Thursday, October 31, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel for November 1-14

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

It was a really good October on TCM, what with the continuing Story of Film and the rarely seen foreign films TCM chose to accompany it. That pretty much continues this month, so search your TCM guides for anything rare and interesting you haven’t yet seen, or for the grace of TCM, may never see. Unless, that is, you want to shell out big dough that you don’t have to The Criterion Collection for a rarely seen Chinese-Japanese-Vietnamese-Indian-Pakistani collaboration you’ll only watch once and then put away to collect dust. I’ve got to be honest, there are many films currently being shown I’m glad to TiVo, but after watching them, with few exceptions, these are not the sort I’d want for my permanent library. I’m risking almost certain exile from the film snobs’ society for this heresy, but, to me, films are primarily entertainment.

I like to collect film that I know I’ll want to see again, such as classic horror and sci-fi, films by Hawks, Hitchcock, Truffaut, Melville, Ozu; classics with Cagney, Bogart, Gabin, Lancaster, Stanwyck, and Bette Davis; screwball comedies, Poverty Row movies, especially Monogram and PRC, B-Westerns with George O’Brien and Buster Crabbe, and especially early ‘30s movies. Those I’ve been interested in since high school, when I noticed they were more risqué in subject matter than later films. But that’s just me. I always figured I’m stuck with me, so I might as well make the best of it.

Events to look forward to in November:

Star of the Month: Burt Lancaster. A great choice as far as I’m concerned, as I can always finds the time to watch one of his films, and there are some good ones to choose from this month. On November 6, TCM is showing the always watchable The Killers from 1946, but following is one of his best and most underrated films, Come Back, Little Sheba, from 1952. On November 13, my choice Lancasters are the fantastic Sweet Smell of Success (1957) at 10:15 pm, and Seven Days in May (1964) at the rather late hour of 2:30 am (set those recorders).

November 1 – The Friday Night Spotlight this month is devoted to screwball comedies, and TCM is showing six of them beginning with It Happened One Night at 8 pm. My pick is the seldom seen The Mad Miss Manton from 1938, starring Barbara Stanwyck as a publicity-seeking daffy socialite who, along with her friends, stumbles upon a murder. But no one will believe her. Henry Fonda is excellent in a co-starring role as a doubtful newspaper editor who slowly is won over.

On November 2 a documentary called Free Radicals: A History of Experimental Film is being shown at – get this – 2:30 in the morning. I can’t say I blame them at TCM, for who would really want to watch this except insomniacs? It’s followed by a slew of experimental shorts, none of which I’ve seen before, so I can’t really give you a guide.

November 3 is given the title of “Same Story,” and it’s all about movies about prostitutes. Now this is a night that demands a guest host, and given the content, there’s no better guest host I can recommend than Velvet Jones, the pimp Eddie Murphy played on the old Saturday Night Live, and who wrote a book, “I Wanna Be a Ho.” The night begins with Rita Hayworth as Miss Sadie Thompson (1953), followed by Joan Crawford in the original film adaptation of Somerset Maugham’s story, Rain (1932). Check out Joan’s make-up in the movie. It gives new meaning to the word “garish.” This is followed by the 1934 Chinese silent Goddess, previously shown last month, and two Japanese films, Story of a Prostitute, a New Wave drama from director Seijun Suzuki (1965), and Women of the Night, a 1948 film from Kenji Mizoguchi. Both Japanese productions are recommended. Story is a remake of Toho’s 1950 melodrama, Escape at Dawn (scripted, by the way, by Akiro Kurosawa). Those who have sat through some other Suzuki melodramas such as Tokyo Drifter and Branded to Kill will notice this is a film where the plot is actually placed ahead of style.

November 5 is dedicated to the 100th birthday of the great Vivien Leigh and a representative selection of her films is being presented. For me, the pick of the litter is Storm in a Teacup, a pleasant English comedy with Rex Harrison from 1937.

November 7: “Nurse Night,” five films about nurses. My best bet is the 1939 programmer Four Girls in White.

November 8: More screwball comedies, beginning with the Leo McCarey classic, The Awful Truth, starring Cary Grant and Irene Dunne. My money’s on MGM’s 1941 Love Crazy, with William Powell as a husband who concocts one crazy scheme after another to keep wife Myrna Loy from divorcing him.

November 9: For those who can’t resist good psychotronic Blaxploitation films, TCM Underground is showing a double-header of Disco Godfather (1979) and The Slams (1973). The one to watch here is Disco Godfather, with the amazing Rudy Ray Moore in the starring role. In this one, he plays a retired LAPD detective who is now running a disco. When his NBA-bound nephew winds up in the psych ward after smoking angel dust, Rudy Ray takes to the streets as only Rudy Ray can to eliminate the drug traffic. Great fun.

November 12: Guest Programmer Simon Helberg (The Big Bang Theory) hosts a night of some of his favorite films, beginning with Blake Edwards’ The Party (1968) with Peter Sellers as an Indian actor who makes a shambles of a Hollywood party. It’s followed by Sellers’ Dr. Strangelove at 9:45, and then changes gears with the classic 1945 romance Brief Encounter.

November 14 is devoted to “Bob’s Picks,” and Bob Osborne always shows something interesting. The pick of the night for me is the lead-off film, My Name is Julia Ross, a nice terse little film from Joseph H. Lewis and Columbia in 1945. It’s definitely worth your time.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for November 1-7

November 1-November 7


WATERLOO BRIDGE (November 5, 9:30 am): While the 1940 version of this film is a bit overproduced – MGM, of course – it's still wonderful with outstanding performances given by the leads, Vivien Leigh (her first film after Gone With the Wind) and Robert Taylor. It's the start of World War II and Taylor is a British Army captain while Leigh is a ballerina. It's love at first sight, but things don't work out so easily with the Nazis trying to blow up England. The two are to be married, but Taylor is called to duty and it only gets worse. Leigh loses her job at the ballet and in order to survive she becomes a prostitute. All hope is lost with Leigh convinced Taylor died in the war after reading his name in the list of those killed in battle. It shows you can't believe everything you read. Some are critical of the ending, but with the Hays Code in play, there wasn't much else to be done. It's still an excellent film.

THE KILLERS (November 6, 8:00 pm): This 1946 film noir is a must-see and a vital part of cinematic history. It's Burt Lancaster's big-screen debut and he's fantastic, particularly his scenes with femme fatale Ava Gardner. It's also the first time William Conrad – yeah, the guy from TV shows Cannon, and Jake and the Fat Man, and more importantly, the narrator of Rocky and Bullwinkle and Friends – got his screen credit in a film. The first 20 minutes of the film is based on an Ernest Hemingway short story. The screenplay is wonderfully written by John Huston and Richard Brooks, both uncredited, with great cinematography and brilliant acting performances. Lancaster was an incredible film actor, and the great performances he gave on screen started with his role in this movie.


HIS GIRL FRIDAY (November 1, 10:00 pm): It was at least 10 years since the original Front Page, and by the Hollywood clock – time for a remake. But the genius of Howard Hawks was in the casting. Instead of going with another two males in the roles of editor Walter Burns and reporter Hildy Johnson, Hawks thought to make reporter Hildy a woman, formerly married to Burns, and about to leave the paper to remarry. It was pure inspiration, and in my opinion, made the film even funnier. Decorated with all the touches Hawks was famous for, including the overlapping dialogue, it still holds up today and is funnier than ever. Part of the brilliance in the remake was the casting of Cary Grant, a superb comic actor, as Walter Burns. But it was in the part of Hildy Johnson that Hawks struck gold. Jean Arthur, Hawks’ first choice, turned down the role, as did Carole Lombard, Ginger Rogers, Katharine Hepburn, Claudette Colbert, and Irene Dunne. Columbia studio head managed to borrow Rosalind Russell. She wasn’t thrilled at being assigned to the film and Hawks wasn’t exactly thrilled about having to “settle” for her. But once they got rolling, she turned out to be Hawks’ best move, as she’s perfect in the part: gorgeous, intelligent, sassy, and one step ahead – or so she thinks – of her ex-husband, Burns. It’s not only a movie to watch, but also one for cinephiles to own.

OLD ACQUAINTANCE (November 4, 8:15 am): Imagine, Bette Davis in a ”women’s picture” wonderfully acted and intelligently written where she plays the nice woman. And more to the point – no soap of the type we find in That Certain WomanDark VictoryThe Old Maid, and Now Voyager. Yes, Bette, it can be done. This is the story of best friends. Kit Marlowe (Davis) is a single author of high literary novels. Her friend Millie Drake (Miriam Hopkins), who is married, takes her advice to write and becomes even more famous and financially successful than Kit, though the secret to her success is that she writes trashy novels. Take it from there, fasten your seat belts, and go along for a joyous ride with Bette and Miriam, two women that really hated each other in real life. There is no such thing as disappointment with this movie.

WE DISAGREE ON ... PICNIC AT HANGING ROCK (November 4, 10:15 pm)

ED: A-. The beauty in this groundbreaking film lies in the enigma in the center of what at first seems to be a simple plot: A group of students at an upper crust Victorian-era girls’ school take a field trip to Hanging Rock, which is miles away from civilization. During the course of the trip three of the girls and one of the teachers goes missing. What happened? We’re never told. We are told about the purported history of the site; we get the sense that something is not quite right, but we never find out just what it is. Instead, we are left with a sense of impending dread communicated to us by the students themselves. It’s well acted, beautifully written, tightly directed and immaculately filmed in rural Australia.

DAVID: C+. This is a decent film, but nothing special. The cinematography is the best part. The plot has promise, but fails to deliver. A group of school girls have a picnic at Hanging Rock; hmm, that might explain the title. A teacher and three girls mysteriously disappear in what could be a dreamlike trance from being out in the sun too long. One of the girls returns, not knowing how she went missing or what happened to the others. There's no reason given, and the plot and acting aren't strong enough to make up for the contrived mystery at the center of the film. What's odd is there are portions in which there isn't enough plot, such as any hint of an explanation for those missing, and too much plot, such as the parts featuring an orphan girl who is treated poorly throughout the film. Also, is this film about sexual repression, sexual awakening, or have anything to do with sex? It's hard to tell because it seems so lacking in direction at times. And the pacing at the end of the film is too slow.

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

Monday, October 28, 2013

Cinéma Inhabituel: Horror Hosts

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

As Halloween is just around the corner, I thought I’d dedicate this column to its inspiration.

For the film fan, Halloween means horror movies. And when it came to showing horror movies on television, a new character was created: The Horror Host. He or she was given the unenviable job of taking such cinematic gems as Return of the Ape Man or Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla and making them somehow palatable to a television audience. Many times they did this so well that they gained a substantial following on whatever local station ran their show.

However, once their show ran its inevitable course, they oft times disappeared from the limelight, remembered only when their obituaries ran in the papers of the communities the once served. But we always remembered them fondly, describing our favorite skit or bit of their to others who also spent many a Saturday night glued to the tube entranced by the show.

One such star in this firmament passed from us on September 15. His name was Jerry G. Bishop, but to those who followed his weekly antics, he was simply “Svengoolie.”

Svengoolie, Jerry Bishop, was born Jerry Ghan in Chicago on Aug. 3, 1936. A graduate of Wright City College, the University of Illinois and Columbia College, he began in radio at the former WNMP in Evanston in 1962. Within a few years, he was a popular nighttime DJ at Cleveland's KYW, and was picked as one of the reporters covering the Beatles during their 1965 and 1966 U.S. tours for NBC Radio and Group W radio stations.

He returned to Chicago in 1967 to lead WCFL's morning radio show and moved to WFLD-TV in 1969. A year later, the show that introduced Svengoolie was born: “Screaming Yellow Theater.” Svengoolie, the show’s host, was a pale-faced undead hippie. He had long green hair, spoke with a Western European accent, and played the guitar. He wasn’t an instant hit, but word-of-mouth soon spread about the show and its witty, offbeat host, and it began to build a following. 

His audience grew to the point where celebrities, both local and national, began requesting to appear on the show. Some were “mystery guests,” stopping by to open Sven’s loudly-painted coffin; other stayed around to participate in the sketches that took place during breaks in the films. Bishop did the writing for the show himself in the early going, but soon he hired a young Northwestern student who kept sending in material for the show. That fan was Rich Koz. Koz began as a writer, but soon became a performer on the show as well. Koz noted that while Bishop wasn’t a fan of horror films as such, he nonetheless saw the show as a great vehicle for comedy.

When WFLD-TV was sold to Kaiser Broadcasting in 1973, the new owners decided to cancel “Screamimg Yellow Theater,” despite its growing ratings, and replace it with a syndicated show from Cleveland featuring “The Ghoul.” This decision came back to bite Kaiser in the butt, as The Ghoul flopped. By the time Kaiser realized its mistake, it was too late: Bishop had moved on.

While Bishop may have moved on, there was still life in the ol’ Svengoolie. In 1979, Koz went on to take over the Svengoolie role, launching a new horror film hosted show in called “Son of Svengoolie.” Eventually, with Bishop’s blessing, Koz became simply “Svengoolie.” And today, Koz is still at it as Svengoolie. His show can be caught on stations carrying ME-TV, and Koz continues to entertain fans while still using some of the original jokes, which include frequent references to Berwyn, Illinois, as well as flocks of rubber chickens.

As for Jerry Bishop, he was not forgotten, either. In 2011, Bishop (as Svengoolie) was inducted into the Horror Host Hall of Fame.

So how about movies this Halloween? Well, Halloween coincides with TCM’s broadcasting of Star of the month Vincent Price’s films, and being as it is Halloween, the station is showing his later horror films made for Roger Corman in the ’60s. Other critics have already lionized these films, so I decided to spotlight two films showing the day before, October 30.

7:00 am – Shadow of Doubt (1935): This is a nice little B programmer from MGM about a heinous showbiz producer named Len Haworth (Bradley Page) – a womanizer who is managing to make an enemy out of anyone who comes across his path. His latest protégé is Trenna Plaice (Virginia Bruce) a film actress whose career in on the wane. Even so, New York ad man Sim Sturdevant (Ricardo Cortez) is in love with her and wants to marry her, despite objections from his wealthy Aunt Melissa (Constance Collier). Trenna, however, wants to accept Haworth’s proposal instead. Sim, who knows Haworth’s reputation, points out that the producer is already engaged to debutante Lisa Bellwood (Betty Furness), but Trenna doesn’t believe him. Things quickly become entangled, and when Haworth is shot to death, Sim, Trenna and Lisa are the prime suspects. It’s up to Aunt Melissa, herself an amateur detective, to sort things out and find the truth. It’s a nifty whodunit, running about 74 minutes, that will please the mystery fan in all of us.

4:45 pm – Bluebeard (1944): Aside from Joseph H. Lewis, no other director got more out of less than Edgar G. Ulmer. Ulmer learned his craft in Germany, first as a set designer (Metropolis among them), then as an assistant to famed director F.W. Murnau. His fame there peaked as one of the directors of the 1930 semi-documentary Menschen am Sonntag (along with Curt and Robert Siodmak, Fred Zinnemann, and Billy Wilder). Coming to America in the exodus of 1933, Ulmer was hired by Universal, for whom he directed the classic horror The Black Cat in 1934 with Bela Lugosi and Boris Karloff. But a personal scandal where he seduced the wife of a producer who was the nephew of Universal’s chief, Carl Laemmle, led to his being exiled from the major studios and relegated to Poverty Row.

Where others might have lamented the working conditions: no budgets, little time for development, and often starting with only a title, Ulmer found the freedom given to develop the films enhancing, and managed to stamp his own personal signature on much of his work. Again, as was the case with Joseph H. Lewis, he was unknown in this country until his work was “discovered” by the Cahiers crowd in the ‘50s. Since then he has come to be regarded as an eccentric, unique filmmaker with several influential films to his credit.

Bluebeard is one such film. Made for Poverty Row studio PRC in 1944, it stars the highly underrated and versatile John Carradine as a murderous painter and puppeteer in Paris whose hobby is killing his beautiful models. Though shot in five-and-a-half days, the film is notable for its high level of acting, camera work, and literate script (which was overseen by Ulmer’s wife, Shirley). PRC was reportedly unhappy with the finished product, but released it anyway. While it flopped here, though, it was quite successful in France. I’m not going to go out on a limb and say this is in the class of Lewis’ My Name is Julia Ross, but at any rate, those that have not yet seen this little gem should tune in, if only to see how much can be done with so little.

Saturday, October 26, 2013

Heat Lightning

By Ed Garea

Heat Lightning (WB, 1934) – Director: Mervyn LeRoy. Cast: Aline MacMahon, Ann Dvorak, Lyle Talbot, Preston Foster, Glenda Farrell, Frank McHugh, Ruth Donnelly, Jane Darwell, Edgar Kennedy, James Durkin, & Theodore Newton. B&W, 64 minutes.

Heat lightning is a common natural phenomenon usually seen during warm and humid nights in July and August. In actuality, it is a distant thunderstorm, and while the lightning can be seen, the clap of thunder has died out before it reaches the viewer. The term itself comes from an old wives’ tale that a hot, sultry summer night can generate lightning without a thunderstorm.

“Heat lightning,” then, is a perfect term for the title to this movie, itself adapted from the 1933 Broadway play of the same name by Leon Abrams and George Abbott. It implies the spontaneous generation of sparks without an accompanying storm and accurately describes both the plot and motivation of its lead characters.

This rather unusual B programmer prefigures the more famous The Petrified Forest in its similar setting and plot by almost two years. Released right before the Code crackdown, this would have been an unusual movie no matter when it was made. Olga (MacMahon) and Myra (Dvorak) run a combination gas station/café/motel in the California desert. Olga has sworn off men and handles the mechanical side of the business. Repressing her femininity, she dresses in a pair of baggy bib overalls. But she is most definitely a woman with a past who has gotten away from the corrupting atmosphere of the city to make a fresh start. She’s taken younger sister Myra with her, determined not to let Myra make the same mistakes with men that she did. Myra, on the other hand, is nursing a serious case of Cabin Fever, especially as Myra won’t let her see boyfriend Steve Laird (Newton). In fact, Olga won’t let Myra date at all, which is increasing the tension between them.

However, everything between the sisters changes with the arrival of George Schaffer (Foster) and his friend, Jeff (Talbot), two criminals on the lam. Olga takes one look at George and recognizes him as Jerry, a man she was intimately involved with when she was a cabaret girl in Tulsa. Their relationship ended abruptly when Jerry took a hike and neglected to invite her along. This was traumatic enough to cause Olga to flee to the desert and bury forever any further notions of love and marriage.

With the arrival of the duo, Myra begins to notice a slow, but profound, change in her sister. The constricting bandana worn around her head and the dirty overalls give way to a dress and a change in hairstyle. When the sheriff (Durkin) passes through, he informs Olga about two men that held up a Salt Lake City bank, killed two cashiers, and were last seen heading this way towards the Mexican border. George and Jeff, though, claim to be oilmen and Olga vouches for them. Myra takes advantage of Olga’s compromised position and makes plans to hook up with Steve after dark.

Enter two recent rich divorcees, Mrs. Tifton (Farrell), called “Feathers,” and Mrs. Aston-Ashley (Donnelly), called “Tinkle.” Renting a room for night, the ladies store their jewelry in Olga’s safe. With a small fortune in jewelry locked in the hotel safe, George and Jeff begin making plans for its liberation. Quickly surmising that Olga’s still head-over-heels with George, the plan is for George to distract Olga while Jeff picks the safe.

Steve brings Myra home from their date at dawn, after doing what Olga had feared – taken advantage of Myra. Myra sees George leaving Olga’s room and enters to tell her sister what Steve had done to her last night. They hear a noise downstairs and go to investigate. Olga overhears George tell Jeff while the two are in the process of breaking into the motel safe that he slept with Olga just to set up the theft. With that, Olga fetches her revolver and shoots George before he can shoot her. Before he dies, though, he apologizes to her. Knowing George forced Jeff into the theft at gunpoint, she lets Jeff get away, albeit without the jewels. Things go back to normal the next day, with Olga returning to her mechanic’s garb and Myra sadder but wiser.

Although Heat Lightning is a highly enjoyable film and moves at a quick pace, director LeRoy tries to walk a fine line between comedy and drama and ultimately lets the viewer down. There are several scene-stealing bits by the supporting cast, most of whom are familiar faces from the Warner Bros. stock company. At the star of the movie, Kennedy as a hen-pecked husband and Darwell as his nagging spouse stop for repairs, providing a good argument against marriage with their constant bickering. Divorcees and traveling companions Farrell and Donnelly trade deliciously tart quips and insults while competing for the attention of their chauffeur (McHugh). Two showgirls and their sugar daddy, bound for Hollywood, also stop by for some repartee, and a Mexican family arrives and camps out on the hotel premises, providing a musical accompaniment to the later actions of the cast. It is their arrival that spurs the divorcees to stow their jewelry in the hotel safe, fearing the Mexicans are gypsies out to steal.

The movie falls on the shoulders of MacMahon and she does not let LeRoy, or the audience, down. She brings believability to a character that would have been considered out of place in those times, although it’s never made clear, given her background as a cabaret girl, where she got the wherewithal to become a mechanic. Perhaps she took a course at Engine Tech.

Nevertheless, the plot and characters revolve around her. If she gives anything other than a standout performance, the movie will sink. When we catch sight of her at the beginning of the movie, she does everything possible to hide her femininity, wearing baggy overalls, a bandana, and little, if any, makeup. When she puts on the dog to make nice with Foster’s character, the change is astounding. Dvorak, on the real live wires of Pre-Code cinema, is essentially wasted in a thankless role that gives her little to do but react to her sister’s authoritarian manner. The screenplay by Brown Holmes and Warren Duff (from the play by Leon Abrams and George Abbott) is uninspired, cramming too many characters into a film with a running time of only 66 minutes. LeRoy’s direction is passable, but flat in tone. One mistake he made with respect to the plot was George’s apology to Olga as he lay dying. It makes no sense and only serves to open up more worms than are indicated in the plot.

The critics were less than kind in general, with Mordant Hall of the New York Times calling it “a drab melodrama with occasional flashes of forced comedy.” According to Hall, the film “does not offer Miss MacMahon the opportunity she deserves, for although she gives a believable performance, the role is not well suited to her.” However, despite his noting, “The other characters seldom ring true,” he does state that, “Ann Dvorak does well enough as Olga’s sister, Myra,” and “Preston Foster gives a glib portrayal as Schaeffer.” Ultimate blame, however, is placed with LeRoy: “Mervyn LeRoy, the director of ‘Heat Lightning,’ was not in an imaginative mood when he handled his scenes.”

The Hays Office objected to George leaving Olga’s bedroom in the morning and buttoning his coat. It also objected to a line by one of the showgirls that the other would have to ride up front with “the old thigh pincher.” But as with other objections by the Office during this time, Warners quickly placed them in their circular file. The Legion of Decency banned the film, and when the Code was enforced later that year, the movie was shelved and not shown until it popped up on television in the ‘60s.

Trivia: This was Aline MacMahon’s first starring role in a film. The film was remade in a fashion as Highway West (1941), starring Brenda Marshall and Arthur Kennedy.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Sandlot

Unartful Dodgers

By Jon Gallagher

The Sandlot (20th Century Fox, 1993) – Director: David M. Evans. Writers: David M. Evans, Robert Gunter. Cast: Tom Guiry, Mike Vitar, Patrick Renna, Denis Leary, Karen Allen, & James Earl Jones. Color, 101 minutes.

Somehow, some way, I missed seeing The Sandlot the first time around. The movie, considered by some to be a classic, was released 20 years ago and was the coming of age story of nine boys who played sandlot baseball together in the early 1960s. For the past few weeks, whenever I listen to a Dodger game on the radio (via the internet since I’m in Illinois), they’ve been talking about a promotion where they’re going to show the movie on their new big screen TV out in left field after a game. That was good enough for me. I rented the movie and previewed it before sitting down with my eight-year-old daughter for a “family movie night” that we share once a week.

We won’t be watching this one together.

There’s nothing that I wouldn’t want my eight-year-old to see, really. There are a couple words that I hope I don’t hear her say for at least a few years, but nothing that really raised my concern levels. The movie itself just isn’t very good. I’m not sure who deemed it a classic, but I’m taking their “movie classic designation license” away from them immediately.

The story is about nine boyhood friends who spend a summer hanging out and playing sandlot baseball while experiencing life around them. It’s done in a Jean Shepherd-esque feel with the adult narrator recalling his past through an adult voice. The big difference here is that Shepherd was interesting and funny. This is boring and only mildly amusing.

The movie gets off on the wrong foot. It tells the story of Babe Ruth’s “called shot” in the 1932 World Series. It tells how in the bottom of the ninth with a man on and the Yankees down by a run, the Bambino steps to the plate, points to the stands, then hammers a homerun to win it in walk-off fashion. 

As a baseball fan, I know that the story of Ruth’s called shot is widely disputed. Some say it never happened at all. But let’s get the facts, or at least the lore, correct here. The called shot took place at Wrigley Field in Chicago, which means that it wasn’t the BOTTOM of the ninth because the Yankees would have been batting in the TOP of the inning. Second, it supposedly happened in the 5th inning with the score knotted 4-4. The story is a good one; you don’t have to make it more impressive by adding more BS to the pile.

It might be a little thing, but one that bugged me right from the start.

Later in the movie, there’s a neighbor (Jones), who befriends the boys. He shows off his trophies and keepsakes from a short major league career as a contemporary of Ruth. There’s a picture of him standing there with Ruth and Lou Gehrig. Jones’ character, Mr. Mertle, tells the boys that Ruth was “almost as good as hitter as me,” and that he (Mertle) would have bested Ruth’s records had it not been for his accident.

This is a major gaff. Ruth retired in 1935, some 12 years before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball. As far as I’m concerned, this much of a historical inaccuracy is every bit as bad as if we would have seen Abraham Lincoln arriving at the White House on Marine One. I realize that producers were probably giddy at the thought of landing Jones for the role, but because of his race and the timeline, it just didn’t work.

Meanwhile, the rest of the movie isn’t much better. The nine boys are, for the most part, flat characters who blend into each other, with the stereotypical token characters represented. There’s the fat, red-headed, freckle-faced kid, a nerd with Clark Kent glasses, the pure athlete, the pervert, and of course, a couple of ethnic kids thrown in as well. No one sets themselves apart to make any one character more interesting than the others which results in a snoozefest of major proportions. Combine that with the predictability of not just some, but EACH and EVERY scene, and you’ll understand why I’m not bothering to show it to my daughter.

Even the talents of Allen, Leary, and Jones can’t save this one. This may be generous, but I’ll give this one a D.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013


Dinner and a Movie

Carrie Me Back to Old Lasagna

By Steve Herte

After 16 days of furlough it was almost good to get back into the office (I never thought I would even think that) and Thursday was solid work. Friday, the anticipation of my movie and dinner plans got me through the entire day of attempting and failing to input the timesheets. The system was overloaded (several areas input them on Thursdays but it wasn’t available then) with the entire country trying at once.

Still, I’m glad the nonsense is over - at least until January 15th, when it all starts over again - and I can live my normal life. Enjoy!

Carrie (MGM, 2013) – Director: Kimberly Peirce. Writers: Lawrence D. Cohen & Roberto Aguirre Sacasa (s/p). From the novel by Stephen King. Cast: Julianne Moore, Chloe Grace Moretz, Gabriella Wilde, Portia Doubleday, Judy Greer, Barry Shabaka Henley, Ansel Elgort, & Alex Russell. Color, 100 minutes.

Being a constant reader and a “can’t get enough of Stephen King” fan I found this latest remake of the 1976 original (yes, I’m counting the failed Broadway musical) served as an Alpha and Omega opportunity for me. As I’m currently 85 pages short of finishing King’s newest book, Doctor Sleep, it seemed appropriate to see his first successful story (1974) told anew. This version opens to the agonized groans and wailings of Margaret White (Moore). We enter the house and slowly climb the stairs to witness Margaret giving birth to her daughter alone in the bedroom. Blood is everywhere. Carrie is born and her mother slowly pulls up the skirt of her nightgown seemingly expecting something horrific that must be killed (she has her dress-maker shears at the ready) but she relents and caresses the child.

The next scene shows Carrie (Moretz) as a painfully shy, naive high school senior. She has no friends and serves as the butt of all the other girls’ (and boys’) jokes. Per the original story, one day in the showers after gym class she experiences the shock of her first menstrual period and goes into a panic thinking she’s dying. The other girls under the leadership of Chris Hargensen (Doubleday) laugh at her and taunt her, throwing tampons at her while chanting, “plug it up!” Chris even makes a video of it on her I-Phone – later posting it online. 

Ms. Desjardin, the gym teacher (Greer) comes to Carrie’s rescue and takes her to Principal Morton (Henley) who, despite protests from Carrie (she causes the globe of the water-cooler to smash), calls her mother to come pick her up. Carrie’s mother – a raving religious fanatic – calls the episode, “the curse of blood because of the sin of Eve.” She locks Carrie into the windowless closet below the stairs to “pray for salvation.” None of Carrie’s frantic cries can dissuade her until, suddenly, the door is split down the middle! It holds nevertheless, leaving Carrie to wonder about the cause.

Excused from gym to study hall Carrie reads several books on telekinesis and discovers her power. Meanwhile, the gym teacher gives the other girls a lecture on the football field and doles out a punishment of running and exercises with the threat of suspension and exclusion from the prom for non-compliance. Chris refuses to comply, tries to recruit the others to follow her and fails, and is suspended. Her best friend Sue Snell (Wilde) feels sorry for Carrie and convinces her boyfriend Tommy Ross (Elgort) to invite Carrie to the prom in an effort to atone for what happened in the showers. Even though Carrie suspects trickery, she eventually accepts Tommy’s invitation and after demonstrating her power to her mother – she levitates all of the furniture in the living room and slams it down – prepares herself for the occasion.

Chris hatches a plan with her boyfriend Billy Nolan (Russell) to totally humiliate Carrie at the prom by filling a bucket with pig’s blood poised to dowse her when she and Tommy win King and Queen in a rigged election. Little does she know how dire the consequences of her actions will be?

It would not be fair to compare the performances of Moore and Moretz to those of Piper Laurie and Sissy Spacek: they each did an excellent job in both versions. Under the direction of Peirce, the 2013 movie still holds the audience in suspense, even though the King fans know what will happen next (sort of). Marco Beltrami’s music further enhances the goings-on by adding palpable tension to every scene. The screenplay is faithful to the original book with a only a few updates, which do not detract from it and (of course) special effects – not available in 1976 – that contribute beautifully to the exciting final scenes. I particularly liked the sparking live wires striking like cobras at the prom goers. The new Carrie will not suffer the “why did they have to remake that movie?” comments and stands firmly as a new viewpoint. I can even see a few Oscar nominations coming. Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Lasagna Ristorante
941 Second Avenue (corner of 50th Street), New York

If I haven’t said this before, I LOVE lasagna! Only Garfield the Cat loves it more. Ever since I learned of the existence of Lasagna Ristorante I’ve been scheming how and when to visit. The online photos of the restaurant, beautiful as they are, do not prepare you for its actual appearance. 

The tasteful black awnings with white script lettering protect the charming wrap-around sidewalk café on the corner of 50th and 2nd while the golden glow of the interior lights shine through the fully glassed exterior. Inside, the young woman at the Captain’s Station (who obviously also dines there) asked me if I would like to dine outside. “Too chilly” was my response and she graciously led me to a table in the back just beyond the kitchen, which was perfect.

One of two Lasagna restaurants (the other is on 20th Street and 8th Avenue) open since 1993, this charming eatery boasts 17 different lasagna dishes, vegetarian, meat and seafood included. When my waiter (who simply went by the initials “NJ”) brought me my water and the menu, he took my Stolichnaya martini order (they didn’t have Beefeaters, so I was little more “James Bond” that evening). I sipped the martini while reading the two-page menu and single-sheet specials list. Not only was there the intoxicating list of lasagnas, but also Appetizers, Soups, Salads, “Pastas of All Nations,” and Chicken, Veal and Seafood entrées. I had to cover the main course page with the specials list to avoid seeing the Penne Jambalaya, the Saltimbocca Alla Romana (my perennial favorite Italian dish) and the Salmon Alla Calabrese. I was here for lasagna and NJ helped me create a three-course dinner. The wine list featured several good wines at very reasonable prices and I chose the 2012 Bolla Valpolicella – excellent!

NJ presented me with the breadbasket, four pieces of crusty garlic bread made with green olive oil that were simply wonderful. I started with a bowl of Stracciatella Fiorentina, a nice hot bowl of egg whites and spinach in a delicate chicken broth. It’s been a long time since I’ve this particular soup prepared with such care.

It was followed by the Caesar Salad, a plate of crisp greens and even crisper croutons in a Caesar dressing. It was a little lighter on the main ingredient, garlic, than I would have preferred. I laughingly told NJ that the garlic bread has more garlic than the Caesar dressing and we both had a chuckle over it.

Choosing a lasagna from 17 appetizing recipes was not easy until I noticed number 17, “Create Your Own Lasagna.” When NJ explained what I could do, I combined the Ground Veal with the Hearts of Artichoke Lasagnas and was transported straight to Heaven. It was a good inch thick, two inches wide and about seven inches long served in an oblong white ceramic bowl just a little larger to fit it in. 

The top was just the right crispness from baking and the inside was piping hot. The first bite was ecstasy. As Garfield would describe it, “the miracle that is lasagna!” A gentleman dining at the next table must have seen the sheer pleasure on my face, because as he left he commented to me that he loved seeing someone enjoy their meal as much as I did. There was not a scrap left of either the lasagna or the bread at the end.

And yet, there was room for dessert. “Tiramisu” said NJ. “Just that?” “The BEST!” “OK, bring the tiramisu.” The beautifully formed layered dessert was simply presented on a round dessert dish. It was topped with chocolate dust, firm enough to cut with a fork, but moist enough to melt in your mouth. NJ was not lying. The double espresso almost paled in comparison, but the healthy portion of grappa in its snifter was the crowning touch to the meal.

Lasagna Ristorante deserves not just one but several return visits, if not for the Prosciutto, Eggplant, or Crab Meat Lasagna, but for the many alluring main courses. Don’t worry, I’ll pace myself.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, October 21, 2013

TCM TiVo Alert for October 23-31

October 23–October 31


THE LAST PICTURE SHOW (October 28, 1:30 am): In honor of Halloween, TCM is going all-out with a number of excellent and some really bad and/or corny horror films. Check out the mini-reviews and letter grades below to pick your poison. For this week, I'm recommending two of my favorite films that aren't in the horror genre. The first is The Last Picture Show, a 1971 film directed by Peter Bogdanovich about life in a small Texas town from late 1951 to late 1952. The movie's primary focus is on two high school seniors, played by Timothy Bottoms and Jeff Bridges. The film has an incredible cast of supporting actors including Cloris Leachman, Ben Johnson (both won Oscars for their roles), Ellen Burstyn, Cybill Shepherd and Randy Quaid. This is the cinematic debuts of the latter two, but Bogdanovich is able to bring out the best in not only them, but the entire cast. It's a brilliant character study on life in a small nothing-happening town, and how high school doesn't prepare you for the real world, particularly if you aren't that smart or rich. Most of the characters are just trying to survive in a community that's dying. It's a depressing film, but authentic and one that stays with you long after it's done.

THE SWIMMER (October 30, 10:00 pm): Burt Lancaster is one of my all-time favorite actors and his role as Ned Merrill, a middle-aged ad executive who decides to swim his way home in the pools of his neighbors in this 1968 film, is his most underrated. This Kafkaesque film starts off with Lancaster's character in a bathing suit suddenly emerging from a wooded area without explanation. Merrill is initially greeted with a welcome in the first backyard, but as he goes from swimming pool to swimming pool, things about his seemingly happy and successful life turn out to be not so happy or successful. The closer he gets to home, the more he (and the viewers) learn about his life. The final scenes of Merrill at a public pool and at his house are compelling and fascinating. It also shows how brilliant of an actor Lancaster was.


THE DEATH KISS (October 26, 6:00 am): This is a nice little independently produced Whodunit set inside a movie studio (Tiffany Studios), where the leading actor has been murdered while filming a scene. Bela Lugosi gives a fine performance as the studio’s manager who is busy trying to keep a lid on things, and also paying a familiar role: that of the Red Herring. This role is especially intriguing here because of the presence of two of his Dracula castmates, David Manners and Edward van Sloan (as the harried director trying to finish his cursed film). Another little enjoyment afforded by the film is a glimpse of a real-life Poverty Row studio and it inner workings, something a cineaste would consider must viewing.

DIABOLIQUE (October 27, 3:00 am): Frankly, I cannot recommend this picture enough. Think of a perfect Hitchcock film without Hitchcock. That’s Diabolique, which is directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot. To no one’s surprise, he’s known as “the French Hitchcock,’ and Hitchcock himself was influenced by this film. This is a masterful psychological horror film that builds slowly to a final q5 minutes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Although the twist ending murder plot has been done many times since, it’s never been done better. Diabolique takes place at a school where Simone Signoret helps her friend Vera Clouzot (real life wife of the director) drown her ogre of a husband (Paul Meurisse), who “returns to life” in a really terrifying scene. It’s a taut, beautifully woven thriller with a climax that will truly shock you. Fans of Hitchcock will love this, as will anyone that loves a well-written thriller with the emphasis on character rather than going for the cheap thrill.

WE DISAGREE ON . . . WHITE ZOMBIE (October 26, 12:30 am)

ED: B. One of the great overlooked horror classics from the ‘30s, it was lost for years until a print was found in the ‘60s, and the film is only beginning to get the critical adulation it deserves. Yet another case of star Bela Lugosi outsmarting himself – he received only $800 for his role, while the film was a box office hit – it was the first zombie movie made. In fact several of its scenes, such as the opening burial on the road and the sight of the zombies working in Lugosi’s sugar mill, still remain in my memory. Made by the Halperin Brothers, it is another example that a low-budget film need not be God awful if written and directed with a touch of intelligence, verve and imagination, which more than make up for what the production values lack. Lugosi is superb as zombie master “Murder” Legendre, with frequent close-ups of his eyes used to convey the horror he visits on unsuspecting Madge Bellamy and John Harron. Enamored of bride-to-be Bellamy, he uses black magic to make her his bride. Harron must stop him before he succeeds, with the result being an atmospheric, eerie chiller. By the way, for you trivia buffs, this was the film that Ed Wood and Lugosi were watching on Halloween night in Ed Wood

DAVID: C. This isn't an awful film, but there isn't anything special about it. Bela Lugosi as the evil zombie master is, of course, over-the-top. But he is Olivier in comparison to the rest of the cast of misfit, has-been, never-was actors. The storyline is ridiculous: A rich guy is in love with someone else's fiance so he goes to see Lugosi's character, Murder Legendre, to turn his love into a zombie. She marries her true love, but drinks a zombie potion, dies, is buried, gets dug up, and ends up with the rich guy, who has second thoughts about being in love with an undead woman. He obviously didn't think things through. And then the rich guy becomes a zombie too. While it tries to be menacing, such as Lugosi giving the evil stare, it's more comedic than anything else. The ending is predictable so there's no need to give it away here. It's not a bad movie and there is a certain charm to it. It's only 67 minutes long so you're not wasting much time watching it.

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

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Top Ten College Movies

Mel's Cine-Files

By Melissa Agar

A busy schedule kept me from the multiplex to check out the new releases. (And I’m sure my $8 would have helped save Machete Kills from being a total bomb.) This weekend, I’m celebrating my 20th reunion at Knox College. This weekend will be spent reliving adventures my group of friends and I had over our four years in school. While no film will ever capture the craziness that we all experienced, there are a handful of great college movies out there, and now seems like as good a time as any to recognize the 10 best.

1. Animal House – There is no denying that this is the gold standard of college movies. Yes, there were college movies made before Animal House, and there were most definitely college movies made after Animal House, but no film has managed to so perfectly portray college life as we would all like to remember it. Sure, there is nary a scene of all-night cram sessions in the library, but there are the colorful characters, the questionable choices, and the parties. Oh, God, the parties! The film is also one that tends to cross generations. As a kid, I loved this movie and dreamed of someday being as intellectually perky as Karen Allen’s Katy, and the only people I knew who loved it more than I did were my parents, for whom this film was hilarious nostalgia. (More than once, my mother would watch a scene and say, “I can remember when a group of us did THAT at NIU.”) There may be a slew of imitators over the years (and a couple of them are probably on this list), but there will never be a film that captures that irreverent memory as well as Animal House.

Best Scene: The film is filled with iconic scenes, but my personal favorite has always been the scene where John Belushi’s Bluto goes through the cafeteria line and wreaks havoc, culminating in the food fight. Click here to see it.

2. Real Genius – Unlike Animal House, Real Genius does seem a bit dated as Val Kilmer and his posse of nerdy outcasts try to outsmart their oily physics professor (William Atherton). The technology that Kilmer’s Chris Knight and his pals use seems charmingly antiquated now as does the military weaponry the kids realize they are unwittingly working on, but the joy child genius Mitch (Gabe Jarret) experiences upon finding a group of similarly talented people who accept him for who he is will never go out of style. Plus, it’s just so nice to remember what a fresh and funny talent Kilmer once was.

Best Scene: To get revenge on the weaselly Kent (Robert Prescott), the “gang” plants a radio transmitter in Kent’s braces and have “God” pay him a visit. 

3. The Social Network – And now for something completely different. David Fincher’s brilliant portrayal of the birth of Facebook probably should be number one on this list, and were it not for the nostalgic value the top two hold for me, it would be. With a terrific script by Aaron Sorkin and solid performances from Jesse Eisenberg and Andrew Garfield (among others), this film is a college film in only the most tenuous sort of way since a large point the film has to make is how little Mark Zuckerberg needed college on his way to billions. The opening portion of the movie that is actually set at Harvard, though, perfectly demonstrates the meat market mindset that college students can often adopt as they navigate the waters of limited independence. Plus, really, what is more collegiate than Facebook?

Best Scene: The opening breakup scene between Eisenberg’s Zuckerberg and Rooney Mara’s Erica Albright is a terrific two-person scene and a classic example of Sorkin’s dialogue writing skill at its best.

4. The Sure Thing – This is one of two films on this list that you have probably not seen, but that’s something I urge you to rectify as soon as you can. This was Rob Reiner’s follow up to This Is Spinal Tap, and it is a sweet and charming love story about Gib (John Cusack) and Alison (Daphne Zuniga), two college freshmen who end up sharing a ride across country from their college to California. Alison is an uptight intellectual addicted to her day planner and on her way to see her boyfriend. Gib is a horndog slacker who is going to visit his buddy (Anthony Edwards) who has set him up with a “sure thing” (played by Nicollette Sheridan). The early scenes with Gib and Alison on campus in the same Intro to Fiction class rings remarkably true in this sweet and funny romantic comedy.

Best Scene: I’ve always been fond of an early scene when Gib and Alison embark on their journey, sharing a ride with the perky but annoying Gary and Mary Ann (played by Tim Robbins and Lisa Jane Persky). 

5. Back to School – I’m not a fan of Rodney Dangerfield. I’ve always found his humor sort of tired and predictable. I always found him the weakest part of Caddyshack, a film I typically love. This film, however, manages to find the sweet spot in Dangerfield’s humor and use his crass schtick to its best effect. Here, Dangerfield is Thornton Melon, a plus-sized men’s clothing magnate who is dealt an emotional body blow when his wife (Adrienne Barbeau) leaves him. He heads off to visit his son Jason (Keith Gordon), who is a freshman in college. Upon visiting sad-sack Jason, Melon realizes that he missed out on the college experience and decides to enroll as a freshman along with Jason. Although his classless dad and the way he throws money around to buy friends frequently embarrass Jason, the boy is also encouraged by Dad to man up and try out for the diving team and lure cute co-ed Valerie (Terry Ferrell) away from campus bully Chas (Billy Zabka, of course). The clash of Dangerfield with higher academia is comic gold, as is an early role for Robert Downey, Jr., as Jason’s weird pal Derek.

Best Scene: How rich is Thornton Melon? Rich enough that he can have Kurt Vonnegut write his paper on Vonnegut – a paper that is apparently pretty bad since it leads the professor to comment that whoever wrote it “knows nothing about Vonnegut.” (Yeah, I’m an English teacher. I geek out over Vonnegut appearing in a silly 80’s comedy.)

6. Legally Blonde – When her boyfriend breaks up with her for lacking substance, bubbly sorority girl Elle Woods (Reese Witherspoon) decides to win him back by enrolling at Harvard Law School. Hilarity ensues as this superficial California girl enters the world of the Ivy League and her sunshine outlook on life is met with snark and rejection. The film teaches us, though, that looks can be deceiving, for under Elle’s bubblegum personality lies a brilliant legal mind, a fact proven as Elle is chosen to assist with the defense of an aerobics guru (Ali Larter) accused of killing her husband. 

Best Scene: The montage of Elle’s video application to Harvard is a scream, particularly her use of Days of Our Lives as a reason to admit her to the most competitive law school in the nation.

7. Good Will Hunting – It’s a movie that seems a little bit clichéd now, but once upon a time, this was a pretty terrific film. Forget all the spoofing, and go back and watch the moment when a star (or two) was born. Sure, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck had some decent film credits under their belts before convincing Gus Van Sant to direct their script, but this film marks the line between working actor and movie star for both. Damon’s Will Hunting is a working class genius whose brilliance is discovered when he solves a seemingly unsolvable math equation left on a Harvard blackboard where he is a janitor. The film blends humor and pathos with a deft touch and showcases the two actors at their best before at least one of them got lost in the trappings of celebrity (at least for a little while).

Best Scene: Again, it’s become sort of cliché, but Will’s take down of an arrogant Harvard creep is pretty darn classic.

8. Revenge of the Nerds – For kids of the 1980’s, this was our Animal House.  It’s not nearly as classic or influencial, but it’s a delightfully raunchy comedy that helped introduce “nerds” to our pop culture existence. Lewis (Robert Carradine) and Gilbert (Anthony Edwards) head off to college, sure they are heading for an intellectual oasis where their intelligence will be celebrated rather than mocked. Instead, they run afoul of the preppy, cretinous Alphas, led by handsome Stan Gable (Ted McGinley). Lewis and Gilbert find a group of similarly “afflicted” freshmen and decide to form their own fraternity, Lambda Lambda Lambda. The Alphas continue to taunt the guys, forcing them to fight for their survival at the annual Greek carnival. 

Best Scene: The realization that Lambda Lambda Lambda is a traditionally all-black fraternity is pretty priceless. 

9. The Freshman – There are two college-based films with this title – a classic 1925 silent film starring Harold Lloyd and a 1990 comedy featuring Matthew Broderick and Marlon Brando. Both are worthy of inclusion here, and so they will share the #9 spot on this list. In the earlier film of this title, Lloyd stars as Harold Lamb, an eager young geek who arrives at college desperate to fit in and become “big man on campus.” He goes to all sorts of lengths to help make his dream come true, with hilarious results. In the later film, Broderick is Clark Kellogg, a young film student at NYU who falls under the wing of apparent Mafia don Carmine Sabatini (Brando). The first is filled with Lloyd’s infamous fearless physical comedy. The second is notable for Brando’s meta wink at one of his most infamous cinematic roles.

Best Scene: In Lloyd’s The Freshman, it would have to be the epic and hilarious football scene. In Brando’s The Freshman, it would have to be the moment you realize that Clark’s film class is analyzing The Godfather Part II. Click here to see the entire 1990 film and here for the full 1925 movie, while they last.

10. Love Story – Like Good Will Hunting, this is a film that quickly became a victim of spoof and cliché, but upon revisiting it, it’s still a pretty moving love story (thus the title) about a rich Ivy League preppy named Oliver (Ryan O’Neal) and poor scholarship student Jenny (Ali McGraw). Even though they are from opposite sides of the tracks and despite his family’s disapproval, Oliver and Jenny fall in love with Harvard as a beautiful backdrop and get married only for it all to fall apart when Jenny’s health fails. (It’s not a spoiler alert. Voice over narration tells us Jenny’s fate in the very first line of the film.) It’s one of those films that gets to me every time. No matter when I turn it on, I start crying within minutes. It’s sappy and maudlin and completely engaging.

Best Scene: Whenever I think of this movie, I think of the scene of Oliver and Jenny frolicking in the snowy Harvard yard.