Wednesday, July 30, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for August 1-7

August 1–August 7


CHINA SYNDROME (August 1, 5:45 pm): This 1979 anti-nuclear film is anchored by excellent writing and a cast of terrific actors, most notably Jack Lemmon and Michael Douglas, who also produced it. A television news crew goes into a nuclear power plant by chance during an emergency shutdown. We later find out that the plant is about to go into meltdown mode. We get corporate greed, government corruption and how the demand for energy results in people compromising their integrity. By coincidence, the film was released 12 days before the infamous Three Mile Island partial nuclear meltdown, giving credence to the message of the China Syndrome during the height of the "no-nukes" period. 

ADVISE AND CONSENT (August 3, 2:15 am): This 1962 film about the confirmation process of a secretary of state nominee (Henry Fonda) was ahead of its time. Having the president (Franchot Tone) dying while the proceedings are occurring is overdramatic, but the storyline rings true with politics of later years that saw and still see numerous presidential nominees have their entire lives scrutinized just for the sake of partisanship and not for the betterment of the country. It's dialogue heavy, but the dialogue is so good that it elevates the quality of the film. The cast is excellent with Fonda, Lew Ayres, Charles Laughton, Walter Pidgeon, and Burgess Meredith (in a small but memorable role) - and outstanding directing by Otto Preminger. The film is interesting, intelligent and compelling. 


LOVE FINDS ANDY HARDY (August 4, 6:00 am): The Andy Hardy series at MGM was the most profitable B-movies series ever made. They were essentially B-movies with an A-budget and style. Sure, they were corny as hell and tried to evoke an America that didn’t even exist at that time, but they are a lot of fun to watch, although I think it all comes down to how one feels about Mickey Rooney. This one tends to stand out due to the supporting cast, specifically Lana Turner and Judy Garland. Turner’s a wonder to behold here, with her natural auburn hair (before it was bleached), and Garland plays the role of a young girl with a crush on Andy Hardy almost to perfection. And she gets to sing, as well. The plot, with Andy minding his friend Beezy’s girlfriend (Turner) while he’s away, and the sidebar, with Mrs. Hardy having to travel to Canada to nurse her sick mother, are nominal. It’s the Rooney-Garland relationship that comes to the center of the film. The only flaw in the pudding is that Andy’s girlfriend, Polly Benedict, is also conveniently away for the holidays, so we miss out on the gorgeous Ann Rutherford for most of the film. Also look for the young Gene Reynolds (who went on to become a prolific television director) as a young friend of Andy’s.

I AM A FUGITIVE FROM A CHAIN GANG (August 6, 8:00 pm): Warner Brothers used to boast that they ripped the stories of their films “right out of the headlines,” and in this case it was true. This film, easily the best Mervyn Leroy ever directed, was based on the famous case of Robert Eliot Burns, who was a true victim of circumstance, landing on the infamous Georgia chain gang for a crime he didn’t commit. He escaped, twice, and led a life on the run, exposing the truth of his story and the brutality of the Georgia chain gang system in a best-selling book. This film brilliantly displays the brutal conditions, allowing no subplots and keeping the action focused on its subject. Easily the best of Warner Brothers’ Pre-code films, it still retains a strong punch today.

WE DISAGREE ON ... CAT BALLOU (August 1, 9:15 pm)

ED: B+. This comic Western about a prim and proper lady (Jane Fonda) who forms a gang of outlaws after her father is murdered by a land-grabbing corporation would normally only be worthy of a “C” if it weren’t for the fact the Lee Marvin, in a dual role, no less, as opposing gunslingers, walks away with the film. Marvin is a wonder to behold, especially for those of us who had never seen him play comedy before. (There’s a good reason for that - this was his first attempt at comedy. Until then, he had been a heavy, a tough noir hero, or a bystander in supporting parts.) When we take into consideration that the film was originally projected to be a B-movie (as Western comedies weren’t exactly in fashion), our astonishment at Marvin’s performance grows greater. It was word of mouth about his performance that enticed people into the theater and made this modest little comedy a hit. It also earned Marvin a long overdue Academy Award. 

DAVID: C-. There are so many missteps in this film that it's difficult to know where to begin. I'll start with the lead actress, Jane Fonda. While she's great to look at, she isn't believable in the slightest bit as the prim aspiring school teacher or as the kick-ass outlaw. Lee Marvin is good, and the only reason I don't give this film a D grade. However, he's not good enough to save this poor Western spoof from being a poor Western spoof. And who thought Nat King Cole, who was dying of lung cancer from years of smoking of all things, and Stubby Kaye as a Greek chorus was a good idea? They're annoying and only add to the overall mess of a movie. The plot is that of a basic Western, but its attempts at humor miss by a country mile. It's similar to the film's only funny scene when Kid Shelleen (Marvin's drunken gunslinger character who shouldn't be confused with Marvin's other character, Tim Strawn, his evil brother who is a mostly sober gunslinger) tries to shoot the side of a barn and misses. As someone who likes Westerns and comedies, I'm disappointed that this film doesn't rise to a mediocre level.

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

Monday, July 28, 2014

They Came to Blow Up America

The B-Hive

By Ed Garea

They Came to Blow Up America (20th Century Fox, 1943) Director: Edward Ludwig. Writers: Michael Jacoby (story), Aubrey Wisberg (s/p). Cast: George Sanders, Anna Sten, Ward Bond, Dennis Hoey, Sig Ruman, Ludwig Stossel, Elsa Janssen, Robert Barrat, Poldi Dur, Ralph Byrd, Charles McGraw, & Fred Nurney. B&W, 73 minutes.

There are times when a plot lands on the studio’s lap.

Such is the case with this movie from Fox in 1943. Like the Warner Brothers films of the ‘30s that claimed to be “ripped from the headlines,” They Came to Blow Up America was based on recent events. (Not so coincidentally, Darryl Zanuck, head of Fox, was also head of production for Warner Bros. in the early ‘30s when their “ripped from the headlines” films came out.) 

In this case, it was the landing of Nazi saboteurs in America, part of “Operation Pastorius,” a plot hatched by the Abwehr (German Army Intelligence) and directed against strategic American economic targets. The first agents, led by Georg Dasch, landed on Long Island on the night of June 12, 1942. Immediately after landing, everything went wrong. A Coast Guard patrolman came upon the group and began asking questions. Dasch grabbed him, threatened him, and shoved $260 into his hand. The Guardsman left, but reported everything once back at base. A second group landed later that month in Florida. The two groups were supposed to link up on July 4 in Cincinnati to coordinate their operations, but never came close. Dasch had misgivings about the thing and along with his second-in-command, Ernst Burger, decided to inform the FBI. After that, it was easy for J. Edgar Hoover and his agents to quickly round up the group. Brought to trial, the saboteurs were given the death penalty, but President Franklin D. Roosevelt, in recognition of their testimony, commuted Burger’s sentence to life in prison and Dasch’s to 30 years. In 1948, President Harry S. Truman granted the pair executive clemency and deported them back to Germany.

Sounds like a great idea for a movie, right? Well, Fox certainly thought so and set both Jacoby and Wisberg to work molding it into a film. The first thing the writers did was to provide a twist. Instead of the chief saboteur, now renamed Carl Steelman, being a German national who lived in the U.S., he now became an American born to naturalized parents. Sanders, then under contract to Fox, was brought in to play Steelman. Sanders had made a name for himself playing villains of various sorts, including Nazis. Even when he played a good guy, he generally portrayed characters about whom we weren’t that sure, such as the Saint and the Falcon.

The film is told in flashback. A junior agent quizzes FBI Chief Craig (Bond) as to why only six of the eight saboteurs were given the death penalty. Bond retrieves Steelman’s file and fills the agent in on the whole story. Steelman was in reality an FBI agent, who had been a mining engineer and explosives expert in South America before joining the Bureau. He’s sent to his hometown of Milwaukee to infiltrate the local German-American Bund. It is at such a meeting that he meets Ernst Reiter (Nurney), who divulges that he’s been called back to the Fatherland to be trained as a saboteur. Reiter dies in a police raid. The FBI keeps Reiter’s death a secret, allowing Steelman to become Reiter and attend the spy school in Reiter’s place.

To effectively pull off the ruse, Steelman must pretend to be a rabid Nazi even to his parents (Stossel and Janssen), who are predictably outraged. Steelman travels to Hamburg, Germany, posing as Reiter, and begins his studies. While in Hamburg he becomes enamored of a young woman named Helga Lorenz (Dur). Shortly after meeting her, Steelman is summoned to Gestapo headquarters by Colonel Taeger (Hoey) and informed that Lorenz is suspected of being a traitor. Taeger then orders him to continue seeing Lorenz to gather evidence against her. Visiting her at her apartment, he accidentally find anti-Nazi leaflets and warns her, but also notices they are being spied upon, so he denounces her to Taeger, who has her arrested and shipped to a concentration camp. However, Steelman intercepts the car taking her away and rescues her.

A stickier situation arises when Steelman is informed that Mrs. Reiter (Sten) wishes to see her husband. He has no choice but to tell her in private that her husband was captured in America and to give him a day to explain himself. Knowing that she will go immediately to the Gestapo, he beats her there and denounces her to Taeger as mentally incompetent. Taeger buys what Steelman is selling and has her thrown into a mental asylum.

Meanwhile, back in America, Pops Steelman has become ill, possibly depressed over his son’s “conversion” to Nazism. Craig comes to visit and tells Pops the truth to put his mind at ease. However, he stresses over and over before leaving that this is top secret and cannot be divulged not even to Ma Steelman. So what does Pops Steelman do? He immediately tells the family’s doctor, Herman Holger (Ruman). We in the audience know that one does not tell Sig Ruman anything, for he’s one of the naughtiest Nazis on the planet. Dr. Holger immediately informs Germany, though not before Steelman has graduated with honors and is already at sea with his crew.

Taeger gets the message from Dr. Holger and cannot believe his eyes. He goes to see Frau Reiter at the asylum, shows her a photo of Steelman, and asks if that is her husband. He answers with an emphatic “nein,” and threatens to sink Taeger once she gets out. Taeger, seeing his future in Dachau, tells the asylum’s warder to shoot her, for didn’t the Fuehrer order all metal defectives to be killed? Exit Frau Reiter. Taeger then wires the submarine to inform them to turn back. Unfortunately, Steelman and his crew have already left on rubber rafts for the shore and the sub itself is blown apart by a explosive device Steelman has conveniently left behind.

Once ashore, the saboteurs are quickly captured. Craig makes Steelman keep his disguise and testify against the other men, as well as the four other saboteurs sent to Florida. Once back in Milwaukee, Steelman looks up Dr. Holger and informs him that he has a list of German agents in America. He further informs the Doctor that he is at number eight on the list as he arrests Holger for espionage. The film ends with Craig explaining to the inquiring agent that Steelman is already on another undercover assignment.

The first thing we notice after the film ends is that for an action film, it has little action. We also notice that Sanders is badly miscast as the hero an action figure and overall sensitive guy a role that does not play to his acting strengths. Sten, whose career was long past the time when Samuel Goldwyn was billing her as the new Garbo (amazing what happens when your first three movies bomb badly), is quite effective playing the outraged Frau Reiter. She makes the most of her small role, conveying the fine line between confusion and outrage, with her German accent perfect.

The most puzzling bit of casting was having Cockney Dennis Hoey playing Gestapo Colonel Taeger. Hoey gives it his best, but it just doesn’t come off, being more comic than anything else. Dur, as the threatened Helga, is as flat as last night’s beer, doing nothing else except taking her cues from Sanders. The film may be ripped from yesterday’s headlines, but it is nothing more than layer upon layer of cliché. Note Steelman’s parents. Stossel is essentially playing the same sort of character he played in Universal’s Frankenstein series as the angry, confused villager. They may have come to blow up America, but we’d have been better off if they just blew up the plot instead.

Saturday, July 26, 2014

James Garner: In Memoriam

TCM to Show 24 Hours of Garner's Movies

By The Editors

TCM has preempted its regularly scheduled programming on July 28, starting at 6:00 am, in order to honor the late James Garner with a 24-hour marathon of his films.

Garner, who passed away on July 20 from natural causes, began his film career in 1955 with Warner Brothers, cutting his teeth in supporting roles. His first starring role came in the film Darby’s Rangers (1958), when he replaced Charlton Heston, who walked off the film.

However, he achieved stardom as a result of Warner’s placing him in a television series the studio launched in 1957, Maverick. Garner played Bret Maverick in the comedic Western, a role that fit his personality like a glove. The series was originally supposed to alternate between the Maverick brothers, played by Garner and Jack Kelly, but Garner became so popular that the show quickly became all about Garner’s character, who used his wits, rather than a gun, to settle disputes.

When it came to his onscreen roles, however, Warner’s stuck him in dull fare, such as Up Periscope (1958) and Cash McCall (1960). Garner took advantage of a suspension during the 1960 writer’s strike to sue Warner’s for breach of contract. He won and became a free agent, able to demand more for his services.

His first major role after his victory was a supporting one in The Children’s Hour (1961), starring Shirley MacLaine and Audrey Hepburn. Starring roles soon followed in such films as Boy’s Night Out (1962) and the acclaimed The Great Escape (1963). He followed that success with The Americanization of Emily with Julie Andrews (1964), and the war thriller 36 Hours (1965).

But Garner’s fame really came from television, and he returned to the small tube in 1971 with the short-lived western Nichols. In 1974, he took on his most renowned role, that of investigator in the hit series The Rockford Files (1974-1980) playing investigator Jim Rockford. A combination of injuries (suffered from doing his own stunts) and frequent pay disputes led to his quitting the series while it was still a hit.

He returned to the movies with choice roles in such hits as Blake Edwards’ musical, Victor/Victoria (1982), playing once more opposite Julie Andrews. He also won a plum role opposite Sally Field in the comedy Murphy’s Romance (1985), playing an older Wyatt Earp alongside Bruce Willis as Tom Mix in Sunset (1988), and a role as an ex-president in the comedy My Fellow Americans (1996), with Jack Lemmon.

He also returned to his television roots, reviving the role of Bret Maverick in a short-lived return on the iconic series (1981-1982), and also accepted a small role in the big screen version of the show (1994) opposite star Mel Gibson playing the role Garner made famous.

He filled in the time between big screen appearances bringing back his character of Jim Rockford with a series of television movies from 1994-1999, and playing Mark Twain in the TV movie Roughing It (2002). His last hit movie was the tearjerker The Notebook (2004), with Gena Rowlands.

Garner was also famous for a series of commercials he made with actress Marianne Hartley for Polaroid in the 1970s. The commercials became so popular people thought Garner and Hartley were married in real life.

A stroke suffered in 2008 led to retirement from films and television in 2010, and Garner lived quietly in Los Angeles until his death. He is survived by his wife, Lois Clarke, to whom he was married in 1956, his daughter Greta “Gigi) Garner, and his adopted daughter Kimberly, from Clarke’s first marriage.

Among the films to be shown on July 28 are his first, Toward the Unknown (1956) at 6:00 am, Grand Prix (1966) at 9:30 am, Darby’s Rangers (1958) at 4:00 pm, The Thrill of It All (1963) at 8:00 pm, The Americanization of Emily (1964) at 10:00 pm, The Children’s Hour (1961) at midnight, and Victor/Victoria (1982) at 2:00 am.

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Planes 2: Fire and Rescue

Dinner and a Movie

Flying Fire Fighters and Fabrick

By Steve Herte

This weekend I had the opportunity to attend a small family reunion at my sister's house in Milford, Connecticut.

My niece Julie and her husband James were up from Florida with their one-year-old daughter Annabelle. When they named her I immediately thought of the beautiful poem by Edgar Allan Poe. When I heard that her middle initial was "E" (for Elizabeth) the reference was complete - Annabelle E! She's a very serious looking child, absorbing everything in her surroundings, and not leaving Mommy or Daddy (she can walk) until she decides it's safe to do so. In that way she's like I was (and still am partially). My guard is always up until you prove trustworthy. Probably that's why I have less than 100 on Facebook. But being cautious has worked for me in general. The few real adventures I engaged in were exciting but not life threatening. But over the years I've gained the ability to trust certain sources that were reliably consistent. One of these is Pixar (even though the Mouse that Roared swallowed them up) and the other is David Burke. Which brings me to this week's Dinner and a Movie. Enjoy!

Planes 2: Fire and Rescue (Disney, 2014) - Director: Roberts Gannaway. Writer: Jeffrey M. Howard. Cast/Voices: Dane Cook, Ed Harris, Julie Bowen, Curtis Armstrong, John Michael Higgins, Hal Holbrook, Wes Studi, Brad Garrett, Teri Hatcher, Stacy Keach, Cedric the Entertainer, Dale Dye, Danny Mann, Barry Corbin, Regina King, Jerry Stiller, Anne Meara, Curtis Armstrong, Corrie English, Matt Jones, Fred Willard, Bryan Callen, Danny Pardo, Erik Estrada, John Ratzenberger, Rene Auberjonois, & Kevin Michael Richardson. Color, 83 minutes.

It’s always amazing when a sequel out-entertains the original because of the extreme rarity of the occurrence. Planes 2 succeeds where others fail through the professionalism of the film artists and animators at Disneytoons. Although both Planes movies are spin-offs of Pixar’s Cars, the production rights go to Disney Corporation under the directorship of Roberts Gannaway. When I was anticipating seeing this film it was for the spectacular camera angles that were so realistic they swept me into the action of the moment and made me forget that the characters were talking vehicles (there’s not a person nor animal in the entire flick). My expectations were met and exceeded. I was glad I didn’t see it in IMAX or in just 3D, when I joined the audience in following (or preceding) Dusty Crophopper (Cook) as he soared in daredevil maneuvers between pylons, under bridges and in loop-the-loop flying. It was breathtaking and a little dizzying.

Dusty’s days as a racer plane are over when he tries a stall climb and strips a gear in his gear-box and learns from his able mechanic, the forklift named Sparky (Mann) that the replacement part isn’t being made anymore. Though his friends Dottie (Hatcher), Skipper (Keach) and Chug (Garrett) try to console him, he leaves their company and goes flying after dark, trying to push his engine “into the red zone,” which he was warned never to do again, stalls out, and careens into the local gathering place for his friends, setting it on fire. Mayday, the fire truck (Holbrook) can’t put the fire out by himself and enlists the help of both planes and cars to topple the water tower and extinguish it that way. This sparks an investigation by Ryker (Richardson) of TMST (“This Means Serious Trouble” suggests one character) Transportation Management Safety Team, with the result being that Mayday needs an overhaul because of his age and the “town” needs a second firefighter. Feeling guilty for being the cause of this, Dusty flies off to Piston Peak National Park to become trained and certified as such.

There he meets Blade Ranger (Harris) a serious helicopter, Maru (Armstrong) a whiz of a mechanic forklift, Windlifter (Studi) an enigmatic and stolid Cherokee helicopter, and Lil’ Dipper (Bowen), a star-struck tanker plane who has followed Dusty’s career avidly. Also in this group are Cabbie (Dye) a huge transport plane, and the Smoke Jumpers, Dynamite (King), Pinecone (English), Avalanche (Callen), Blackout (Pardo) and Drip (Jones). After Maru trades his landing gear for refillable pontoons Dusty starts his training with the reluctant Blade Ranger.

Meanwhile, Park Superintendent Cad Spinner (Higgins), a fast-talking luxury SUV, is holding a huge gala at his lodge and is expecting attendees and celebrities from all over (including Boat Reynolds and the Secretary of the Interior – voiced by Willard) and he doesn’t want to hear anything about a forest fire heading straight toward his lodge. This becomes the major challenge for the fire-fighting planes and the still uncertified Dusty, who has to prove himself in a real emergency.

I loved Planes 2 for the sheer scope of the film and the cast of excellent characters and their famous voices. In addition to those I’ve already discussed, Stiller and Meara voice two elderly recreational vehicles, revisiting the place where they first met. Estrada revisits his television role as a Police helicopter side-kick Nick ‘Loopin’ Lopez in CHoPS with Blade Ranger. Ratzenberger revives his part as Brodi and Auberjonois joins the cast as Concierge, a French-accented forklift at the lodge.

Bring the children to this movie and have a great time, though I would not suggest bringing babies. There are several scenes with loud noises and the babies in my audience did not react well to them. The film is squeaky clean with regard to language and any sexual content and the violence is played down. The worst expletives I heard were “Chevy!” and “Stick Shifts!”

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.

David Burke Fabrick
47 West 38th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues)New York

Having dined at david burke and donatella (yes, all lower case, but now the David Burke Townhouse), Fishtail, Kitchen, and David Burke Prime at Foxwoods Casino, I was delighted to see a new David Burke establishment called Fabrick in the Archer Hotel. You could say I’m a fan of the chef, especially after meeting him at Kitchen in the James Hotel downtown. He’s a great personality with a zeal for innovative cuisine. I really should visit his restaurant in Bloomingdale's department store, once called Le Train Bleu. It’s the only one I’ve missed.

The Archer Hotel is recessed from the main sidewalk on 38th Street to allow for a sidewalk café attached to Fabrick. Inside, the bright red chairs and yellow banquettes at bare wood tables are arranged informally to create an indoor “outdoor” experience. The dark wood and open brick walls lead to a beautiful skylight over the “shack” that is the kitchen in the back. The ceiling over my table was a colorful tapestry from which twin antique fans hung and spun. All of David Burke’s restaurants have some unusual decorative accent such as the glass “balloons” at Townhouse. Fabrick has a wrought iron chandelier enclosed in a birdcage hanging from a coiled rope that was purchased from an outfit known as Restoration Hardware. (Thus I was informed by my waiter Erik, with whom I was on a first name basis by the end of the meal).

After a fantastic Manhattan infused with maple syrup (the perfect Welcome Back drink after my stay in Vermont), Erik assisted me with the menu which was organized into four categories: Mostly Veg, Meat, Fish, and Sides with the smaller sized dishes listed first and the larger ones second in each half of a category. I told Erik what interested me, how big my appetite was and how slow an eater I am and that I was looking at a three-course meal. When he heard my choice of entrée, he added a course and I agreed. I asked for the wine list and chose the 2012 “Geyserville” Zinfandel from Ridge Vineyards in Sonoma County – a delicious deep red varietal consisting of mostly zinfandel (71%) and rest is Carignane, Petit Syrah, Alicante Bouchet and Mataro (Mourvèdre) – fruity yet authoritative without being heavy.

While Erik was off attending to my order the executive chef arrived with the Amuse Bouche, a delicately sliced fluke dish with a citrus sauce and basil olive oil – a nice beginning, understated but tasty. But then my first appetizer arrived – a Foie Gras Torchon (goose liver paté formed into a patty) on a small bun with a peach sauce – a special for the day. It was wonderful as well as strange. Really, eating foie gras as if it were a burger! But that’s David Burke. The two girls at the next table were being served the candied bacon suspended by clothespins on a miniature washing line.

Next came the dish Erik recommended, the Red Snapper Ceviche in a fiery grapefruit sauce and topped with fried plantain chips. I was amazed how something so fruity could be so spicy at the same time. Various spicy items raced through my thoughts as I tried to isolate what was causing the fiesta in my mouth (probably some hot pepper essence).

If you’ve kept up with my reviews you would know by now that octopus and I are old friends. The Angry Tacos featured grilled octopus with garlic, soft tortillas, an avocado purée, chipotle aioli, and pico de gallo. Though a bit messy to eat, they were fun to construct and delicious. I particularly loved the little iron pan the octopus was served in.

Erik brought a formidable steak knife for the main course bearing the David Burke logo on it. I would compare it to an amalgam of a steak knife and a meat cleaver. The Lamb Chops and Ribs were served on a cutting board with the grilled ramps. The curried shoestring fries were in a neat paper cone supported by a silver bowl nearby. As Erik advised, the Vindaloo barbeque sauce on the ribs was not the Indian style hotter-than-hot sauce but a respectable spicy topping. The curried fries however, were seriously addicting and the lamb almost did not need the horror-film knife.

Of course I was ready for dessert after this and normally I retain the slip showing what I had, but this time, for some reason I was really enjoying myself and neglected to do so. Let it just be said that in involved exotic fruit flavored sorbet, meringue and a slice of dense sweet pie looking like a sailing ship with caramelized sails. That and a cognac finished a truly David Burke dinner-experience. Fabrick has only been open for a month but I can see it going for a long time with Chef Burke at the helm.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, July 21, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for July 23-31

July 23–July 31


BELLE DE JOUR (July 23, 12:30 am): Catherine Deneuve as a prostitute already sounds like it's going to be a good film even if the script is mediocre. It turns out the storyline of this 1967 film is excellent, the acting is fantastic and it's all expertly directed by the great Luis Bunuel. Deneuve is a bored and prim French housewife, with a very kinky side even though she's a prude when it comes to her husband. She ends up making some of those fantasies come true when she becomes an afternoon hooker at a brothel. The film blends reality and fantasy leaving the viewer wondering what is real and what isn't. While this can be frustrating in other movies, it somehow enhances this film. It's one of Deneuve's finest performances and is a landmark in mainstream erotic films even though it never shows any explicit sex scenes.

WILD STRAWBERRIES (July 28, 10:00 pm): You can't go wrong with any of the six Ingmar Bergman films TCM is airing on July 28, starting at 8:00 pm. They all come with my highest recommendation. However, if you have to choose one – and really, is there any reason to watch only one? – go with 1957's Wild Strawberries. Bergman isn't light viewing, but the insight into humanity his films provide are worth it. This film is about a 78-year-old professor (Victor Sjostrom) who is traveling across Sweden to receive an honor from the university of which he earned his doctorate. Accompanied by his daughter-in-law (Ingrid Thulin), he picks up young hitchhikers and through nightmares, flashbacks and reflections as well as observing his fellow travelers, he learns about his life. It's so brilliant and moving that the viewer also learns about himself/herself if that person allows it. It's easily one of the 10 greatest films ever made.


THE MUMMY (July 26, 12:15 am): Boris Karloff gives one of his strongest and best-remembered performances as Imhotep, an Egyptian mummy revived after thousands of years. Zita Johann co-stars as his reincarnated love. Billed as “Karloff the Uncanny” in publicity for this film, Boris lives up to the moniker – and then some. Watch for the great scene when archaeologist Bramwell Fletcher reads the magic scroll that brings Karloff back to life and laughs himself insane when Karloff revives and walks away with the scroll. The makeup was years ahead of its time, adding to the eerie atmosphere. It’s one Karloff performance not to be missed.

TO BE OR NOT TO BE (July 31, 2:15 am): No, it’s not the 1942 Ernst Lubitsch original, but the 1983 Mel Brooks remake. And it almost equals the original. Brooks merges the separate roles of Joseph Tura (played by Jack Benny in the original) and bit part player and Hitler imitator Bronski (Tom Dugan) into one Frederic Bronski, but is very careful not to go too far astray, and the changes he does make are excellent. But the real gem in this production is Mel’s wife, Anne Bancroft. As Anna Bronski, she brings to the role the love for her husband and the frustration with his antics. Brooks, like Lubitsch before him, has an excellent supporting cast and makes good use of each. Jose Ferrer makes for a wonderful traitorous Professor Siletski, and Charles Durning almost walks away with the picture as the hilariously inept Gestapo Colonel Erhardt. Usually I wince whenever a remake is mentioned, but this one is funny and well-paced. By the way, look for the tribute to Jack Benny.

WE DISAGREE ON ... LUST FOR LIFE (July 24, 8:00 pm)

ED: A+. When considering a biopic about a person as passionate as Van Gogh, one needs an actor who can be passionate without chewing up the available scenery. And in Kirk Douglas we have that perfect actor. He brilliantly conveys the emotional state of Van Gogh without resorting to stage theatrics or trying to outshine his co-stars. In fact, there are times throughout the film when Anthony Quinn, who won a well-deserved Oscar as Paul Gauguin, outshines Douglas in their scenes together. (More kudos to Douglas for placing the importance of his subject before his ego.) As with any quality production, it is absolutely essential to have a good director and an excellent supporting cast. And Lust for Life has both. Vincente Minnelli has the good sense to stand back and let the story unfold while getting superb performances from a stellar supporting cast, including the underrated James Donald, Henry Daniell, Lionel Jeffries, Niall McGinnis, Laurence Naismith, and the always-dependable Everett Sloane. But in the end it’s up to the star to carry the project, and Douglas does just that with a textured performance for the ages. This is a film I can watch time and time again without feeling bored.

DAVID: C-. You won't get an argument from me that Kirk Douglas is one of cinema's all-time greatest actors and that over the years, Anthony Quinn showed himself to be a fantastic talent who delivered great performances in the right circumstances. While Quinn won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his eight-minute performance in this 122-minute film and Douglas was his excellent self, this movie about Vincent Van Gogh, an interesting and intense figure in the history of art, does very little for me. I don't enjoy the story, how it's told, the pacing of the film or most anything else even though I recognize the strength of the acting. It's that strength in this overly melodramatic film that saves it from me giving it a grade lower than a C-. Not that it has much to do with this film, but while Van Gogh's life was fascinating, his art is highly overrated.

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

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Richard Christian Matheson

The Master of the Short Horror Tale

By Steve Herte

Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks by Richard Christian Matheson (New York: Tor Books, 1988), 288 pages.

Read any good books lately? I just finished a dandy. A good friend recommended this to me, advising me to think of “Twilight Zone” and Stephen King while reading it. Well, that was all I needed to hear. Scars and Other Distinguishing Marks by Richard Christian Matheson (1988) is a collection of short stories featuring plot twists reminiscent of Twilight Zone episodes. In fact several of them were published in Twilight Zone Magazine.

I didn’t have to wait too long for the “Stephen King” part because the man himself wrote a glowing forward to the book, complimenting Matheson on style and amazing brevity while getting to the point of each story without wasting words. After having read 61 of Mr. King’s books, I trust his opinion implicitly and he did not disappoint. In addition, there is the introduction by Dennis Etchinson, another noted writer of fantasy and horror, author of The Dark Country (who tied with King in 1982 for the World Fantasy Award) that set my curiosity humming for Matheson’s tales.

This led me into an examination of Matheson himself. I originally had him confused with his famous father, but Richard Christian Matheson stands on his own, living proof that the acorn does not fall far from the tree. He was born on October 14, 1953, to Richard Burton and Ruth Matheson. His mother was a clinical psychologist, specializing in cases of substance abuse. His younger brother, Chris, is also a writer, with Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure (1989) to his credit. Richard became a professional writer in 1978 and has written over 300 teleplays as well as screenplays for movies. When he’s not writing, he’s on the front lines for animal rights. And would it surprise anyone to learn that he’s also a ghost hunter?

Before we examine his television and motion picture work, let’s take a look at Scars. It’s a masterly collection of 26 short stories, one written in conjunction with his father, and a screenplay from Amazing Stories titled “Magic Saturday.”

I must admit that the first couple of stories were rather obtuse and had me wondering what Matheson was getting at, but then he hit his stride with the next tale and I was eager to find out what happened next and what will happen in the following story. Allow me to give brief encapsulations and you can be the judge of whether or not they entice.

"Third Wind” – A man trying to achieve a new personal best in his athletic running discovers he can’t stop.

"Sentences” – A man has his screwed-up life rewritten by a company called “Script Sure,” but they don’t consult the original scriptwriter.

"Unknown Drives” – A slow-moving farm truck driver frustrates an impatient driver in a Mustang on a narrow, two-lane road, deliberately.

Timed Exposure” – A couple uses a carnival photo booth that doesn’t print the photos until later and another customer sees they predict murder.

Obsolete” – A robot homeowner cans his old human woman servant.

Red” – A father is picking up the pieces of his daughter who got caught on the car door handle while riding her bike.

Beholder” – A woman artist paints herself into a steamy love scene.

Dead End” – A couple in a Porsche trying to bring the life back into their marriage can’t avoid a dead end (literally) in the Hollywood Hills.

Graduation” – Letters from college reveal a mysterious dorm room death and later a devastating fire but these experiences yield an “A” grade in Philosophy.

Conversation Piece” – The only story in interview format, a man explains how he enjoys selling his own body parts for a living to support his family.

Echoes” – A millionaire businessman suddenly hears screams and moans increasing in volume and pain and hurls himself out of a window.

Incorporation” – A yuppie learns that the meaning of “I am the corporation” is literal in this case – over an open fire.

Hell” – On a 100-degree-plus day in L.A., three cars block a woman’s car and push her over a cliff while the Doors “When the Music’s Over,” plays.

Break-Up” – A man leaves his brokenhearted lover, immediately forgets her and transforms into someone else.

Mr. Right” – A woman tells her psychiatrist about the psycho wife-beater she married but she can’t leave him because of his prowess in bed.

Cancelled” – A network “King of the Spin-offs” imagines dead versions of himself in his house and dies of fright.

Mugger” – A thieving team steals eyes for profit.

The Dark Ones” – A dolphin family flees human fishermen, told from their point of view.

Holiday” – Karl meets Santa Claus in Bermuda and gets a gift from his childhood.

Vampire” – All one-word sentences, no verbs, articles, conjunctions, prepositions.

Intruder” – An automated home protection system prefers to “remove” rather than “stun” intruders.

Dust” – A man living on Mars is conducting a war against dust.

Goosebumps” – A mysterious bump under a man’s skin is eating him from the inside and is growing.

Mobius” – A cop grills a retarded man into believing and confessing that he’s a serial killer.

Where There’s a Will” – A man wakes up buried in a coffin, claws his way out, and calls home from a gas station only to find out he really is dead.

Magic Saturday” (screenplay) – A grandfather and his grandson magically exchange bodies as Grandpa is about to die.

It just wouldn’t be a discussion of Richard Christian Matheson if I were negligent in examining his work for television and the movies.

Matheson’s teleplays run the gamut of the times – from Three’s Company to several episodes of The A-Team. But as time went on Matheson began to involve himself in the family business of writing and adapting tales of horror and the fantastic.

Sole Survivor (Columbia TriStar Television, 2000): This four-hour miniseries starring Billy Zane, Gloria Reuben and Isabella Hoffman is based on the best-seller by Dean Koontz. After his wife and daughter are killed in a plane crash, a newspaper reporter discovers that the crash may have been related to a secret scientific experiment involving children. A woman, who claims she was a survivor of the crash, approaches at his wife's grave. This leads into a plot by the Quartermass organization to capture her and a young girl she is protecting, for the girl has the powers to heal and to transport. A villainous killer and a young boy who can control minds from a distance lead the attack.

Masters of Horror (2005-2007): Matheson contributed two episodes to this highly-regarded horror series from Anchor Bay.

The Damned Thing (2005): Matheson and Mick Garris adapted this story by Ambrose Bierce. A monstrous force devastates Sheriff Kevin Reddle's family and his small Texas town. Reddle thinks there is a connection between force and an invisible force that made his father kill his mother back in 1981. He has to uncover and stop the so-called "Damned Thing" before it decimates his whole town by forcing the residents to kill each other and themselves.

Dance of the Dead (2005): Matheson and Garris adapted this episode from a short story of the same name by Matheson’s father. Set in a post-apocalypse society, 17-year-old Peggy lives with her over-protective mother and works in her restaurant. She misses her sister Anna, who died some time ago. When two couples of punks come to the place for some burgers, Peggy becomes attracted to Jak, who invites her to go out on date with him later. Peggy goes out with Jak without telling her mother, and they go across town to a dark place, the Doom Room, where the Master of Ceremonies (Robert Englund) is the ringmaster of a freak show with dead performers. The MC injects blood in the dead, and they dance on a ring for the audience. When Peggy sees her undead sister Anna dancing in the show, the MC discloses the truth about her presence in the circus.

Nightmares and Dreamscapes: From the Stories of Stephen King (TNT, 2006 teleplay) In an eight-episode adaptation of King's short stories, Matheson adapted the first episode, Battleground. A hit man (William Hurt) who whacked a toy maker (Bruce Spence) finds himself besieged in his apartment by an army of toy soldiers bent on revenge.

Happy Face Killer (Lifetime Television, 2014, with the story and screenplay created in concert with his father): Serial killer Keith Jesperson (David Arquette) murders at least eight women over a five-year span. He taunts authorities with disturbing letters and scribbled confessions signed with a happy face.

But wait, there’s more! We wouldn’t be doing our job here at the Celluloid Club if we didn’t include Matheson’s notable silver screen credits.

Three O’Clock High (Universal, 1987): High school nerd, Jerry Mitchell (Casey Siemaszko) is assigned to write a piece for the school paper about new boy Buddy Revell (Richard Tyson), who is rumored to be a psychopathic nutcase. When Jerry accidentally touches Buddy, Buddy tells him that they must fight in the parking lot at 3 pm. Jerry will just about do anything to avoid the confrontation.

Loose Cannons (Columbia, 1990): This film, written in partnership with his father, concerns a veteran police detective whose new partner is a younger detective who's a brilliant criminologist. There’s only one problem: he has multiple personality disorder.

It Waits (Anchor Bay, 2005): A lone female park ranger (Cerina Vincent) tries to track down a vicious creature killing various people and terrorizing her at a remote national park.

And all this started with reading a book. All this research has me curious about his father as well, especially that classic William Shatner episode of Twilight Zone. Thanks Ed, for leading me on a new path of discovery!

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Earth to Echo

Dinner and a Movie
Echoes of French Cuisine

By Steve Herte

I woke up this morning with a song lyric in my head: "When the wint'ry winds are blowing and the snow is starting in to fall, then my eyes turn westward knowing that's the place I love the best of all..." Only a few Barbershop singers could tell you those are the first two lines of the intro to the song "California Here I Come." I guess they popped into my head because, One, it was the first song I ever sang in a quartet (as a Lead singer, Tenor was a little later), and Two, Hollywood seems to be running short of novel ideas for movies. We live in an era of spin-offs, sequels, prequels, revivals and mash-ups. On Broadway they use the excuse that "there's a whole generation that hasn't seen this and show, so we're bringing it back. Well, guess what? They still haven't. The revival of Pippin is ridiculously different from the one I saw in 1970. I don't get it. But I do know what I like and won't be fooled by yesterday’s leftovers. Neither should anyone else. Enjoy!

Earth to Echo (Disney, 2014) - Director: Dave Green. Writers: Henry Gayden (s/p and story), Andrew Panay (story). Cast: Teo Halm, Brian “Astro” Bradley, Reese Hartwig, Elle Wahlestedt, Jason Gray-Stanford, Alga Smith, Cassius Willis, & Sonya Leslie. Color, 89 minutes.

Have I ever mentioned that Hollywood has run out of ideas for new stories? Take the general plot from E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, add a dash of Stand By Me, Goonies and It (for sibling interactions only); modernize the technology behind the mechanical owl in Clash of the Titans, and you pretty much have 90 percent of this film. Add to that the annoying hand-held camera photography of  The Blair Witch Project, Quarantine, and Cloverfield, and the remaining 10 percent is covered. Then take away the element of surprise because all of the best scenes (including the spectacular ending) are in the trailers. Granted, it’s only an hour and 29 minutes long, but trailers should generate interest – not give the whole thing away.

The story is simple. Three best friends, Alex (Helm), Tuck (Bradley), and Munch (Hartwig), are planning their last night together in the same housing development because they all have to move out for a ‘Freeway’ that is coming through. They notice that their smart phones ‘barf themselves’ or display a messy pattern on their screens whenever they visit Munch’s house. It doesn’t take them long to figure out that the abstract image is a map of the desert outside their neighborhood. They decide to give their parents cross-instructions of sleepovers and video game playing at each others houses and take their bikes out to find where the “map” leads. Fortunately, all their parents are too preoccupied with moving to take notice. Tuck is the cameraman, carrying a pair of “camera glasses,” which are essential to scenes after the authorities eventually catch them.

The map leads them to a “No Trespassing” area where they find what appears to be a small, unexploded bomb. It reacts to Alex’s voice and indicates where it wants to go next on their smart phones. They name the creature Echo because it repeats any amount of syllables they speak to it. Little by little it adds pieces to itself at each destination until it is able to open up, revealing the adorable alien creature inside. It can understand them if they ask simple “yes” or “no” questions. One of the destinations is the house of Emma (Wahlstedt), a girl on whom they all have a crush. When she discovers them in her bedroom, Emma becomes a part of the team.

They learn that not only is there not going to be a freeway built through their neighborhood, but that the U.S. government has shot down Echo’s ship. They are searching for it and its driver to dispose of both.

The kids travel back and forth by bike and other vehicles: dodging, being caught, escaping the authorities, and helping Echo find the necessary parts to resurrect his space ship (which is enormous and buried beneath the housing development).

If it weren’t for the other movies contributing pieces to this, it would be a charming adventure: it’s well written, well acted, and fun for the whole family. The humor is subtle and the special effects are dazzling, sometimes frightening (supported by the musical background) in their suddenness. I had a special sense of identification with the story because, shortly after we moved to where I live now, we learned that the city was planning to extend a highway right through our new house. Thankfully that never came to fruition. My advice for viewers of Earth to Echo is, bring the kids and sit back and enjoy.  Go for ice cream afterwards.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Racines NY
94 Chambers Street (Between Church and Broadway)New York

Nobody at my office is going to believe that there is an excellent French restaurant at this location. I didn’t believe it myself. The block of Chambers Street between Church Street and Broadway in downtown Manhattan is littered with “bargain” junk shops, Chinese take-out places and funky bars. Not exactly restaurant row. Being a savvy New Yorker, I know that even numbers on streets are on the south side and I walked from the highest address end of Chambers Street (at the West Side Highway) down to where I hoped to find Racines. I missed it twice before I found it. And no wonder: the number 94 is not visible, but next door, the number 94A announces the Chinese take-out place. The name of the restaurant is nearly invisible on the glass door, which is recessed from the rest of the glass front at the sidewalk and is printed in charcoal gray, two-inch block letters.

Inside I met Gaetano, who seated me and split his time between being my server and being the captain/greeter. I dubbed him the “Greeter-Seater” which he liked. He presented me with the menu and wine list and both a glass of tap water with a bottle to refill it. The décor is simple Bistro – open brick wall on one side, white painted wall on the other, white tin ceiling, and the kitchen and “chef’s table” in the back. Simple bare bulb swags provide the lighting. I chose to sit at a table in the front window (my usual preference, when available).

The menu is a single page featuring five appetizers, four entrées, the cheese plate and three desserts. Each description is minimal and concise (usually an indication that great care is put into the creation of each dish). After a short interrupted discussion with Gaetano (he was still changing hats back and forth) I decided on two appetizers and an entrée. Gaetano enthusiastically approved. Racines’ wine list is most impressive and has an extensive collection of French wines, but when I saw the 2006 Cubillo Crianza, a wonderful varietal of Tempranillo and Garnacha I was sure this was the one. Again, Gaetano approved.

While Gaetano was off putting in my order, another server brought the breadbasket and butter (Fresh, crusty sour-dough bread, yes!) and the Amuse Bouche – a lovely little creation using purple cauliflower in piquant green foam with toasted pine nuts. At this time, the bartender brought my wine, again enthusing over my choice. It had a strong personality in its nose, a beautiful deep red color and tasted bright and fruity at first and then warm and mellow as I swallowed it, perfect!

My first course arrived, the Veal Tartare, mixed with tarragon and pine nuts, under a blanket of warm fresh mayonnaise and crowned with marbled home-made potato chips and water cress. I commented to Gaetano that it was all I could do to not eat all the chips separately. But when combined with the other ingredients it was heavenly.

The second course was (I thought) a bit expensive for an appetizer ($35) but since I had a gift check I splurged. Anyway, Morels are my favorite fungus after truffles and this dish was Foraged Oregon Wild Morels (frankly, I’ve never heard of tame ones) in fresh, homemade Mozzarella from Di Palo’s in Little Italy, and aged balsamic vinaigrette. The earthy tender mushrooms combined with the fresh, only slightly chewy cheese and the vinegar was so sensual I told Gaetano that I didn’t need sex that night. This dish already provided that release. My wonderful Spanish wine kept pace with both dishes admirably so far.

My main course, simply described as lamb with shaved fennel, on a bed of artichoke and black olives and sided with a dollop of salsa verde didn’t come close to the gustatory bliss it provided. I generally do not like the flavor of fennel, which usually is overpowering, but here, combined with the salsa verde and the tender, juicy filet of lamb the net effect was the best Foie Gras! Yes, believe me. There was no goose liver on the plate but the flavor was there. I told Gaetano that if Scooby-Doo and Shaggy had tasted this dish they would give up junk food forever. He was pleased and proudly told me that they get their lamb from Pennsylvania.

Then, with a gleam in his eye Gaetano asked if I wanted dessert. But of course! This decision was not easy as all the desserts interested me. But after due consideration the Pistachio Parfait was my choice. Now you must get the image of a tall dessert glass and a long spoon out of your head because that is not what arrived. The pistachio parfait was served molded (in a cup of some sort) and placed centrally in a bowl and surrounded by fresh raspberries and poached rhubarb. I loved it.

There are only a few meals where coffee does not add to the experience and Gaetano knew it. He presented me with the after-dinner drink list and I chose the Ravignan Bas-Armagnac. In no time, I had a large snifter in my hand and was enjoying the heady aroma and tastes of the best of French distilling.

Will I return to Racines? Sure, why not? With such a small menu, it has to change over time and I can pretty much guarantee that everything on it will be wonderful, especially if Bouillabaisse becomes a feature. I learned from Gaetano that Chef Frederic Duca is from Marseilles (where it was invented).

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