Sunday, September 29, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for October 1-7

October 1–October 7

CARNIVAL OF SOULS (October 4, 8:00 pm): This bizarre independent B movie is one of cinema's wonderful surprises. When I started to watch it for the first time, I wasn't expecting much. It turns out it's a quirky movie about a church organist who survives a horrific car accident - or does she? It's 78 minutes long, unless you want the director's cut (yeah, a B movie with a director's cut that is 6 minutes longer than the original release). None of the actors in this 1962 film ever made it in Hollywood, but they are fine here. The movie has an eerie storyline with a few scary scenes and an excellent ending.

THRONE OF BLOOD (October 7, 12:45 am): This is Akira Kurosawa's take on Macbeth with samurais in feudal Japan. While it sounds like a stretch, this is an outstanding film. It's one of Kurosawa's best and that's quite an accomplishment. He is among my three favorite directors along with Ingmar Bergman and Francois Truffaut. Toshiro Mifune, cast by Kurosawa in 16 films, is the Macbeth character in this movie. Kurosawa perfectly blends violence, betrayal, greed, the supernatural with a fantastic story and excellent cinematography in one of his finest and compelling films. 


A MATTER OF LIFE AND DEATH (October 2, 6:30 am): Yet another example of a gem screened at an ungodly hour. However, for those who have not yet had the pleasure, recording this is essential. One in a series of films Michael Powell and Emeric Pressburger made while on a roll in the ‘40s, this otherworldly tale of a pilot who dies before his time and argues his case before a celestial court is pure magic from beginning to end. It made a star out of Kim Hunter and an even bigger star out of David Niven. Don’t miss it.

THE TESTAMENT OF DR. MABUSE (October 4, 11:15 pm): Fritz Lang’s last German masterpiece; shortly after he completed it he had to beat it fast out of Germany, even though Dr. Goebbels had offered him the position as director of all German film production, even though he was a Jew. However, even at this relatively early stage, Lang knew what Nazi promises were worth, and while he told Goebbels he’d think it over, he left that night for Paris, never to return. And with this film he had good reason to worry, for it doesn’t take much to connect the dots and figure out that the mad criminal Dr. Mabuse is in reality Der Fuehrer. After Lang left, Goebbels took one look at this picture and promptly banned it; it would not be screened in Germany until the ‘50s. It’s a wonderful movie with all the sublime Langian touches and one that screams out to be seen.

WE DISAGREE ON ... BEWARE, MY LOVELY (October 3, 3:00 pm)

ED: C- It’s two old pros versus a dreadful script, and as much as we’re rooting for Ida Lupino and Robert Ryan, the script finally wears both down to a scenery-chewing contest. Ida plays a woman running a boardinghouse who takes in Ryan, a man who may be homicidal. Sounds good, if – IF – it’s in the right hands. Unfortunately, the director of this artificial melodrama is Harry Horner, a production designer directing only his second film, and whose debut film, Red Planet Mars, was totally dreadful. Adding more fuel to the fire was the director’s frequent absences to visit his wife in the hospital. Both the characters of Lupino and Ryan are badly drawn: Ryan is so screwed up and seemingly loaded with every psychosis the writers could think up that we can’t buy into a minute of it. Is he or is he not homicidal? And Lupino’s character seems to be suffering more from a case of the lack of common sense than anything else. She can’t even get out of her own home even when she temporarily escapes from Ryan. And, for a noir, there’s no real tension here. Want to see a movie with real tension? Try Sorry, Wrong Number and skip this pallid wanna-be.

DAVID: B. Does this film go over the top as far as logic? Yes and no. Yeah, Robert Ryan's character is a dangerous psychopath who has a bad habit of killing people, blacking out and forgetting the evil deeds he does. And Ida Lupino's character seems to be the last person in the world who realizes Ryan's rugged handyman has her at the top of his list of who he next wants to kill. But it also is a compelling and tense-filled drama with outstanding performances by the two leads. Both are seasoned film veterans who are able to take an average script and convince the audience that their characters are legitimate. Ryan and Lupino rarely receive the credit they rightfully deserve for their acting talents. While this 1952 thriller isn't going to take your breath away, it's a good 77-minute distraction that sucks the viewer in as we squirm in our seats hoping Lupino finds a way to get away from Ryan's character who we fear, but also pity to a certain extent because his mental illness makes it impossible for him to control what he does. 

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

Friday, September 27, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual

Of Lost Three Stooges, Kitty O’Day, Gangsters, Zombies, and Nazi Mad Scientists

By Ed Garea

Hello Pop!, a two-strip Technicolor short starring the Three Stooges long believed lost, will be shown at New York City’s Film Forum, with showtimes on Sunday at 3:00 pm, and Monday at 3:00 and 6:00 pm.

Following a devastating 1967 vault fire at MGM in which its negative and all existing prints were destroyed, Hello Pop! was long believed to be the sole lost Three Stooges short. However, in December 2012, a film collector in Australia contacted The Vitaphone Project, a group devoted to restoring early sound vaudeville and music shorts. It seems he had rescued a print of the 1933 short years ago from a landfill. The collector, in his mid-eighties, had owned the print for years and wanted to ensure that it went to the right people for restoration.

Though it’s usually from countries that were once behind the Iron Curtain that most films thought lost are re-discovered, many films as of late have been popping up in Australia and New Zealand. The reason for this is that once prints were shipped to theatres from Hollywood, it was too costly or troublesome to ship them back. So they were simply kept by the theaters or distribution offices.

In the early ‘60s competition from television caused many theaters to close. This, in turn affected most of the Hollywood film exchanges in Australia and New Zealand, and they, too, began to close or downsize. As demand at the time for silent films and early talkies was negligible, it was cheaper simply to pay to have them hauled to the landfill. Collectors, having gotten word of what was taking place, paid the haulers to divert their loads to their homes instead; in effect saving some of the titles lost to posterity in that MGM fire. Other films that have turned up include a reel from the 1929 two-strip Technicolor musical, Gold Diggers of Broadway, and part of the 1928 Technicolor feature, The Patriot. The most famous of the films destroyed by the 1967 fire, Tod Browning’s London After Midnight, with Lon Chaney, so far hasn’t yet appeared, but hope remains eternal.

Also on the weekend’s program is a new 35 mm print of a rarely seen Robert Benchley short, Your Technocracy and You, which parodies faddish economic theories of the time; Gobs of Fun, a 1933 Vitaphone short with an early, uncredited appearance of Shemp Howard; and two restored Vitaphone shorts from 1928: Sharps and Flats, starring the husband and wife team of Jimmy Conlin (later a regular in Preston Sturges’s stock company) and Myrtle Glass, and The Beau Brummels, starring the vaudeville comedy team of Al Shaw and Sam Lee.

The Film Forum is located at 209 West Houston St. (between 6th Ave. and Varick St.) in New York City. For further information, telephone the box office at 1-212-727-8110 for showtimes and prices, or visit their website at 

It’s on to the selected films of the week. Both are on Saturday, and while one is a so-so sequel, the other is one of the great psychotronic classics.

Creature With The Atom Brain (Columbia, 1955) – Director:  Edward L. Cahn. Writer: Curt Siodmak (story & s/p). Cast: Richard Denning, Gregory Gaye, Angela Stevens, S. John Laurer, Michael Granger, & Tristam Coffin. B&W, 69 minutes. Airing at 9:30 am.

Now we’re talking! Leave to schlockmeister Sam Katzman to give us the first atomic zombie movie. Made by Katzman’s Clover Productions and released (escaped?) by Columbia, this film has everything for the psychotronic fan: gangsters, mad scientists, Nazis, and (of course) zombies. Mob boss Hennessy is murdered after a man breaks into his home, strangles him, and escapes despite taking several shots to the torso from Hennessy’s henchmen. Enter police scientist Dr. Chet Walker (Denning) and his partner, Capt. Dave Harris (Launer). It seems the killer left fingerprints behind, but they not only belong to a recently deceased man, they are also radioactive. In addition, eight other bodies have been stolen from the city morgue. Hmmm.

As the film moves at a wonderfully fast clip, with no time for unnecessary scenes, shots, or explanations, we discover who’s behind the killings. Exiled mobster Frank Buchanan (Granger), while in Europe, made the acquaintance of ex-Nazi mad scientist Dr. Wilhelm Steigg (Gaye). Gaye has this plan for the reanimation of the dead through the use of atomic energy, which not only brings them back to life, but also gives them superhuman strength. Buchanan gives him the necessary funding; after all, this is an excellent way for revenge on the former business partners that framed him, and together they sneak into America. The zombies are directed by remote control and have a video camera planted within so Buchanan (and us) can see what’s going on.

Once DA MacGraw (Coffin) is murdered, things fall into place. But along the way, Capt. Harris is captured by the baddies and turned into a zombie. His visit to the Walker home, post-mortem, is the most hilarious in the picture. Speaking now mechanically, he asks Mrs. Walker as to the whereabouts of her husband. She asks why he’s so formal. Never mind the huge scar and stitches in the middle of his forehead. Walker’s daughter, Penny, bring in her favorite doll to show “Uncle Dave,” who promptly dismembers it as Penny cries. As Dave leaves, he runs into Chet who drives with him and who also doesn’t notice anything wrong. He’s the guy’s partner and doesn’t even notice the big ass scar and stitches on Dave’s forehead?

The climax comes when Chet, finally realizing his partner is a zombie, trails him back to the lab, where he must replenish his energy. The cops surround the place. The zombies come out to attack and the fight is on. No matter how much lead is pumped into them, they still keep coming. The battle only ends when Chet destroys the atomic equipment, causing the zombies to revert to their former corpse selves. What a film.

Wait For It: The scene where the TV newscaster address his audience as follows: “...with the murder of Jason Franchot last night I must apologize for my recent skepticism regarding these radioactive creatures. It seems they do exist and are prowling the street."

Trivia: Wrestler “Killer” Karl Davis plays the first zombie. Method acting.

Adventures of Kitty O’Day (Monogram, 1945) – Director: William Beaudine. Writers: Tim Ryan (s/p), William Hammond (s/p & orig. story). Cast: Jean Parker, Peter Cookson, Tim Ryan, Lorna Gray, Jan Wiley, Ralph Sanford, Bryan Foulger, & Shelton Brooks. B&W, 63 minutes. Airing at 10:45 am.

Leave it to Monogram to make a sequel with scant resemblance to the original. Kitty O’Day (Parker) is now a nosy switchboard operator at a hotel; boyfriend Johnny Jones (Cookson) is a travel agent; and Sgt. Clancy (Ryan) is now chief of detectives. Anyway. Kitty hears shots; she, Johnny, and night porter Jeff (Brooks) investigate and find a body. Enter the police, but the body keeps disappearing and re-appearing. Kitty and Johnny are arrested for murder when the corpse’s wallet is found in Kitty’s room, but later released when evidence points to their innocence. Eventually, Kitty and Johnny solve the murder, which is about a jewel robbery gone bad. Murder solved, Kitty and Johnny return to their old jobs. Fade out. Watch it anyway, it’s from Monogram and it’s on TCM.

Thursday, September 26, 2013

I Love To Singa

Animation Nation

Tex Avery Loves to Singa

By Ed Garea and Steve Herte

I Love to Singa (WB, 1936) – Director: Tex Avery. Animators: Chuck Jones, Virgil Ross, & Bob Clampett. Voices: Billy Bletcher, Tommy Bond, Joe Dougherty, & Martha Wentworth. Color, 8 minutes.

Slowly, but surely, Leon Schlesinger began to recover from his personal debacle of 1933, when Rudolf Ising and Hugh Harman’s dispute over budgets led to the animators leaving Schlesinger for the cozier climes of MGM. What particularly stung was the fact that Harman and Ising took their animated creation, Bosko, with them, as they owned the rights, leaving Schlesinger without a main attraction.

Schlesinger attempted to fill the void with the creation of another cartoon star, Buddy, created by animator Tom Palmer. But Schlesinger hated Buddy from the start; so unhappy was he with the first cartoons he screened, that he sacked Palmer and brought back Friz Freling (who had left with Harman and Ising) to fix the cartoons into something that could be released to Warners.

Buddy was perhaps the most unappreciated cartoon star of all time, starring in only 23 shorts before Schlesinger and his crew dumped him in search of new characters. As with his predecessor Bosko, music dominated the cartoons and plots were treated almost as an afterthought. But over the life of the series the plots began to become more complex and Buddy gained a girlfriend (Cookie) and a dog to tag along on his adventures. In 1935 the character was retired in favor of Beans the Cat, who didn’t last long with the animators, either. (See Trivia) It wasn’t until Porky Pig came along that Schlesinger finally had a main attraction for his cartoons.

Meanwhile, in the wake of the void left by the departure of Harman and Ising (who took their animators with them), Schlesinger began hiring new talent. Fred “Tex” Avery came over from the Walter Lantz studio and fast-talked Schlesinger into letting him head his own production unit. Schlesinger agreed and assigned animators Chuck Jones, Robert Clampett, and Virgil Ross to the new unit. (They dubbed the building in which they worked as “Termite Terrace” due to the large population of the insects there.) It turned out to be the best hire Schlesinger made, as Avery and his co-horts began to create a new style of cartoon.

The new unit’s first cartoon, Gold Diggers of ’49 (alluding both to the famous California Gold Rush and to the popular series of Warner musicals from Busby Berkeley), set the mark for the direction Avery and his unit would take. Though its star was Beans the Cat, it was Porky Pig who stole the cartoon and became a star in his own right.

Avery and his unit were initially assigned to make Looney Tunes, which were strictly black and white. To make an entry in the Merrie Melodies series, which were in color, meant that the cartoon had to be shaped around a song, taken from the vast Warner Brothers library. This Avery did, and in doing so, he created what later critics see as an early masterpiece, and one that has gained a cult following over the years.

I Love to Singa is a fond parody of The Jazz Singer. It opens with an iris shot featuring a house in a tree. A sign hanging near the door, reads “Prof. Fritz Owl, Teacher of Voice, Piano, and Violin, BUT – No Jazz!” Inside Papa Fritz is pacing back and forth as Mama Owl is sitting on four eggs. Finally she nods with a smile – the eggs are about to hatch. The Professor (voiced by Bletcher) taps each with his conductor’s wand and gets a harmonious sound from each until he taps the last egg; it rings with a metallic clang. The first hatchling comes forth singing the opening of "Chi mi frena in tal momento" from the opera Lucia di Lammermoor. “Ah, what a fine voice,” Papa Fritz exclaims, “A Caruso.” The next hatchling enters the world playing the beginning of “Traumerei” by Robert Schumann on the violin. “What sweet music, a Fritz Kreisler,” says Papa Fritz. The third comes out playing Felix Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song” on the flute, and Papa Fritz calls him “another Mendelssohn.” The last youngster (voiced by Bond) upon hatching (and dressed in a red coat with a blue bow tie) looks at his father and says “Hello Strenza!” (See Trivia) He then launches into the title song. “Ach! A Jazz Singer! A Crooner! Stop! Stop! Stop!” exclaims Papa Fritz as Mother faints. Papa fans her and tells her not to worry, “Listen Mama, if we must sing, we will teach him to sing like we want him to.”

However, all is not going to plan. Forced to sing “Drink to Me Only With Thine Eyes,” while his mother accompanies him on the pump organ, the youngster does a little rendition of “I Love to Singa” between verses. He’s caught doing this by Papa Fritz, who picks him up and boots him out of house, yelling, “Enough is too much! Out of my house, you hotcha, you crooner, you falsetto, you jazz singer! You, you, you!” The youngster takes it all in stride, pointing back and telling us “That’s mein pop.” He then goes on his way, whistling the title tune. Meanwhile, Mama Owl (voiced by Wentworth) is telling Papa Fritz that he was too hard on the boy. She calls the police, describing him as “a little fellow with big eyes and a red coat.”

As the youngster is walking he notices music coming from a tree. It’s radio station GONG, which is broadcasting “Jack Bunny’s Amateur Hour.” Numerous contestants are gonged and dropped down a trap door. One stutters his way through the rhyme “Simple Simon” before saying “Oh well, shucks,” and gongs himself down the trap door. (He was voiced Joe Dougherty, the original voice of Porky Pig.) Cut to Mama Owl as she listens to the police report on the radio. She wonders if the police have found her son, to which the radio answers back “No we didn’t lady,” as both Mama and Papa Owl look at each other in astonishment. This was the first use of a trick Avery was to repeat and be noted for in later cartoons: breaking the bounds of reality to enhance the laughter.

Finally out young hero gets to show what he can do. When Jack Bunny asks who he is, he’s handed a card that simply reads “Owl Jolson.” He then breaks into his song, which is winning Jack Bunny over to the extent that he’s getting out the “First Place” trophy. Mama hears him singing on the radio and bring Papa and the children to see him. They are looking through the window of the studio when young Owl notices them and freezes. He then lapses back into his rendition of “Drink to Me Only,” and Jack Bunny is about to gong him. Papa and the family enter and Papa shouts, “Stop! Stop! Stop! Enough is too much!” He turns to his son, “Go on and singa about your moon-a and your June-a and the spring-a.” Young Owl returns to his music and the cartoon ends with Jack Bunny handing him the First Place trophy. The film irises out to black, but the trophy remains outside. Young Owl opens the iris and grabs his prize before the cartoon officially ends.

This combination of a strong plot with tricks such as the radio gag, was to launch a new style in cartoons, as Schlesinger’s unit slowly moved away from a simple animated backing for a song to entities in their own right, establishing strong, and eventually lasting, characters, and shifting the music to the background. We see the beginnings of this new philosophy of cartoons here, for although the cartoon is supposedly built around the song, in actuality, the song itself becomes secondary to the story of young Owl Jolson and is used to explain his persona. Leon Schlesinger and Warner Brothers came a long way since the debut of Bosko in 1931’s Sinking in the Bathtub.

Trivia: The short is one of the earliest Merrie Melodies produced in Technicolor’s three-strip process.

The song, “I Love to Singa,” was written by Harold Arlen and E. Y. Harburg and featured in the 1935 Warner Brothers musical The Singing Kid, where it was performed three times: first by Al Jolson and Cab Calloway, then by the Yacht Club Boys and Jolson, and finally by Calloway and Jolson.

Bert Lahr supplied the original voice of Papa Fritz, but Billy Bletcher replaced him in the final version. There are rumors that while Tommy Bond did the voice of Owl Jolson, Johnnie “Scat” Davis did the singing. That isn’t true.

“Hello Strenza!” is a Yiddishism for “Hello, Stranger,” and was the catchphrase of a character from Jack Benny’s radio program named “Schlepperman.” (To “schlep” in Yiddish means “to drag along.”) It was a popularly quoted catchphrase of the day.

Buddy made a weird comeback of sorts in a 1994 episode of Animaniacs titled “The Warners’ 65th Anniversary Special.” In this episode it was revealed (according to the series’ fictional history) that Yakko, Wakko and Dot were created to add life to Buddy’s very dull cartoons. During the cartoons they would smash Buddy over the head with a mallet. After Buddy was dropped by the studio and replaced by the Warners, he retired to Ojai, where he earned a living as a nut farmer, all the while plotting revenge against the Warners. This came to a head on the Anniversary Special where he tried to exact his revenge but was foiled in the attempt.

The cartoon is also referenced in the very first episode of South Park (August 13, 1997) titled “Cartman Gets an Anal Probe.” During the course of the episode, whenever an alien beam hits Cartman or Officer Barbrady, they break into “I Love to Singa,” as warbled by Tommy Bond.

For those interested, the cartoon is available in a beautiful digital Technicolor transfer as an extra in the three-disc Deluxe Edition of The Jazz Singer. It is also included in the Looney Tunes: Volume 2 DVD, and Looney Tunes: The Platinum Collection, Vol. 1 (also available in Blu-ray). 

Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Haute Cuisine

Dinner and a Movie

Haute Cuisine From France to Greece

By Steve Herte

Not to sound like Andy Rooney, but have you ever wondered why the day before you embark on a week of vacation is always the hardest day of your life? Friday, my laptop gave me the blue screen of death and was out of action all morning, forcing me to input the time sheets on another employee’s desktop computer, all the while running back and forth to answer my phone. Adding a little complication, my occasional dinner companion (whom I am now tutoring in French - it should be interesting to get her out of her Spanish accent) sent her time sheet from a Windows 7 enabled laptop to my Windows XP laptop and I couldn’t open the file. Luckily I was able to call her. We were dining that night anyway.

Then, also luckily, I ran into the computer services division expert and she got my laptop working again, but not until after a half-hour listening session (did I mention I’m the father-confessor to several employees?). While I, of course, agreed with her, I also had other fish to fry, and managed to finish all my work and all preparations made for a week out of the office just in time to leave; only to discover there was a problem on the subway line I needed to get to the movie theater.

As you can see below, I did make it and it was a wonderful evening from then on. This week promises to be interesting with work in the garden and around the house and pub-crawling and karaoke four nights in a row - my kind of vacation. Tuesday, Wednesday and Friday are Irish Pubs and Thursday is a Thai restaurant and Japanese karaoke (is there any other kind?). This morning I learned that my next film (spoiler alert!) opens this week, Cloudy With A Chance Of Meatballs 2. I’m loving it! Enjoy! 

Haute Cuisine (The Weinstein Company, 2013) – Director: Christian Vincent. Writers: Etienne Comar & Christian Vincent (s/p), Daniele Mazet-Delpeuch (story). Cast: Catherine Frot, Arthur Dupont, Jean d’Ormesson, Hippolyte Giradot, Arly Jover, Jean-Marc Roulot, Brice Fournier, & Philippe Uchan. Color, 95 minutes.

In an age where you need huge explosions, super heroes, gross vulgarity or nearly naked people slobbering over each other in bed it’s refreshing to see a well-acted movie requiring none of the above to tell its story. Mazet-Delpeuch served as chef in the private kitchen of the Elysèe Palace for President François Mitterrand from 1988 to 1990, and this film is a fictionalization of her career and how she ended up as Mitterand’s personal chef.

The movie opens over stormy Southern seas and settles on the barren, scrub-covered Crozet Islands halfway between Madagascar and Antarctica. Here, at a research station, the only populated part, we find Hortense Laborie (Frot) busily preparing dinner for dozens of hungry men while Mary (Jover), a reporter from Australia, is desperately trying to interview her about her previous career. Hortense successfully dodges Mary time and again and the scene shifts to the Perigord region (the place for black truffles) of France, where Hortense was born and lives on her farm raising geese. One day, a couple of government men come to whisk her away, telling her only that a “major public official” requires her services as chef. She is also told that noted chef, Joël Robuchon recommended her for the position. When she learns that she will be heading the private kitchen for Le President (d’Ormesson) she hesitates humbly but is convinced to accept the post.

Nicolas Bauvois (Dupont) is assigned to be her sous-chef after her whirlwind tour of the male dominated Main Kitchen where she is greeted by glowers and leers, especially from Head Chef Pascal Lepiq (Fournier). After learning that she will never know how many people will be having dinner until a couple of days before; that the menu must be prepared ahead and approved; and that she will receive nothing but resistance from Lepiq, she manages to take stock of the kitchen stores and prepares a fabulous meal for the president and his guests, including an amazing Chou Farci (stuffed cabbage) stuffed with salmon. But what she wants most is to know what the president prefers her to serve. In one of the most beautiful scenes she sits down with him while his entourage nervously await him for a flight to some important state visitation. She learns that he wants the sort of good, simple food his grandmother used to make. When he hears that she also loves to read cookbooks just as he does, the 10-minute audience goes well over a half-hour – much to the chagrin of his various nervous ministers.

This spurs her on to another major success at a “family” dinner for the president where he regales her in the company of his guests. However Lepiq lobbies to have her “dessert” removed from the menu, replacing it with his own. No matter how much she protests that her “dessert” is a cheese course (and a home-made one at that, that Nicolas slaved to perfect) she is overruled. After this, things begin to go downhill. The treasurer insists that her expenses are too high – such as train fare to Cherbourg for special mushrooms called “Ceps” (Porcino in Italian). Then to add insult to injury the ministry places the president on a diet, forbidding fatty meats and sauces. There is another beautiful scene later that evening when the president comes down to the kitchen and she prepares him a snack consisting of a thick slice of bread coated liberally with black truffle sauce and covered with generous slices of black truffles. (I was wishing I could jump into that scene).

Sadly, the constraints and pressures levied on her force to resign and head back to the Crozet Islands, where she is not only more appreciated but almost worshipped. Meanwhile, the boorish lechers in the Main Kitchen rejoice at their success in ousting her.

Haute Cuisine (original title Les Saveurs du Palais – “Tastes of the Palace”) is never boring, even though the amazing recipes supplied by Mazet-Delpeuch herself constitute much of the scenery.

The focus of the plot, however, is the trials and tribulations of a woman dealing with a chauvinistically pig-headed crowd of men while performing her duties superbly and with dignity. My sincere applause goes to Frot and d’Ormesson for their fantastic characterizations and flawless acting. This movie was a delicious work of art and deserves to be playing in more than just two theaters in Manhattan. The subtitles are quite an accurate translation of the surprisingly clear French spoken on-screen. The music beautifully wraps the story in velvet folds. And . . . what Bruce Willis movie comes with a reference to her cookbook, Carnets de cuisine du Perigord a l’Elysee, at the end? Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

29 East Second Street (2nd Avenue), New York

At the corner of 2nd and 2nd just north of Houston Street, it’s impossible to miss the big, bright white lit letters on a dark blue background of Boukiés Greek restaurant (μπουκιες in Greek and pronounced Boo-Kay-ess in English, which translates to “small bites”). This year-and-a-half-old eatery specializes in the small dishes (Meze) of Aegean cooking. The entrance is on the Second Street side and the décor is simple, featuring the blues and whites of the Greek flag. The dining area has comfortable beige banquettes and chairs and is separated from the kitchen in back by a wall-sized wine rack. The two sides facing the street are floor to ceiling windows and the avenue side can be opened to the sidewalk café.

The manager greeted me at the door and led me to a table by the window from where I could watch the people both outside and inside – perfect. My waiter, Arthur soon appeared and brought my water and both the food menu and wine/beer menu. I noticed they had my favorite beer (Weihenstefan, a delicious wheat beer from the oldest brewery in Germany) and I ordered it to give me time to choose my meal. Arthur was very helpful in explaining mezes, suggesting three plus a main course. Fine by me. I learned that the consulting chef, Diane Kochilas, author of The Glorious Foods of Greece, described these dishes as “not to sate but to tease.” After an appropriate time I chose two of his selections and two of my own. Meanwhile, the bread dish arrived, accompanied by a beautiful chickpea/garlic/olive oil spread.

I started with a lovely Taramasalata – made with smoked trout and topped with capers – a lovely, smooth combination of bread crumbs, caviar, onion, olive oil and lemon juice mixed with the pureed trout and formed into a disk on the plate. I spooned it onto pita bread and found it delightful. My second meze arrived shortly after the first, but it did present a problem, for the first dish was cold and the second hot. I simply switched to the hot one, Psito Ktapodaki, a Boukiés specialty of marinated, grilled octopus served with a lemon-caper dressing. Here my apologies go to those who find octopus repulsive; but being that it was on the menu in three different preparations and on the business card itself, I felt they knew what they were doing. They did indeed. It was tender, juicy and flavorful with a nice smoky crispness. I just find it fun to eat octopus.

It was time to order the wine and the list was quite impressive considering they were almost all Greek wines. I chose 2005 Mercouri Antares (Avgoustiatis/Mourvedre), a medium-bodied red varietal with a slight tart edge to the deep fruity flavor that even complimented the lemon flavors in the food. These small plates were starting to fill me up when the third one arrived. The Thrimatismeno Arni se Pita – lamb, slow braised with red wine until it collapses (“is pulled”), then stuffed into pita bread and served with a thick yoghurt-Dill sauce – was amazing. The sauce by itself was wonderful. The two together were earthy and erotic. I had to be careful. The main course was still to come. I paced myself.

All through this the wine was humming, the music playing and the traffic on Second Avenue made me supremely happy I don’t drive. Then came the Peskandritsa a la Polita – Monkfish tails sautéed with white wine, saffron and herbs served with braised fennel, peas, carrot logs, fingerling potato halves in a potato/Dill broth. The dish arrived stacked like a Jenga game and there was no way to eat it without deconstructing it. But when rearranged in the bowl it was only a matter of time before the soft, juicy fish (poor-man’s lobster, but better by far), the crispy but tender carrots and the peas were gone. Only the potatoes were left, and I wanted dessert.

Even though Arthur directed me to some chocolate confection, I saw my favorite Greek dessert, Galaktoboureko (literally “milk custard”) and order it. In 250 previous Greek restaurants I have never seen this dish prepared this way. It looked like an amalgam of a Cannoli and a Spring Roll and not the familiar delicate layers of philo dough and custard with a honey drizzling. I had to comment on it. It was good, but not Galaktoboureko. I asked Arthur if they served Greek coffee and tried not to go into horror when he said no. I settled for a double espresso (which was quite good) and a glass of Samos wine (on-the-house).

Boukiés is a wonderful addition to the East Village and deserves several return visits to try their whole fish specialties, the Saganaki (one of my favorites) and the many other mezes. The immediate area of Manhattan has several interesting restaurants but I chose this one for comfort food and comfortable sitting. The moderate to low prices also add a significant lure.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, September 23, 2013

The Family

Mel’s Cine Files: All in the Family

By Melissa Agar

The Family (Relativity Media, 2013) – Director: Luc Besson. Screenplay: Luc Besson and Michael Caleo. Based on the book by Tonino Benacquista. Cast: Robert De Niro, Michelle Pfeiffer, Dianna Agron, John D’Leo, Tommy Lee Jones, Vincent Pastore, & Oisin Stack. Color, 110 minutes.

When I was in high school, one of my absolute favorite movies was Jonathan Demme’s Married to the Mob. Part of it likely stemmed from my obsession with its soundtrack which had a permanent spot in the tape deck, but a lot of it was rooted in the way that it took a popular film form, the mob movie, and poked holes in it with tremendous humor. At the center of the film was Pfeiffer, poised at the moment of her career’s absolute explosion, who played a spunky mob wife determined to break from the Mafia life and forge an independent identity for her and her young son. I found myself thinking of that movie quite a lot during Pfeiffer’s return to the mob life in The Family. Besson’s mob comedy doesn’t quite reach the heights of Married to the Mob but it offers a funny and charming take on the violent world of the Mafia life.

The Family stars DeNiro as Giovanni Manzoni, a third generation made man who has turned state’s evidence and ratted out his friends. Now, he and his family – wife Maggie (Pfeiffer), daughter Belle (Agron), and son Warren (D’Leo) – are the Blakes of Normandy, France. For six years, Gio (now known as Fred) and the family have been shuttled from home to home, always one-step ahead of the hit men who want to kill them. Under the supervision of FBI agent Robert Stansfield (Jones), they have been placed in Normandy to once again build a life. 

Gio/Fred decides to start writing his memoirs while the family struggles to keep their own wiseguy tendencies at bay. Maggie blows up a grocery store after hearing the clerk complain about Americans. Belle beats up a group of teenaged Lotharios who get a little too fresh. Warren scopes out the activities of his classmates and exploits them to get revenge on the bullies who violently welcome him to his new school. None of them are happy. Gio/Fred yearns for his life running the streets of his New York neighborhood and finds his own violent tendencies hard to control. The one thing the family has is each other; a fact that makes them all the more vulnerable to the hit men hunting them down. The Family, at its core, is a pretty heartwarming family film. For all of their faults, there is no denying that the Blakes love each other. Because of the constant threat of violence under which they live, they cling to one another and their loyalty is inspiring. 

Despite that pretty fuzzy core, the film is also aware that it is a mob comedy and embraces the violence that other mob comedies often shy away from. The film opens with the murder of a family remarkably similar to the Blakes and culminates in a feeding frenzy of violence that leaves many innocent bystanders dead. The heartlessness with which these people are dispatched is a bit disconcerting and left a bit of a bad taste in my mouth although I realized that was part of the point – to highlight the fact that innocent people get caught in the crossfire all the time. The brutality of the climactic battle also serves to highlight something Gio/Fred discusses in his memoir – that he was set apart from his colleagues by his often compassionate treatment of potential victims. As an audience member, you know that Gio would never indiscriminately gun down innocent bystanders. 

Watching DeNiro once again send up his persona (a fact given a perfect meta wink during Gio’s visit to a neighborhood film society screening) has its charms although I do yearn for him to tackle a good old drama again to remind us all what a powerhouse actor he can be. The film also serves as a reminder of what tremendous chemistry he has with his fellow actors. His scenes with both Pfeiffer and Jones crackle with humor and charm while his work with Agron and D’Leo help define the heart at the core of the film.  As easy as it can be to forget after a decade of Focker films and other choices that seem more about a paycheck than actually pursuing the art of acting, there’s no denying what a tremendous actor DeNiro is.

The same is true of Pfeiffer. In the late 80’s and early 90’s, Michelle Pfeiffer was one of the biggest movie stars there was. She was one of those rare actors who could be sexy and intelligent at the same time. She seemed to disappear for a while, but seeing her here again is just a reminder of why she was one of my favorite actors when I was in high school and college. She has a face that is filled with expression. Factor in the delicate tightrope she walks between strength and vulnerability, and she is a powerhouse in need of re-discovery. 

While this film largely belongs to DeNiro and Pfeiffer, Agron and D’Leo get substantial storylines of their own. Agron’s Belle feels trapped by her family’s circumstances and longs for escape. When she falls for a handsome college student (Stack), her escape seems like a possibility. Warren, meanwhile, is a chip off the old block although more likely to run the cons than be the actual muscle. D’Leo, in particular, has a charming onscreen presence, filled with intelligence and charisma. If there’s any justice, this young man is going to be a star. Agron is the more recognizable of the two kids thanks to her time on Glee, and it is nice to see her show a little more spark and ferocity here than during her time with New Directions. 

Strong performances help this film mask its plot flaws. There are some questions left lingering after you walk out of the theater, mostly rooted in why Gio betrayed his colleagues when his love for “the life” is still so readily apparent. The conceit of having Gio write his memoirs hints at a clever way to provide some of this exposition, but it never really comes. Stansfield and Gio discuss whether he’ll address “everything” in his memoir, but whatever “everything” they might want to keep hidden never is revealed. While it never really hinders the stakes of the film (we care too much about the Blakes to want anything bad to happen to them), it does leave us feeling a bit distant from our protagonist.

Ultimately, The Family is a charming but violent film kept afloat by strong actors. It doesn’t necessarily reinvent the genre, but it provides a pleasant early fall diversion as we wait for the glut of holiday blockbusters and Oscar contenders.  

Grade: B

Sunday, September 22, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for September 23-30

September 23–September 30

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (September 23, 11:15 pm): This Pre-Code classic is one of the greatest gangster movie ever made. It tells of two friends, Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods), who grow up committing petty crimes, finally making it big thanks to bootlegging during Prohibition. It's a Warner Brothers gangster film from 1931 so obviously it's gritty and real. But thanks to a brilliant performance by Cagney and an incredible directing job by William A. Wellman, this goes far beyond any other gangster film of its time and even to this day. Gangster films have become more violent and bloody, but The Public Enemy is so authentic and brutal, you can't turn away from it for a second. It includes two of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history: Tom shoving a grapefruit in the face of Mae Clarke and the end when a rival gang shoots him up, wraps his body almost like a mummy and delivers it to his family's house.

ZERO FOR CONDUCT (September 24, 8:00 pm): This 1933 French film, directed by Jean Vigo, packs a lot into 41 minutes. I wish it was longer as it is an enjoyable and spirited movie. Four French boarding school boys, repressed by a rigid education system, rebel and end up taking over the school. It's authentic as it shows how educational systems, no matter the country or the time, try to beat students into following rules, no matter their relevance. It is the strong-minded that survive the system or in this case, the students fight back. It's funny, touching, tragic and absolutely brilliant. Vigo, an anarchist who died a year after this film at the age of 29, had such promise as a director. Below, one of Ed's Best Bets is L'Atalante, Vigo's last film and a classic. An end note on Zero For Conduct: it was banned in France shortly after its release with the ban not lifted until 1946, a year after the conclusion of World War II.


TIGHT SPOT (September 24, 8:30 am): A great, underrated crime drama starring Ginger Rogers as a gangster’s moll temporarily released into the custody of U.S. Marshal Edward G. Robinson, who wants her testimony in the upcoming trial of her gangster boyfriend, Lorne Greene (?!) Brian Keith almost steals the picture as a cynical detective assigned to guard Rogers, and with whom she develops an attachment. Adapted from a play titled Dead Pigeon by Leonard Cantor, it takes place in a plush hotel suite, where Robinson works on Rogers to break down her resistance. There is a staginess about it for that reason, and in the hands of a lesser talent, it just would have lain there, daring its stars to come and make something of it. But as directed by Phil Karlson, the staginess is taken and made into a virtue – as a claustrophobic setting creating intensity that ratchets up the suspense. For all this, however, Tight Spot is a B picture. So what?

L’ATALANTE (September 24, 9:00 pm): Think about the great romances captured on film and add this one when you finish watching it. It’s a marvelous fantasy – a mixture of surrealism and naturalism about a young couple beginning married life together sailing down the Seine on a barge. The bride hasn’t known her groom long; in fact, we get the feeling she married him to escape her provincial life. Sailing to LeHavre, things unravel when they dock at Paris and Juliette, the bride, gets a taste of Paris nightlife. Michel Simon gives one of his greatest performances as the engineer. Watch for the scene where he invites Juliette into his cabin to see his collection of mementos. It’s the heart of the film and scene that can’t help but move the viewer. Vigo died at the age of 29 from tuberculosis just as the film premiered, leaving us wondering what he might have done.

WE DISAGREE ON ... THE OMEGA MAN (September 27, 11:30 pm)

ED: B. I love the writings of Richard Matheson, and his works are some of the very few sci-fi writings I’ve read over the years, as I’m not exactly a big fan of sci-fi. For the very few of those out there reading this who aren’t aware, The Omega Man was the second attempt at filming Matheson’s wonderful novel, I Am Legend. Having read the novel I was never happy with any of the film adaptations, but I rate the original Italo-American production, The Last Man on Earth, with Vincent Price as the best, as it stuck mainly to Matheson’s original. This film was produced by Charlton Heston and has its strengths and failings. One of its greatest strengths was casting Rosalind Cash in the female lead role. She delivered the best performance of the film in her breakout role. I wasn’t all that keen with the writers changing matters of plot that I admired from the book and which were left unchanged in the Price original, but I could live with it given the trend of the times in sci-fi movies: that of dystopia. No, the biggest failing of the film was in Heston the producer casting Heston the actor in the leading role. Heston the actor believes that what he must bring to the film is the uncanny ability to chew scenery. Hells Bells, he could’ve hired William Shatner and gotten the same result – and Shatner’s more charismatic to boot. No, the film would have worked much better without Chuckie Baby in the lead and that’s why I didn’t give it an “A.”

DAVID: A. For the record, I'm a sucker for late 1960s-early 1970s post-apocalyptic/dystopian films. If they star Charlton Heston, such as Soylent Green or Planet of the Apes, I'm an even bigger sucker. I love the cool intensity he brings to his characters in these films. Some say he's one of cinema's biggest overactors and I've been teased about being a Heston fan by Ed and our late mutual friend, Bill Kunkel. The two are the most knowledgeable cinefiles I've known, and this film has been a topic of discussion. But despite their sentiment, I remain convinced this is a great film and Heston is outstanding in it. In The Omega Man, he is one of society's last remaining human survivors after biological warfare (between the Chinese and Russians) in 1975 wipes out most people and leaves a bunch of crazed albino mutants. A group of them are called The Family, who want to get rid of technology and science; Heston’s character, Robert Neville is a former military scientist. Because they want to eliminate technology and science, which caused the plague, Chuck is on their chopping block. I agree with Ed that Rosalind Cash (who has an amazing afro) as Lisa, the female lead, is one of the movie's greatest strengths. But the film's excellence is based largely on Heston's performance. Heston plays Neville as a brilliant yet lonely man desperate to survive and desperate for human companionship. Among the great scenes are Neville "negotiating" the sale of a car with a corpse at an auto dealership, and watching Woodstock in an empty theater reciting lines from the concert documentary. The film shows Heston's range as a comedian, a survivor and of course, an action hero. And the ending, which is both happy and sad, is memorable. It's a movie I go back to again and again.

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