazine, Blomkamp is quoted as saying “. . . District 9 was not saying apartheid was bad . . .” (Seriously? I must have seen the wrong movie.), and earlier in the interview “ . . . If you have too much science in a film, you could end up in a place where the film doesn’t work very well as a story.” The latter is definitely true of Elysium. There’s not too much science in it. In fact, it is a good thing the main character’s name is Max because the vehicles (hand drawn by Blomkamp) and the scenes on Earth harken back to the movie Mad Max. Elysium hangs visible in the Earth’s sky like the broken moon in Oblivion (good thing there are no tides to affect) and the healing machines are basically fancy gurneys with a “magic wand” that waves over the patients and cures them. And when the entire system on Elysium is rebooted, wouldn’t that turn the atmosphere and the gravity spin, thus killing everyone on the space station? (It is completely open to space on the inner side.)

Foster does a sterling performance as a villain. She seems to be channeling Helen Mirren, which is not a bad thing indeed. Damon on the other hand isn’t channeling anyone but Matt Damon. He garbles his lines and gets to die twice, as a character and as an actor. When his exoskeleton is brutally being attached (without antiseptics, mind you) no one in the audience cringes or cares.

Elysium is a good concept film (thank you, Niven) but a so-so morality play. District 9 was much better at allegory.  

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Morton’s Steakhouse
136 Washington Street (corner of Albany Street), New York

Remember when I asked if anyone knew where the Refinery Hotel was in New York City? Well, if you can locate the Club Quarters Hotel (hint: it’s right across the street from the Marriott Downtown) you will easily find the newest (only two months old) Morton’s Steakhouse. I was delighted to see it appear on as I’ve dined at three others in White Plains, Mid-Town, and downtown Brooklyn. The Morton’s chain is pretty consistent in quality and price with only minor differences. The Brooklyn version paraded their cuts of meat and their lobsters before the meal, as did Nick and Steff’s Steakhouse. The other Morton’s did not. All have servers that attend promptly to your needs.

I was surprised at how soon Morton’s called me to confirm my reservation, but when the girl explained that they had a limited special on two-pound lobsters for $29, which had to be ordered in advance, I understood. However, I assured her that I’m probably the only person in New York City who does not care for lobster.

Upon checking in with the captain, I was led to a table by the window facing Washington Street (one of my favorite places in a restaurant but I chose the banquette with my back to the window so that I could monitor all the action inside). The décor is basic New York black, white and gray with the only splotch of color being the unusual blown glass chandelier over the captain’s station done in gradient shades of light to dark orange. It was pretty but looked more like a huge alien ray gun poised to blast her into another dimension. The white-clothed tables have pewter reclining pig lamps that were kitchy at best, silly at worst, but I ignored them. A server brought my water and then I met Melissa.

Melissa bubbled with every order and giggled when I explained how I like my martini. The way she jiggled (her blouse revealed her charms adequately) with every laugh and bent over to be able to hear me made me wonder why I ever went to Hooters when this was closer. The martini was OK but needed to be drier. The second was excellent. Noting the small loaf of onion-studded bread and the braid of butter I warned myself to be careful of portion size and my ability to finish anything if I eat too much bread . . . and it was good (I finished half).

The Oysters Rockefeller were four of the second-largest oysters I have ever seen (the first were Belon oysters). They were loaded with a sinful amount of spinach and melted Parmesan cheese with a touch of Pernod and took two bites to finish each. By now I was thinking of wines by the glass and there were several. I chose the 2007 “Secreto” Tempranillo from Robles vineyards first and it was an excellent start, being just fruity enough and not too heavy to begin the meal. 

The meal was an eight-ounce filet mignon cooked “Black and Blue” – crispy charred on the outside, red on the inside – with a side of Sautéed Brussels Sprouts and Parmesan and Truffle Matchstick Fries. Noting the “steak upgrades” on the menu I chose to top my filet with Foie Gras – Cognac Butter. At this point I figured that what I couldn’t finish I would take home. Melissa told me all about the desserts that take time to prepare and should be ordered in advance but I responded that I probably will not want dessert but that we’d cross that bridge when I came to it.

The filet mignon was cooked exactly to my specifications and was surprisingly small but the beautifully-rich butter topping made up for that. The Brussels sprouts were perfectly cooked with prosciutto and had just that little bit of crunch they needed, with no pink visible at all. The silver vase filled with matchstick fries dominated the table and almost made me forget my wonderful wine (which was now a 2010 Pinot Noir named “The Four Graces” from Willamette Valley, Oregon – another winner). The manager arrived at my table asking how everything was and I told him I was just about to enter Seventh Heaven. He said he’d check back when I arrived there.

By the time my second glass of wine dwindled I had finished the steak and the sprouts and wasn’t sure about the fries, but I ordered the 2010 Ladera Cabernet Sauvignon (Napa Valley) which was so rich it was almost like a dessert and it renewed my appetite temporarily.

Surprise! I was too full to have dessert so I had Melissa pack up the remainder of the fries to go and ordered the Morton’s Coffee – Dark Crème de Cacao, Bailey’s Irish Cream, Amaretto and whipped cream – again perfect. Morton’s always does a reliable and sometimes pricey job of pleasing their customers and I will return when convenient but they did not knock Uncle Jack’s Steakhouse out of first place.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Priscilla Lane – Western Star

By Ed Garea

Cowboy From Brooklyn (WB, 1938) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: Dick Powell, Pat O’Brien, Priscilla Lane, Dick Foran, Ann Sheridan, Johnnie Davis, Ronald Reagan, James Stephenson, Granville Bates, & Emma Dunn. B&W, 77 minutes.

Silver Queen (UA, 1942) – Director: Lloyd Bacon. Cast: George Brent, Priscilla Lane, Bruce Cabot, Lynne Overman, Eugene Pallette, Janet Beecher, Guinn “Big Boy” Williams, Frederick Burton, Roy Barcroft, & Marietta Canty. B&W, 80 minutes.

There are two surprising things about the career of Priscilla Lane: (1) – She made only 22 films before retiring in 1948 to start a family with husband Joseph Howard, an Army Air Force officer she met during World War II. (2) – Of these 22 films, two of them were Westerns. Ironically the same man, Lloyd Bacon, directed them.

Only 22 films? It seemed as if she made more. However, that’s an optical illusion, perhaps spurred on by the fact she made a few very popular films that are often broadcast (Saboteur, Four DaughtersBrother RatThe Roaring Twenties, and Arsenic and Old Lace) and give the impression she made many more.

But back to her Westerns. Technically, both are Westerns only in the academic sense of the word.  Silver Queen is set in the city, and Cowboy From Brooklyn, is more of a musical with a Western setting, sort of like Abbott and Costello’s Ride ‘Em Cowboy (which was a much better film).

Originally titled Romance and RhythmCowboy From Brooklyn stars Powell as Elly Jordan, who, along with his two bandmates, is broke and stranded in Two Bits, Wyoming, where they come across the Hardy Dude Ranch, run by Ma and Pop Hardy (Bates and Dunn), and their children, Jane (Lane) and Jeff (Davis). Elly and his mates are hired to play for the dudes. However, Sam Thorne (Foran) – ranch cowhand, crooner, and Jane’s self-appointed boyfriend – is jealous of Jane’s interest in Elly.

Elly does a good job of singing – so good, in fact, that Roy Chadwick (O’Brien), a theatrical agent spending his vacation at the ranch, signs him up, thinking Elly’s a real cowboy. But even though Jane coaches him on how to talk like a cowboy, there is one thing that could stop Elly’s career cold: his fear of animals, including horses. But he pulls off the deception with help from Chadwick and makes a successful screen test as Wyoming Steve Gibson. While they go to New York to await the Hollywood people, Chadwick is still worried that Elly will be exposed. He has good reason, for while Jane and some of the ranch people are on the train to New York, where Sam will compete on Captain Rose’s Amateur Hour radio show, she tells Sam she’s in love with Elly. Sam is so angered by this confession that when he fails to win on the show he blurts out the real story on Elly over the air.

Chadwick and his press agent Pat Dunn (Reagan) must now show that Elly’s on the level. They suggest that he compete in a rodeo and take him to Professor Landis (Stephenson), who hypnotizes him. While under hypnosis Elly rides a horse to Madison Square Garden and enters the bulldogging contest, where he sets a world’s record. The movie people are convinced he’s the real thing, and Elly signs his contact while kissing Jane to seal both deals.

Truth be told, this is not a very good film. Powell, who had made his bones at Warner Brothers playing juvenile roles, found himself unable to break out of that mold. Although he began starring in a few films such as Hard to Get (1938) with Olivia de Havilland, acquitting himself well in an adult comedy role with the obligatory few songs thrown in, management at the studio wanted him to continue in the juvenile singing roles despite Powell’s strong desire to switch to dramas. The rift grew so broad that two years later, Powell left the studio for good to pursue an acting career.

As was the case with their Bs, the studio used this film to showcase new talent, albeit in minor roles, providing them with some experience. Reagan and Lane had only been with the studio for a little over a year, while Sheridan had been in movies since 1934, but most of her parts were unbilled (in fact she had only two brief scenes). The only one that had much to do was Lane in her role as the daughter. The manner in which she played the role would later determine her future with Warner Brothers as “the girl next door.”

Trivia: Dick Foran was actually Warner Brothers’ answer to the singing cowboy craze of the time and starred in series of Westerns, billed as “Dick Foran, the Singing Cowboy . . . Jeffrey Lynn has one line as a reporter . . . Warner Brothers remade the film as Two Guys From Texas, starring Dennis Morgan and Jack Carson. Carson is the one with the fear of animals.
Lane’s next foray into the Western genre came in 1942 with Silver Queen. How it came about is a story for a good movie trivia book. Producer Harry Sherman, famous for his Westerns (he produced the Hopalong Cassidy series) made a deal with Warner Brothers wherein he secured the services of three contractees who were not in the studio’s plans: Lane, Brent, and director Bacon. According to Robert Osbourne, Sherman had a deal in place with Paramount to handle distribution, but United Artists, short on product since the declaration of war, asked Paramount to sell them a few movies to distribute to their theater chain. Silver Queen was among those movies sold.

Silver Queen suffers from the casting of Lane as a card sharp, a role outside her range and one that would have been better in the hands of someone like Barbara Stanwyck, Ida Lupino, Linda Darnell, or even Lana Turner. Ellen Drew was originally set for the part, but Lane replaced her before filming began. Lane’s “girl-next-door” image worked against her, ultimately rendering her unconvincing. Thankfully, her screen time is relatively limited and she is working with Brent, who could make a mannequin look like Vivien Leigh. The rest of the cast is excellent: Cabot, Pallette, and Williams deliver entertaining performance and keep the picture moving.

The movie opens in 1873 against the background of looming financial woes for the United States. A newspaper quotes President Grant as stating the national debt is $3 billion. Cut to James Kincaid (Brent), a professional gambler operating a parlor in 1873 New York City. Assisted by his valet, Blackie (Williams), he makes a good living. He’s invited to a charity ball being held by the fabulously wealthy investment broker Stephen Adams (Pallette), and against Blackie’s advice to the contrary, decides to make an appearance. Once Kincaid arrives, his eyes become riveted to Adams’ daughter, Coralie (Lane), who has inherited her father’s interest in gambling and is indulging in her hobby of poker, cleaning out the other players for charity. It’s love at first sight for both, but there’s one obstacle. (Isn’t there always?) Coralie is engaged to the affluent Gerald Forsythe (Cabot), and before the evening ends, Stephen urges Gerald to tie the knot soon, as he wants to make sure Coralie’s future is assured, both financially and socially.

As we could surmise from the opening, the Panic of 1873 sets in and everyone is scrambling for cash to cover his margins in the stock market. The one thing that would keep the wolves from Stephen’s door is his deed to the “Gambler’s Luck” silver mine. Unfortunately, Stephen withdrew the deed the night before to play poker at Kincaid’s parlor, and has lost it. The shock of the crash and loss of the mine combine to bring on Stephen’s death from heart failure, and Coralie now discovers, in going through her father’s financial portfolio, that he was wealthy only on paper. She assures the creditors she will make good on her father’s debt, and Gerald traces the deed to Kincaid’s, where he offers a substantial sum for the supposedly worthless deed. Kincaid is suspicious of Gerald, but nevertheless does the cavalier thing and gives Gerald the deed to take to Coralie as a wedding gift and heads out with Blackie for greener pastures. Coralie also leaves New York, asking Gerald not to look for her until she sends for him.

Unfortunately for Coralie, she’s neglected to ask about the deed. Gerald has it and he’s keeping it. Cut to 1877 and we find Coralie and her maid, Ruby (Canty) in San Francisco, where she’s used her talents at poker to amass a tidy fortune and become a casino owner. She sends Gerald her final payment of $10,000 to cover her debts, but unknown to her, Gerald’s been funneling the payments into the Gambler’s Luck mine, hoping for that rich silver vein that will make all his problems disappear. Despite all the money he’s scammed from Coralie, he still needs $30,000 to keep in running. So he goes to his mother for the extra scratch, but Mother knows that Sonny Boy’s a cad and refuses to give him one thin dime. Gerald then orders the mine foreman, Carson (Barcroft) to cut expenses to the bone.

Meanwhile James and Blackie arrive in San Francisco looking for action, and James is startled to discover that the renowned dealer known as the “Silver Queen” is none other than Coralie. He also learns that Coralie and Gerald never married, and when they meet once again, it’s still love at first sight. We now enter the world of absurd plotting: Enter Coralie’s Uncle Hector (Overman). He’s was also wiped out by the crash and never recovered. When James learns that no one knows of the fate of the mine, James gives Hector money, Coralie’s address, and a note telling her he’s going to Nevada City to check everything out. But Hector falls victim to that old screenwriter’s solution for a sticky situation – a carriage runs him over in the fog, and all Coralie can get out of him before he dies is that James has gone to Nevada City.

Continuing the absurdity, enter Gerald, who tells Coralie that Hector lost all his money gambling and that he purchased the mine from Kincaid on her behalf. His solution to everything is that Coralie should marry him ASAP. Gerald’s obvious duplicity should be setting off red lights and klaxons in Coralie’s head; but, no, she accepts the proposal, her only caveat being that they should wed in the town of her birth and where her father discovered the mine: Nevada City. Upon their arrival, James and Blackie crash the party and are threatened by Carson and the sheriff, confirming James’s suspicion that Gerald is crooked. A fistfight ensues between James and Gerald. Gerald pulls a gun and shoots, but hits Coralie. Blackie grabs the sheriff’s badge, declares that he’s the new law in town and hauls off the three to the hoosegow. The doctor takes Coralie away, but can’t find anything wrong save for the fact she’ s unconscious, and we soon learn that Coralie collapsed only to prevent further shooting.  When she overhears the truth about Gerald, she suddenly comes to and pledges her lifelong love to James, giving us the requisite happy ending.

Yeah, the plot has more holes than a wheel of Swiss cheese, but film buffs have long learned that bad plotting can be overcome by good acting with interesting characters. Besides. It isn’t exactly Howard Hawks or John Ford in that director’s chair. It’s only Bacon and he’s trying to do his best with a limited budget. Fortunately for Bacon, the one person around whom the entire film revolves is the excellent Brent. Brent is a consummate professional who could develop chemistry with the Bride of Frankenstein. Here he has Lane and they work well together, allowing us to overlook the fact that Lane’s not exactly the Annie Duke type when it comes to card playing.

Cabot is solid playing a role he is noted for – the bad guy, and pulls off the required villainy without resorting to mugging or other obvious overacting. In fact, if anything, Cabot underplays the role, allowing Gerald to emerge as even worse. Williams was also fine playing a role his limited range calls for – the buddy, and his chemistry with Brent allows us to believe that these guys are really a team. The only fly in the soup, aside from Lane’s miscasting, is that one of our favorite supporting players, Pallette, has a small role that doesn’t really allow him to expand his talents. It’s almost like a cameo. Looking back, anyone could have played the role of Stephen Adams and it seems like a waste of a good actor. On the other hand, it’s always good to see Pallette in a film. Silver Queen is a good way to spend 80 minutes; you could do way worse.

Trivia: My uncle, who served in the Marine Corps during World War Two and saw considerable action in the Pacific, told me that producer Sherman’s Hopalong Cassidy movies were by far the most popular with the troops. They could watch them again and again without ever becoming bored. When I asked him why, he simply replied that there was something about Hopalong few others had. Only Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart rivaled Cassidy’s popularity among the men. Among women, Betty Grable and Lana Turner led the field.