Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Cinéma Inhabituel for January 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea 


January’s Star of the Month is Robert Redford. Redford is emblematic of the new type of Hollywood star in that he first cut his celluloid teeth in television, which became the new “B-Movie” in the late ‘50s. He worked out of New York, which enabled him to find work on the Broadway stage and work in television when otherwise unemployed.

In 1962, Redford made his big screen debut in the Korean War drama War Hunt. The movie also marked the film debut of Sydney Pollack, who later turned to directing and became one of Redford’s strongest collaborators. Meanwhile, in 1963, Redford scored a major Broadway hit in Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park. He would reprise his role in the film adaptation.

Redford’s film breakthrough came with the 1969 megahit Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid, a role he took to escape being typecast. Other leading roles followed in such box office hits as Jeremiah Johnson (1972), The Candidate (1972), The Way We Were (1973), The Sting (1973), The Great Gatsby (1974), and All the President’s Men  (1976). There were flops as well: Downhill Racer (1969), Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here (1969), and The Hot Rock (1972). However, these tend to be erased by the public consciousness when measured against the hits.

In 1980, Redford made his directorial debut with the drama Ordinary People. It won the Oscar for Best Picture and Redford was awarded a statue for Best Director. His next film, The Milagro Beanfield War (1987), flopped, but his third directorial project, A River Runs Through Hit (1992) returned him to mainstream success and is notable for bringing Brad Pitt to prominence.

He remains active today, both as an actor and director, with the occasional foray as a producer.

January 6: It’s a night of solid hits, staring at 8:00 pm with The Sting. Then it’s Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid at 10:15, and Jeremiah Johnson at 12:15 am. For those who love acting debuts, War Hunt comes on at 2:30 am.

January 13: Start with Sydney Pollack’s 1968 overheated adaptation of Tennessee Williams’ This Property is Condemned with Redford and Natalie Wood at 8:00. Then it’s Redford’s 1967 reprise of his Broadway hit, Barefoot in the Park, at 10:00 pm. At midnight, it’s the excruciating Inside Daisy Clover (1965) with Wood again; and finally, at 2:15, it’s Arthur Penn’s interesting 1966 drama, The Chase, with Redford, Jane Fonda, Marlon Brando, Angie Dickinson, and for old-time movie fans, Miriam Hopkins and Martha Hyer.


January’s Friday Night Spotlight is dedicated to the film adaptations of Broadway superstar scribe Neil Simon. Simon began his career as a writer for such programs as The Phil Silvers Show and Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows. His Broadway debut came in 1961 with Come Blow Your Horn, which ran for 678 performances. After that, it was hit after hit: Barefoot in the ParkThe Odd CoupleGod’s Favorite, Chapter Two, I Ought to Be in Pictures, Brighton Beach Memoirs, Biloxi Blues, Broadway Bound, The Goodbye Girl, and Laughter on the 23rd Floor, among others.

So it was only natural that Hollywood should come knocking, seeing the money to be made in adaptations

January 2: We begin with The Odd Couple at 8:00 pm. Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon were never funnier than in this 1968 adaptation of Simon’s Broadway hit. Then it’s Lemmon again, starring with Sandy Dennis in the Out-Of-Towners (1970) at 10:00 pm. It wraps up at midnight with Frank Sinatra, Lee J. Cobb, and the delightful Molly Picon in Come Blow Your Horn (1963).

January 9: Simon also wrote original screenplays, and we begin at 8:00 pm with his tribute to screen detectives, Murder By Death (1976). At 10:00 pm comes another original screenplay, an affectionate tribute to Bogart, The Cheap Detective (1978), starring Peter Falk, Marsha Mason, and the hilarious Madeline Kahn. At 11:30. we’re back to his adaptations with Plaza Suite (1971), consisting of three stories all set at the Plaza Suite hotel in New York City. And at 1:30 am. it’s his California Suite (1978), this time consisting of four stories set at the Beverly Hills hotel.


January 1: Beginning at 8:00 pm and running through the night. It’s a Marx Brothers marathon, with the films run in this order: 8:00 - Horse Feathers; 9:15 - A Night at the Opera; 11:00 - A Day at the Races; 1:00 am - Room Service; 2:30 am - At the Circus; 4:00 - Go West. The only disappointment is neither Duck Soup, their comic masterpiece, nor Monkey Business is included.


January 4: This night is reserved for one of the wonderful classics of cinema; a movie superbly written by Jacques Prevert and directed by the great Marcel Carne, and that film is Children of Paradise. It focuses on a theatrical troupe in 19th century France. Jean-Louis Barrault Jean-Gaspard “Baoptiste” Debureau, a romantic mime whose unrequited love for free-spirit Garance (Arletty) dominates his life, even after becoming famous on the stage. He’s not alone: Narcissistic actor Frederick Lemaitre (Pierre Brasseur) and master criminal Pierre-Francois Lacenaire (Marcel Herrand) are also pursuing her. However, all three are at a loss when Count Edouard de Montry (Louis Salou) enters the scene and convinces her to leave with him. Six years later, she returns to Paris and the rivalries are re-ignited, but this time with a deadly twist. Begun in 1943, during the Occupation, the film was not released until March 1945. Described by critics as an allegory of the Resistance, thing took a ironic turn when its leading lady, Arletty, was placed under house arrest due to her lengthy affair with Luftwaffe Colonel Hans Soehring, for whom she served as the proverbial “kept woman.” As it airs at the dreadful time of 2:00 am, recording is most advisable.

January 6: This day marks the 102nd anniversary of the birth of Loretta Young, and beginning at 6:15 am, TCM is honoring the occasion with a mini-marathon of her movies. And the fun part is that, with the exception of The Unguarded Hour from 1936, which airs at 6:30 pm, all of her other movies are Pre-Code. These include Big Business Girl (1931) at 7:30 am, followed by Taxi! (1932), with James Cagney, at 11:45 am, Employees’ Entrance, with Warren William, at 3:30 pm, and the sublimely gritty Heroes for Sale at 5:00 pm.

January 8: The anniversary of Elvis Presley’s birthday is also being celebrated with an all-morning and afternoon airing of his films. The best of the bunch are Viva Las Vegas (1964) at 11:15 am, and the concert film, Elvis: That’s The Way It Is (1970) at 6:00 pm.

January 11: The highlight of the day is Roman Polanski’s breakout film, Knife in the Water, airing at 2:00 am, followed by Purple Noon (1961), the best film version of Patricia Highsmith’s The Talented Mr. Ripley, starring Alain Delon in a remarkable performance as Tom Ripley.

January 13: At the absurd hour of 4:30 am airs one of the great Pre-Code films “exposing” the crimes of the chain gang, Hell’s Highway, from 1932. Richard Dix stars as a convict on the corruptly-run gang who has to change his escape plans when he learns that his younger brother, Tom Brown, will soon be joining him. Magnificently filmed and running the gamut of everything from racial prejudice to homosexuality, it makes for a powerful film that, unfortunately, fall flat on its face at the end.


January 14: TCM is devoting the morning and afternoon to teen films from the ‘60s. Such fare as Bikini Beach (1964), Herman Hermits in Hold On! (1966), and Get Yourself a College Girl (1964), are on the schedule, as is the incredibly awful Hootenanny Hoot (1963), which airs at 5:45 pm.

January 15: An entire morning and afternoon devoted to the works of William “One-Shot” Beaudine! We begin at 6:00 am with his 1942 work, Foreign Agent, and roll on until the last film, 1946’s Mr. Hex, with The Bowery Boys, at 6:45 pm. All were made for Monogram and all reflect the care and tenderness for which the studio is justly famous. Besides the aforementioned films, other highlights include Hot Rhythm (1944) at 9:45 am, Shadow of Suspicion (1944) at 12:30 pm, and Face of Marble (1946) at 5:30 pm.

Monday, December 29, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for January 1-7

January 1–January 7


THE ODD COUPLE (January 2, 8:00 pm): This is an excellent film though not as great as the television series primarily because the show is one of the five greatest TV programs of all time. The film, released in 1968, about two years before the TV show, follows the familiar storyline of divorced sportswriter Oscar Madison (Walter Matthau) allowing longtime friend, Felix Unger (Jack Lemmon), a photographer recently separated from his wife, to move in with him. Oscar is a slob and Felix is a neurotic neat-freak. The interaction between Matthau and Lemmon, which is so good in so many films, is outstanding here, second to only to 1966's The Fortune Cookie, the first movie in which they're paired together. Lemmon's opening scene in which he repeatedly fails to kill himself is hysterically funny. No matter how many times I watch it, I can't stop laughing when Felix calls Oscar at Shea Stadium, where the latter is covering a New York Mets game, about not eating hot dogs at the ballpark because he's making franks and beans for dinner that night. The calls distracts and angers Oscar to the point he turns away from game and misses a triple-play. The comedic timing between Matthau and Lemmon is excellent. The first season of the TV show is largely taken from the film, including a number of failed attempts by Oscar to have a good time with the Pigeon Sisters because of Felix's longing for his wife.

ESCAPE FROM NEW YORK (January 3, 3:00 am): The special effects in this 1981 science-fiction movie set in 1997 were cheap-looking when it was released. So what draws in the viewer? A great storyline with a solid, reliable group of actors - Donald Pleasence, Lee Van Cleef, Harry Dean Stanton and Ernest Borgnine - in supporting roles. Also, Kurt Russell, the movie's star, along with Adrienne Barbeau and Isaac Hayes, who have key parts, give the performances of their cinematic careers. Manhattan is abandoned by the general population and turned into a no-rules maximum-security prison with one caveat - it's not really maximum security as there is no security at all. If you end up there, you're on your own. After terrorists hijack Air Force One, the president (Pleasence) crash lands his escape pod on Manhattan. The government determines the only way to retrieve him is to send in Snake Plissken (Russell), a former soldier turned outlaw, to the island to retrieve the president. He's got 24 hours to succeed and be a free man. If he fails, an explosive injected into his body will kill him. The film is fast, engaging and filled with action. It's certainly not a cinematic masterpiece, but it's a hell of a fun ride and a cult classic.


HORSE FEATHERS (January 1, 8:00 pm): It doesn’t get much better, or funnier than this, unless one counts Duck Soup. The only thing in the film funnier than Chico and Harpo passing themselves off as football players is Groucho as the president of the university. Add the drop-dead gorgeous Thelma Todd as the “college widow,” and we have a near perfect comedy. There are many great scenes in the picture: Groucho’s installment as college president, The Marxes in the speakeasy, where Groucho mistakenly recruits Chico and Harpo as “student-athletes,” the classroom scene, Groucho and Todd in the boat on the lake, and, of course, the football game. The only glitch in the film is that Zeppo has practically nothing to do but show up to remind us that there are four Marx Brothers. Just tune in and be prepared to laugh.

CHILDREN OF PARADISE (January 4, 2:30 am): Marcel Carne’s masterpiece about acting and the theater comes to television, and I couldn’t be happier. Filmed under rather daunting conditions in Occupied France in 1943-44, Carne didn’t release it until 1945, in part because of the scandal involving his star, Arletty, who was under house arrest due to her lengthy affair as Luftwaffe Colonel Hans Soehring’s kept woman; he thought that, if given enough time, it would blow over. It didn’t and he finally released the film in March 1945. Though the story is set in 1827 Paris and is about three men who vie for the affections of the beautiful artiste Garance (Arletty), there are coded politics contained within. One had to be exceptionally clever - and close-mouthed - to get it past the Nazis. And yes, it is a definite “must see.”

WE DISAGREE ON ... ON THE TOWN (January 7, 2:15 pm)

ED: A-. Produced in the Golden Age of MGM musicals, On the Town is a delight for the eyes and the ears. This musical about three sailors in New York City on 24-hours shore leave, marks an important departure in the history of the movie musical. Prior musicals were studio bound, never leaving the soundstage. Director Gene Kelly, who earlier managed to shoot a Brooklyn Bridge sequence in 1947’s It Happened in Brooklyn, wanted to shoot this film on location. However, the studio allowed him only a week of shooting, hence the breakneck pace of the movie, which often used hidden cameras for the crowd scenes. The other innovation Kelly made was to emphasize dancing over the singing. Hitherto, musicals were dominated by song, but On the Town is noted for its dancing, including the use of dance to advance the plot. From this point forward, dance became the driving factor in MGM musicals. Not that music was forgone entirely: though the songs “New York, New York” and “Come Up to My Place” were the only songs kept from Leonard Bernstein’s original score for the Broadway musical, MGM employed Betty Comden and Adolph Green to write new lyrics for some of the original songs, and Roger Edens wrote six new songs for the movie. All of this innovation and styling would have been for naught if the movie turned out to be a dud. Not to worry - On the Town is one of the best musicals in the history of Hollywood. The dance numbers meld perfectly into the plot and enhance the musical numbers. Having Frank Sinatra to warble five of the songs didn’t hurt, either. Were I to teach a course on the history of the Hollywood musical, this film would not only be featured on the syllabus, but would be lionized for the breakthrough film it was.

DAVID: C. As you can read from Ed's review, many cinephiles, particularly fans of song-and-dance films, love On the Town. It has a certain charm to it, but is vastly overrated and too over-the-top for me to consider it a classic. I consider it nothing more than an average movie with a few good moments. There's too much of an "aww, shucks, golly, gee whiz" feel to the film that it become a corny, very dated musical with dancing thrown in for good measure like Oklahoma! and Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. There's a couple of problems with the song-and-dance focus - Gene Kelly wasn't much of a singer as he was more of a melodic talker, and Frank Sinatra was certainly no dancer. The plot is so predictable that the viewer knows right away that when the three sailors meet the three women with whom they fall in love that each is a fait accompli. The songs aren't good or memorable. The dancing by Kelly, Vera-Ellen and Ann Miller can be entertaining, but it's not enough to make me want to watch the movie again. The sailors are on 24-hour leave and looking for love. You would think that would make the film fast paced, and it is at times, and yet there are decent portions of it that drag like an anchor is tied to the movie.

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Friday, December 26, 2014

Night at the Museum 3 – Secret of the Tomb

Dinner and a Movie

The Best of Times, the Worst of Times

By Steve Herte

I've discovered that I rush my life more during Christmastime. A couple of time I've thought that appointments are more imminent than they actually are. I know there are many people in my situation. That, and with the end of the year in sight, I have my own little traditions to accomplish. The first is that the last restaurant in the old year is always my favorite restaurant in Manhattan: City Hall. The second is that the first restaurant of the New Year is always my favorite one in Brooklyn: Henry's End. Is that rushing my life or just anticipation? Anyhow, I was confronted with a party, with food included, on the same day I was going to the movies. This preempted a penultimate restaurant review. Instead, I've listed my top ten and bottom five for the new places I've visited this past year. Enjoy!

Night at the Museum 3 Secret of the Tomb (20th Century Fox, 2014) Director: Shawn Levy. Writers: David Guion, Michael Handelman (s/p); Mark Friedman, David Guion & Michael Handelman (story); Thomas Lennon, Robert Ben Garant (characters). Cast: Ben Stiller, Robin Williams, Owen Wilson, Steve Coogan, Ricky Gervais, Dan Stevens, Rebel Wilson, Skyler Gisondo, Rami Malek, Patrick Gallagher, Mizuo Peck, Ben Kingsley, Crystal the Monkey, Percy Hynes White, Dick Van Dyke, Mickey Rooney, Anjali Jay, & Bill Cobbs. Color, 97 minutes.

There is a qualification for my ratings, which I describe simply as the “Wow” factor. It’s when you leave a movie feeling almost tired from the adrenalin coursing through your system and breathe deeply outside the theater, and either say or think the word. That’s the only thing this film was lacking in, and only minimally at that. I guess I can say that after the original and the first sequel I was inured to the spectacular computer graphic effects and had come to love and accept the cast as good friends. When I left the theater this time I was almost sad because I realized that there was no chance of another Museum movie in the series. Believe me, it was obvious when, at the end of the credits there were “loving memory” dedications to both Robin Williams and Mickey Rooney.

It begins in 1938 at an archeological dig in Egypt when young Cecil (White) accidentally crashes through the ceiling of the very tomb his father was seeking just as a violent sandstorm is nearly upon their caravan. Although warned by the locals not to touch anything because “the end will come,” Dad orders that the trucks be loaded quickly and the sarcophagi and treasures are removed before the storm’s fury hits. The key piece of this discovery is the gold tablet with the three by three matrix of rotatable cartouches. This enables everything in a museum to come to life after sundown.

Well, something bad is happening to the tablet, something like a creeping green mold that diminishes its power. Larry Daley, (Stiller) the night watchman at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, has by now become so familiar with the various characters in the exhibits that he orchestrates “special effects” entertainment at formal galas in the new glass-enclosed Rose Center, where the Hayden Planetarium is now housed in a globe representing the sun. Everything is going beautifully on cue: Teddy Roosevelt (Williams) trots in on his horse and gives an elegant monologue introducing the Constellations. Led by Leo, the Lion, they sparkle as they sweep into the hall and dance around the ceiling. Dexter, the capuchin monkey, descends from the center of the ceiling on ribbons and performs a Cirque du Soleil- like acrobatic routine... until the mold creeps farther up the tablet and everything goes crazy. Animals and Neanderthals charge into the room, Orion starts shooting arrows at any target he can find, and Dexter attacks Larry. The guests are terrified and Dr. McPhee (Gervais) is mortified.

The next night, Larry holds a confab with all the animated characters and, with Ahkmenrah (Malek), concludes that the deterioration of the tablet is the cause. Ahkmenrah suggests that his father would be the one to fix it. With a bit of research, Larry learns that the only living member of the original archeological team was Cecil (now Van Dyke) and he visits him in the nursing home where he lives, along with Gus (Rooney) and Reginald (Cobbs). Those who saw the first movie remember this trio as the former night watchman and his cronies. Cecil reveals that the sarcophagi of Ahkmenrah’s parents were sent to the British Museum in London. Now Larry has to find a way to get there. He begs Dr. McPhee (who is about to be fired for the debacle at the dinner party) to take Ahkmenrah on a loan to the British Museum. He’s forced to reveal that all the “special effects” that night were actually happening and that the tablet was the source. Begrudgingly, McPhee sets up the loan and Larry travels to London with his son Nick (Gisondo), hoping this will also improve his relationship with him. (Nick doesn’t want to go to college, but rather wants to “spread his wings.”)

It’s now sundown at the British Museum. Larry drives his truck to the loading area, where he convinces the night watchwoman, Tilly (Wilson), that he’s only dropping off a traveling exhibit from New York. Delivery made, he parks the truck out of sight, sneaks back to the door, and upon his knock Ahkmenrah opens it from the inside. Tilly, meanwhile, has fallen asleep at her post. The crate is open and to Larry’s surprise, out pops Teddy Roosevelt, Sacajawea (Peck), Attila the Hun (Gallagher), Octavius, the Roman soldier (Coogan), Jedediah the cowboy (Wilson), Dexter, and Laaa, the Neanderthal (also Stiller). Upon seeing Laaa, Larry’s face falls. They met at he confab (Laaa is a recent addition to the Neanderthal exhibit) and Laaa, noticing their facial similarities, calls Larry DahDah. But now he’s here in London and to keep him from getting into trouble, Larry assigns Laaa the guardianship of the door (which takes a good bit of time to explain to him).

The rest go searching for the Egyptian wing while dodging all the new animations in the museum, including a Triceratops skeleton (to become known as “Trixie”) that doesn’t like to play “fetch” as does Rexy the T-Rex in New York. In the chase, Octavius and Jedediah fall into a ventilation duct, and Larry has to shut off the power to save them from destruction. Then he straps his son’s iPod to Dexter’s back (for the GPS tracker) and sends the monkey to locate them. Just as Dexter is about to find them, his presence scares the cowboy and Roman into leaping onto a model of the town of Pompeii complete with erupting volcano.

Meanwhile, Larry and company are tracking Octavius and Jedediah, and meet Sir Lancelot of Camelot (Stevens). He joins them in their “quest,” thinking they’re after the Holy Grail. After getting past a gold statue of Garuda guarding a many-headed Chinese snake and defeating it, all are eventually reunited in the Egyptian wing where they are greeted by Shepseheret (Jay) and MerenKahre (Kingsley). They learn the tablet is powered by exposure to the moon when Lancelot swipes it thinking it to be the actual Holy Grail and gallops off on a horse to Camelot (the musical, not the mythical place).

What else could go wrong? Tilly wakes up, sees Laaa eating packing peanuts at the door on her closed circuit TV, and tries to arrest them all. Nick and Teddy lock her in her kiosk with Laaa as a guard while the rest chase Lancelot. One of the great moments is when Lancelot passes Trafalgar Square and the four huge lions surrounding it come alive. “They want to play!” says Jedediah. Larry takes out his flashlight and, like kittens, the four huge beasts start chasing the light spot.

Night at the Museum – Secret of the Tomb is every bit as entertaining and funny as its two predecessors. The cast does an excellent job (most remarkably, Dexter – his training plus, I imagine, a bit of CGI, made his performance amazing). It’s a movie where much going on in the background, the viewer don’t know where to look for fear of missing something. The whole family will enjoy it. There is physical comedy as well as clever lines. Yes, I was sad to see this cast go but, as Robin Williams said in one of his last lines, “Let us go. It’s time for your next adventure.”  

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

The Top Ten New Restaurants (and Five Bottom) of 2014

This is a special edition of my usual Dinner and a Movie column because I didn’t go to a restaurant the evening of the movie. Instead I was convinced to attend “the best holiday party of the year.” Apparently, this particular party has gained a reputation and, since they had the included attraction of featuring karaoke, I signed up. Timewise, it was better to have my “dinner” at the party first and then go to the movie. I figured out a schedule that wouldn’t get me home too late and was surprised by the incredible variety and amount of food and drink being served. And…it was all pretty good, for a buffet. The KJ (Karaoke Jockey) played dance music right up to the “witching hour” of my schedule when I was forced to do a Cinderella (without leaving a shoe) or miss the movie. Ergo, I didn’t get to sing. Oh well, it’s their loss.

I’ve entitled this article emphasizing “new” restaurants with the understanding that my two all-time favorite restaurants, City Hall in downtown Manhattan and Henry’s End in Brooklyn Heights were not surpassed. The top ten came close, very close. You’ll see that the list contains one Cantonese, two Spanish, two Mexican, a Steakhouse, an Italian, a Latino, an American and a Ukranian. Each one in their own way had me purring with delight and if you’ve kept up with my reviews you know the particulars. Therefore, now I present this year’s winners of “Most Likely To Be Revisited”:

311 West 43rd St. (bet. 8th and 9th Aves.)New York

Hakkasan is a tour de force of décor, caring and prompt service, innovative cuisine and intriguing cocktails. Even the menu is transporting. I went to this restaurant with preconceived notions about Cantonese food and came away with a new respect for regional cuisine and the chef. He took a style of cooking and made it into a true cuisine. Though a little bit pricy I enjoyed every course and every drink. They truly deserve their Michelin star.

Giorgio’s of Gramercy
27 East 21st Street (bet. Bdwy. and 5th Ave.)New York

Giorgio’s is one of those restaurants that are an established part of the New York City scene. No one I met has anything but praise to say about it. The confidence of the staff in the quality of their dishes was addictive as was the actual consistently spectacular food. Though there are crystal chandeliers and enormous floral arrangements, Giorgio’s is not snooty or pretentious. It’s home. That and the amazing roasted oysters would get me to return at the mere mention of the name.

El Vez New York
259 Vesey StreetNew York

I was overjoyed when I saw this import from Philadelphia arrive in Battery Park City. How good is it? I have not had a trip to Philly without dining at El Vez for either dinner or lunch. Helene cued me into this fascinating Mexican and I’m slowly trying everything on their menu. Now that they’re at walking distance, the goal of completing my tastings is in reach. The virtually identical menu allows me to do just that. It’s not your Mama’s home cooking but new twists on Mama’s recipes, ones she’d have been proud to create. New Yorkers who have mistaken this place for Chevy’s (which occupied the address previously) have found out that it is superior in every way.

361 Greenwich St. (near Franklin St.), New York

Tablao takes Tapas and makes it not only and art form but a substantial meal. With excellent food and wide selection of Spanish wines it is difficult not to get caught up in the joy of Spanish culture, especially if you arrive on Flamenco night (Friday). I’ve quoted their website before and I quote again now, “the perfect relaxed environment for hours of lounging, dining, drinking or just hanging out with friends...” I've already recommended Tablao to several friends.

Taberna del Alabardero
1776 I Street NW, Washington, D.C.

This is the only non-New York restaurant to make this elite list. Even though I was late for my reservation (frankly, was a little lost and walked the wrong way first) I was treated like a member of Spain’s royal party. With 25 years in operation, this Taberna has developed a class act and sensitivity to their customers. Every dish was superb and made to my specifications (my waiter’s suggestions helped greatly in making these). The very next time I’m in D.C. I promise to revisit.

Distilled New York
211 West Broadway (at Franklin St.)New York

Distilled claims to be redesigning the public house and, to a certain extent they are achieving that. People there are not only enjoying the food but also the company of other diners as well. I generally refuse if given the choice between a seat at the bar or a table, but not here. Here, it’s called the Chef’s Table and it’s not only comfortable but it’s fun. Where else can you get Mead and Moonshine, Paté and Fried Duck and Waffles? As they sing in the song “42 Street,” Distilled is where “the underworld can meet the elite.” And they both have a good time.

165 Allen Street (bet. Stanton and Rivington Sts.), New York

The tree growing in the center of this restaurant is not the only thing that makes it unique; nor the banquettes that are wider than your legs are long. They are both a part of the free style of this wonderful Latino eatery named after a version of hopscotch. In business for seven years before I discovered it, Rayuela has been serving excellent, well prepared and extremely flavorful food to many satisfied customers. I know, I was one of them. And anyone who has set ideas about flan should try Rayuela’s.

Korchma Taras Bulba
357 West Broadway (bet. Grand and Broome Sts,)New York

When the Old World is recreated so well that it brings a tear to the eye you know you’ve arrived at this charming (and extremely rare) Ukrainian restaurant. The food is simple and hearty and the portions are just right. If you’re not in the right frame of mind, there’s plenty of vodka in several flavors (and a shot before you leave). The staff dresses in peasant costumes and will let the patrons wear their straw hats if asked. Who knew there was more than one recipe for Borscht?

Añejo Tribeca
301 Church St., New York

This Mexican was a true discovery. For a small place, it delivered satisfaction on a grand scale. Where else can you have a tasting of three guacamoles and all are artfully spiced and delicious as well as unique? The staff treats the customer as if they’ve known you forever. There’s a palpable homey atmosphere. It was here that, once again my expectations about flan were proven wrong. Imagine the amalgam of caramel custard and the technique and texture of crème brûlée?

Tender Steak & Sushi
132 West 47th St., New York

On my last “staycation” in New York City I had two disappointing experiences with hotel restaurants. One was with the one where I was staying and the other was at the sister hotel of the one where I stayed. Meanwhile, all the time there was this marvelous, sexy dining spot right across the street from me. The intimate décor melded with the top-notch cuisine mixing steakhouse with Japanese created an excellent dining experience. That coupled with great service by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable, caring staff more than made up for my temerity in dining at a “hotel-restaurant.”

The Bottom Five

For every “Top Ten” list, unfortunately there has to be a “Bottom Five.” These are restaurants that I would not return to unless they were proven to have had a major upgrade one way or the other.

S Dynasty
511 Lexington Ave.New York

You’re almost lulled into a false sense of security and classiness by the décor of this Midtown Chinese. Then, when you experience the undeservedly snooty service and the ordinary food you know that your local take-out place is friendlier, more comfortable and tastier.

Trapp Family Lodge
700 Trapp Hull RoadStowe, Vermont

For a lodge that is so filled to the brim with Swiss architecture and charm, and delightful rooms with balconies facing the scenic mountains of Vermont, one might expect better service and food in the dining room. I know I did. When my main course was so inedible that I had to send it back after waiting patiently for an inordinate amount of time I was shocked. The replacement meal was not much better and my dining companions were disappointed as well. But the uncaring service was unacceptable.

The Trading Post
170 John Street (South St.), New York

Just let it be said that when this place was the Yankee Clipper it was many times better than what it devolved into. Before, it was a great and homey seafood restaurant – rustic, welcoming and comfortable. Now, it’s unsure if it’s a pub or a burger joint. The food is pedestrian at best, run-of-the-mill at worst. Now they have a formidable doorman and the service is “whenever we get to you.” And the bar crowd sound like a lot more fun than dining there.

Bierhaus NYC
712 3rd AvenueNew York

If the almost deafening noise of this German wannabe and the close quarters with other customers is what Oktoberfest is really like, then I’m glad I never attended one. The beer is excellent and the pretzels tasty, but I don’t have to go to a place where I have to flag down the servers to get my meal and shout to be understood. The food was good but uninspired. No return here.

Ted’s Montana Grill
110 West 51st StreetNew York

The only reason I dined at Ted’s (named after Ted Turner, who has a ranch where bison roam free) was for the several bison dishes. Previously, I first tasted bison in Banf, Canada, and loved it. Ted’s did not improve on the recipe. As people may tell you, you don’t know how good a place is if you don’t go there. Well, I did. And it scared me that I knew more than my server. Sorry Ted. Next time it will be one of the other two major steakhouses one the same side of the same block.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

My Favorite Christmas Movies

By Ed Garea

Christmas is a time of celebration, of getting together with relatives, exchanging presents, and sitting down to a sumptuous holiday meal. But for the cinephile, Christmas season also means movies - and lots of them. As one who has seen more than his fair share of Christmas movies over the years, I’ve compiled a list of my favorites. I was at first tempted to title this “The Twelve Best Christmas Movies,” but it’s patently absurd, not to mention preposterous, to preach to fellow cinephiles what their favorite Christmas movies should be. What I do ask of readers is to comment - tell us what your favorite Christmas movies are and in what order. We’ll publish your lists on the website.

National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation (WB, 1989): As usual, inept, disaster-prone Clark Griswold (Chevy Chase) wants to celebrate in the traditional way, even though his idea of celebration is typically over-the-top. But his plans are ruined when his redneck relatives, led by Cousin Eddie (Randy Quaid), decide to visit in this oft-times hilarious movie. Clark seemingly can’t do anything halfway. His Christmas lights blind the neighbors while sending the city’s electrical meters into a spin. His idea of a family Christmas tree is an oversized pine he cuts down in the forest and had trouble getting into his house. And, of course, the grand finale of disaster when Uncle Lewis (William Hickey) throws his lit cigar down a sewage drain into which Cousin Eddie had earlier dumped his port-a-potty sewage from his trailer. It explodes, sending a flaming Santa and reindeer across the sky.

3 Godfathers (MGM, 1948): This poignant John Ford film is not only one of my favorite Christmas movies, but it’s also one of my favorite Westerns. John Wayne, Pedro Armendariz and Harry Carey, Jr. are outlaws who just held up the bank at Welcome, Arizona. Pursued by lawman Ward Bond, they are on the way to making their escape when they come across a dying woman (Mildred Natwick) who has just given birth. They promise her they will take care of the baby, and what begins as a standard Western soon morphs into a beautiful Christmas story, with the three bandits taking the place of the three wise men carrying the Christ child through the desert to safety in a town named Jerusalem. Though the religious parallels are there, Ford never forces them, leaving it to the three outlaws, and us in the audience, to discover them.

The Bishop’s Wife (Goldwyn/RKO, 1947): Cary Grant was never more debonair than as Dudley, an angel sent to help a Bishop Henry Brougham (David Niven), who is too busy with fundraising for a elaborate new cathedral to tend to his family, especially wife Julia (Loretta Young). Henry is losing sight of his family and why he became a churchman. Dudley is sent to remedy the situation, and not necessarily in the way everyone would have preferred. Though everyone loves Dudley, Henry begins to think that Dudley has come to replace him, both at work and in his family’s affections. It was remade in a fashion as The Preacher’s Wife (1996), with Denzel Washington in Grant’s role.

A Christmas Carol (MGM, 1938): Dickens MGM style, with Reginald Owen as Scrooge, Gene Lockhart as Bob Cratchit, and wife Kathleen Lockhart as Mrs. Cratchit. Look for daughter, June, as one of the Cratchit children. Speaking of the children, one of the main flaws in the film is that Tiny Tim is none too tiny, almost as tall as Bob. Leo G. Carroll is the ghost of Jacob Marley, and Ann Rutherford shines as the Spirit of Christmas Past. Lionel Barrymore was originally penciled in a Scrooge, but illness forced him to withdraw.

Remember the Night (Paramount, 1940): Christmas, Preston Sturges style. Sturges wrote the screenplay for this story of Lee Leander (Barbara Stanwyck), a shoplifter arrested for the third time and remanded to court. Prosecutor John Sargent (Fred MacMurray) postpones the trial because it is hard to get a conviction at Christmas time. However, because this would necessitate Lee being in jail over the holiday, Sargent takes pity and arranges her bail. His first move is to take her to her mother’s for the holiday, but after witnessing the cold reception she gets, he decides to take her to his family’s Christmas gathering. Surrounded by a loving family, they fall in love, which in turn creates a new problem: how do they handle the upcoming trial? It’s typical Sturges, with periods of caustic comedy broken up with scenes of sentimentality. Stanwyck and MacMurray are terrific in their roles with great supporting work from Beulah Bondi, Elizabeth Patterson, Sterling Holloway, and Paul Guilfoyle. As for Sturges, the film "had quite a lot of schmaltz, a good dose of schmerz and just enough schmutz to make it box office."

Un Conte de Noel (A Christmas Tale, Why Not Productions, 2008): To say the Vuillard family is dysfunctional is putting it mildly. They hate each other, and are only getting together this one Christmas because the family matriarch, Junon (Catherine Deneuve) has a rare bone cancer and needs a marrow donor. The matches for the marrow come down to her alcoholic son and her mentally disturbed nephew, and after a day spent with them, she’s wondering if it’s even worth going to the trouble of asking one of them to donate. It’s not your usual Christmas movie, but reflective of how most families really are during the holidays, sniping at each other over long-simmering resentments, getting into jealous arguments, and just plain acting obnoxiously. All of which makes it a perfect Christmas movie.

Christmas in Connecticut (WB, 1945): Given her wonderful performances in dramas and noirs, it’s easy to overlook Barbara Stanwyck as a comedienne. However she shines in this movie as Elizabeth Lane, a popular food writer for “Smart Housekeeping” magazine. In truth, she cannot boil water and gets her award-winning recipes from her friend, chef Felix Bassenak (S.Z. Sakall). The bucolic life she describes herself living on a farm in Connecticut with husband and baby is also a fiction. She lives alone in an apartment in New York City. Unfortunately for her, war hero Jefferson Jones (Dennis Morgan) is also an avid fan of her column, and after his harrowing life and death struggle at sea, he dreams of nothing more than sampling her dishes at her farm. Her publisher, Alexander Yardley (Sydney Greenstreet), not only thinks it would be great publicity, but he has also invited himself along. Now Stanwyck has to improvise a husband, baby, farm and cooking skills at the last minute if she’s not to be exposed as a fraud. Only someone like Stanwyck could take this paper-thin plot and make it into a hit. She pulls it off brilliantly, knowing when to put forth and when to pull back on the characterization, and interacting beautifully with her co-stars. Stanwyck is the reason this is one of my Christmas favorites.

A Christmas Carol (Renown Pictures, 1951): Considered as the most definitive and faithful of the Dickens adaptations, it also boasts the great Alastair Sim as Scrooge. Sim plays Scrooge as Dickens envisioned him: a cruelly smug man who has no remorse, no regrets, and feels zero guilt for his selfishness. It’s when he is forced to see the consequences of his life’s choices does he realize that the only way out is to wholly embrace goodness. The scene with the ghost of his partner, Jacob Marley, is particularly chilling, especially Marley’s indignation when Scrooge calls him a good man of business. Marley screams “mankind was my business!” and describes how the chain he “forged in life, link by link” is choking and weighing him down in the afterlife, following it by telling Scrooge his chain was just as long when Marley passed and it has grown even longer. It’s the movie’s most unforgettable scene and paves the way for Scrooge’s redemption, a redemption he is led into kicking and screaming at times. It is exactly the starkness of this version that places it heads and tails above all other adaptations.

It’s a Wonderful Life (Liberty, 1946): Frank Capra’s take on Charles Dickens aims not at the redemption of Scrooge, for greedy misers can never really be redeemed, but the redemption of Bob Crachit. Jimmy Stewart is George Bailey, a man who had big dreams of what he wanted to do with his life, but whom circumstances forced to make do with the life he had. As a result, when his savings and loan comes up $8,000 short due to his Uncle Billy’s forgetfulness, George begins to despair of his life, feeling himself a failure and pondering suicide. He stops to raise a prayer to God, who, upon hearing George, sends Clarence, a most unusual angel, to the rescue. George refuses to have anything to do with Clarence, thinking him a loon, but when he mutters to Clarence that it would be better if he were never born, Clarence takes the novel step of showing George what life in Bedford Falls would be like if he was never born. In short, it’s a first-rate horror show, as George learns how one person’s life and sacrifices can affect so many, even if he is unaware of it. Lionel Barrymore, as the greedy banker Potter, finally gets to play the Scrooge role, though he’ll never reform. That’s Capra’s message: Don’t wait for evil men to see the light, but take the wheel yourselves and steer humanity towards a better destination.

Miracle on 34th Street (20th Century Fox, 1947): It would surprise many to know that the studio that made this renowned Christmas classic, 20th Century Fox, had so little faith in it they released it in May 1947 instead of holding it for the holiday season. It mattered little to the throngs that came out to see it, or the Academy, who awarded Edmund Gwenn the Supporting Actor statue for playing Kris Kringle, which marks the only time a actor has won an Oscar for playing Santa Claus. Gwenn is superb as Kringle, who we first see as a man hired by feisty skeptic Doris Walker (Maureen O’Hara) to be Santa in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade after the original actor hired to be Santa passed out drunk. Kris soon becomes the Macy’s Santa, eve though Doris is somewhat nervous working with a man who claims he is Kris Kringle. A misapprehension she makes turns into a head-on conflict between Kris and the store’s cruelly incompetent psychologist and results in Kris being committed to Bellevue. Lawyer Fred Gailey (John Payne), who loves Doris, takes up his defense. The trial is the highlight of the film, as Gailey argues Kris’s sanity before a judge with higher political aspirations who’s afraid to make the wrong move. When Gailey produces bags and bags of “Dear Santa” letters forwarded to the courthouse by the Post Office and makes the claim that Kris must be Santa Claus because the government recognizes him as such, the judge is spared a difficult decision and frees Kris. It’s a beautifully constructed film that never comes right out and tells us Kris is the real Santa or that he’s not the real Santa. And that’s why it works so well.

The Shop Around the Corner (MGM, 1940): For sheer charm alone, this film cannot be beaten. It’s the heartwarming story of two feuding co-workers, Alfred Kralik (James Stewart) and Klara Novak (Margaret Sullavan) in a Budapest gift shop who are unaware they are secret romantic pen pals. Alfred, who is in love with Klara, learns that he is the secret pen pal when she begins to quote his letters without knowing their author. He would like to announce he is the object of her affections but cannot confide it to her; he’s afraid of not measuring up to the fiancée she has imagined him to be. Eventually things come to a head on Christmas Eve, when Klara finally confides to Alfred that she finds him attractive does he come forth as her secret pen pal. Almost everything about this movie is pitch perfect, from the direction by Ernst Lubitsch to the camerawork by William Daniels to the supporting cast, which includes Frank Morgan, Felix Bressart, Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, and William Tracy. And, of course, Stewart and Sullavan, who bring a sense of earnestness to an otherwise frilly story.

A Christmas Story (MGM, 1983): For me picking this film is a no-brainer because I grew up with its author, Jean Shepherd. Spending my childhood in the New York Metropolitan Area, I tuned into Shepherd’s radio show in WOR-AM every night, and was familiar with the tales A Christmas Story was based on long before he published them in the collections In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash and Wanda Hickey’s Night of Golden Memories. He was a greatly underrated humorist; not until A Christmas Story came out was he mentioned in any anthology of American humor. But there was no one else who understood the pulse of American life better than Jean Shepherd. The plot of the movie is pure Shep: All Ralphie Parker (Peter Billingsley) wants for Christmas is a Red Ryder BB gun with all the accoutrements, just like the ones he saw in his boys’ magazine. But whenever the subject comes up, all he hears from adults is “you’ll shoot your eye out.” Ralphie looks for any loophole to get his prize, and thinks he has it in going to see Santa at Higbee’s department store. But when he blurts out his heart’s wish to Santa, all he gets is a quizzical stare accompanied by the phrase “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid.” But while other writers must be satisfied to stop with the basic plot, Shepherd makes razor-sharp observations on the Christmas season, especially as it pertains to a kid: “Christmas was on its way. Lovely, glorious, beautiful Christmas, about which the entire kid year revolved.” No truer words were ever spoken.

Monday, December 22, 2014

TCM TiVo Alert for December 23-31

December 23–December 31


GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS (December 28, 7:45 am): 1939 was among cinema's greatest years with the releases of Gone With the WindNinotchkaOf Mice and MenWizard of OzMr. Smith Goes to WashingtonStagecoachWuthering Heights, and Dark Victory to name a few. But among all of them, Goodbye, Mr. Chips is my favorite. It's a sweet, sentimental, touching story about a stern school master, Charles Chipping – Mr. Chips for short – and how he wins the affection of his students after falling in love and marrying Kathy Ellis (Greer Garson). The cast is wonderful, but Robert Donat (one of cinema's most underrated actors) in the lead, a role that won him an Academy Award, is outstanding. 

ELVIS ON TOUR (December 31, 8:00 pm): TCM ends the year with films filled with music such as the Beatles' A Hard Day's Night, the Rolling Stones' Gimme Shelter, and the Who's (awful) Tommy. The first and third are feature films featuring music performances with Gimme Shelter is a documentary that focuses on the end of the Stones' 1969 U.S. tour finishing with the infamous Altamont Free Concert. Among everything being shown, my favorite is Elvis on Tour, a fabulous documentary of "The King's" 1972 tour of 15 U.S. cities. It combines an insightful interview with Elvis, behind-the-scenes footage and performances from one of his greatest tours. Elvis sings some of his classics along with his interpretations of popular songs of that era, including Bridge Over Troubled Water and Never Been to Spain. The highlight for me is him singing Burning Love, my favorite Presley song, for likely the first time in front of an audience. He needs the sheet music to sing the correct lyrics. While Presley has said he didn't care for the song, his performance of it in this film, even though he's reading the lyrics while singing them, is absolutely amazing. 


THE SHOP AROUND THE CORNER (December 24, 4:00 pm): Ernest Lubitsch was at his absolute best when he directed this wonderful gem about two feuding co-workers at a Budapest notions store who do not realize that they are secret romantic pen pals. Jimmy Stewart and Margaret Sullivan, as the employees, bring the concept of charm to its ideal. They are aided and abetted by a sterling cast, including Frank Morgan (in one of the best performances), Joseph Schildkraut, Sara Haden, Felix Bressart, William Tracy, and Inez Courtney. It boasts a superb script by Samson Raphaelson, who adapted it from Nikolaus Laszlo’s play, Parfumerie. In fact, the film was so compelling that it was later remade as a Judy Garland musical, In the Good Old Summertime (1949), a Broadway musical, She Loves Me (1963, revived in 1994), and the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan vehicle, You’ve Got Mail (1998), where the lovers correspond via e-mail. However, the original still stands head and shoulders above the remakes and is an essential.

BRIGHTON ROCK (December 31, 10:45 am): From the Boulting Brothers comes this excellent adaptation (by Terence Rattigan) of Graham Greene’s novel about a gang of lowlife hoods in Brighton, England, and their teenage leader, Pinkie Brown. It’s a sequel of sorts to Greene’s novel, This Gun for Sale (published in the U.S as This Gun for Hire and made into a film in 1941 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake). It’s also the breakthrough role for young Richard Attenborough as Pinkie. It was the most popular film in England when released in 1947, but didn’t do that much business here under the title Young Scarface. It also scored an incredible 100% on the Rotten Tomatoes website, if you’re looking for any further reason to watch. Oh, by the way, it has one of the best – and most cynical – endings of any film.

WE DISAGREE ON ... NONE BUT THE LONELY HEART (December 30, 12:15 am)

ED: C+. Cary Grant is one of my favorite actors. But not every film of his is “A” material. This film is a case in point. Grant is Ernie Mott, a free-spirited drifter who visits his ailing mother (Ethel Barrymore) in his old East End neighborhood in London. He is torn between his desire to care for her and his desire to escape all responsibilities when he falls for a gangster’s girlfriend (June Dupree). For Grant, this role was a stretch, a chance to do a serious role instead of the lighthearted roles that made him famous. And he was great in the role, as was Barrymore (she got a Oscar for it). But it’s the heavy-handed direction by Clifford Odets and the pretentious dialogue in a weak screenplay (also by Odets) that does the film in and brings it down. Watching Grant at work, however, is always fun, and in this film I got the impression that we were seeing the real man: not the suave, debonair Cary Grant, but the scruffy, street-wise Archie Leach. Watch it for Grant and Barrymore.

DAVID: B+. Unlike Ed, I'm not a huge Cary Grant fan. Some of his comedies, notably Bringing Up BabyArsenic and Old Lace, and Gunga Din, are overrated and of poor quality. However, I'm tremendously impressed with his dramatic performance in None But the Lonely Heart. He's so good as a Cockney drifter in this 1944 film that I'm convinced it's the precursor to the classic British "kitchen-sink" films. Those movies from the late 1950s and early 1960s focus on angry young men living directionless lives in post-World War II England. This film takes place in post-World War I England. Equally excellent is the legendary Ethel Barrymore as his dying mother. In addition to the amazing performances from Grant and Barrymore, the storyline is compelling, well-paced and really depressing. The movie lost money for RKO, which unfortunately meant Grant would never take on a similar role as the one in this film again despite his groundbreaking performance. 

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