Saturday, May 30, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for June 1-7

June 1–June 7


KEY LARGO (June 2, 4:00 pm): This is, hands down, one of the 10 greatest films, the best film noir in cinematic history, and the most incredible ensemble cast you'll find a movie. It stars three of my favorite actors: Humphrey Bogart, Edward G. Robinson and Lionel Barrymore. Bogart is a former military man who checks into the Hotel Largo in Key Largo, Florida, in the middle of hurricane season. The real storm hits when we see gangster Johnny Rocco (Eddie G) walk down the hotel steps. Bogart had top billing, but it's Robinson who you can't stop watching. The action in this film is intense, and the acting is incredibly strong (also including Claire Trevor as Rocco's neglected gangster moll, a role that won her a Best Supporting Actress Oscar, and Lauren Bacall as Barrymore's daughter and, of course, Bogart's love interest). Legendary director John Huston could not have done a better job, and the use of the storm to parallel what's happening to the film's characters is ideal. Needless to say, this is one of those films you can watch over and over again, and enjoy it more with each viewing.

GILDA (June 3, 9:30 pm): Rita Hayworth is cinema's greatest femme fatale in the title role of this 1946 film noir classic. She incredibly gorgeous, and her form-fitting dresses and how she is filmed only adds to her sex appeal. Glenn Ford had a number of memorable roles in his career, but his portrayal of Johnny Farrell, a down-on-his-luck hustler in this film, is among his best. George Macready is strong as Ballin Mundson, a casino owner who also happens to be working with the Nazis. Little does anyone know that Gilda, married to Mundson, had a torrid affair with Farrell years earlier, and the two haven't resolved their feelings. In this role, Hayworth could have chemistry with a rock. Fortunately, Ford has considerably more talent than said rock and the two sizzle on the screen. The cinematography, Hayworth's performance and the dynamics between the three main characters makes this a classic even though the plot could use some assistance.


A FACE IN THE CROWD (June 4, 7:15 am): Budd Schulberg wrote and Elia Kazan directed this prescient look at celebrity and Media-made pundits in the story of Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Andy Griffith), a drifter discovered in jail by the hostess (Patricia Neal) of a morning radio show in Pickett, Arkansas, and who, through the sheer force of his “down home” personality eventually makes his way to New York, where he becomes not only an entertainment superstar, but a respected wielder of opinion; powerful enough to make a nondescript senator into a formidable presidential candidate. Rhodes, however, is rotten to the core, and as his fame and power increase, the monster within him begins to break out. It’s up to Neal, as a letter-day Frankenstein, to destroy the monster she created before he destroys us, and she does it in a quite unique way. Neal, of course, is superb, and Griffith gave the best performance of his career, playing against type. He should have gotten the Oscar, but wasn’t even nominated, in due to the less than stellar box office of the movie and the Liberal backlash against director Kazan for supposedly “naming names” before Congress. (In reality he didn’t name anyone that wasn’t already named again and again.) What eventually brought critics around to giving this film another look was Francois Truffaut, who championed the film as a modern-day classic and a warning.

LA BETE HUMAINE (June 5, 8:00 am): Jean Renoir wrote and directed this masterful adaptation of Zola’s novel of the same name, setting it in modern times. The focus of the film is train engineer Lantier (Jean Gabin), who, while waiting for his train to be repaired at the Le Havre station, witnesses a murder committed by the station master, Roubard (Fernand Ledoux). Roubard, realizing Lantier saw everything, encourages his wife, Severine (Simone Simon) to become Lantier’s lover in order to buy his silence. Needless to say, this results in tragedy. Gabin is mesmerizing in the role of Lantier, who turns violent whenever he has an epileptic attack. And it’s good to see Simone Simon, who most American film fans know as the doomed Irina from RKO and producer Val Lewton’s Cat People. This film is a must for those who would like to see the earlier Simon and for anyone who loves the films of Renoir, as I do.


ED: A. Steven Spielberg was taking a chance by making an “A” budget science fiction film back in the mid-70s. The last “A” budget sci-fi film that did real business was Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey back in 1968. But George Lucas released Star Wars earlier in the year and proved that science fiction films can be successful once again. But Columbia was a bit anxious about Spielberg’s film, as it wasn’t on the cartoony level of Star Wars. They need not have worried, as Spielberg’s film appealed to a broader spectrum of the adult film going audience. This is an extremely well made film about what happens when ordinary people encounter something totally extraordinary. In this respect it harkens back to the days of It Came From Outer Space in 1953 in that it’s a film made with intelligence. Spielberg hits all the right notes in this film, crafting a film whose human storyline strikes at our emotions and makes it compelling viewing. Also the pre-CGI special effects not only enhance, but also contribute to the movie’s atmosphere of sheer wonderment. And the wonderment is what we take away from this film, a pleasant memory that never fades as the years go on.

DAVID: B. Close Encounters of the Third Kind is a very good film, but I reserve A grades for excellent ones. In terms of Steven Spielberg's directing career, this was his next film after Jaws. In comparison, Close Encounters falls short. While significantly better than his next film, 1941Close Encounters also doesn't measure up to the next two: Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial. Perhaps it's not fair to judge Close Encounters to the other films Spielberg made around the same time, but not everything is fair. I agree with Ed that this movie's special effects enhance the movie and I'll add that they are spectacular for 1977. The issues I have with this film are it's too long, clocking in at 2 hours and 17 minutes and it drags, the storyline is sometimes difficult to follow, and the editing of the movie could have been better (the latter is a criticism Spielberg has acknowledged). However, overall, the film is enjoyable, touching and for perhaps the first time a big-budget science fiction film portrayed aliens as friendly. Of course, Spielberg would take the friendly-alien concept much further in E.T. For the most part, the acting is exceptional, particularly Richard Dreyfuss, an electrical lineman who becomes obsessed with aliens after seeing a UFO. And any film with legendary French director Francois Truffaut in an acting role has to be good.

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

Thursday, May 28, 2015

Duck Amuck

Animation Nation

Demolishing the Fourth Wall

By Steve Herte

Duck Amuck (WB, 1953) – Director: Charles M. Jones. Writer: Michael Maltese (story). Animation: Philip DeGuard (background), Ken Harris (animator), Maurice Noble (layout), Lloyd Vaughan (animator), & Ben Washam (animator). Music: Carl Stalling. Voices: Mel Blanc. Released on February 28, 1953. Color, 7 minutes.

From 1946 to 1958, Warner Brothers made some of the best and most remembered (and quoted, if I may add) cartoons in the history of animation. In the forefront was the dynamic duo of directors, Isadore “Friz” Freleng and Charles M. “Chuck” Jones. Most notably, it was Jones who contributed most to the art of animation. Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck have him to thank for the characterizations we know today, and in the process he made some of today’s best-loved and most innovative cartoons.

In 1953, he created Duck Amuck, a cartoon that not only totally demolishes the fourth wall, but also asks “Just who is Daffy Duck?”

The short proved so popular with critics that in 1994 it was voted #2 on a list of the 50 greatest cartoons of all time by members in the animation field, second only to the remarkable 1956 short What’s Opera, Doc? (also by Jones). In 1999, the film was deemed "culturally significant" by the United States Library of Congress and selected for preservation in the National Film Registry.

The cartoon opens in a conventional manner; the titles, in an Old English font, suggest Robin Hood or other swashbuckling characters. The heroic opening music by Carl Stalling reinforces this notion. A medieval setting appears with a castle in the background. Daffy Duck bursts onto the scene brandishing a sword saying, “Stand back, Musketeers! Let them sample my blade!” Daffy continues to charge forward to discover the scenery has disappeared and he’s now on a blank background. Confused, he lowers his sword, and almost embarrassed, he leaves the scene, later sticking his head out and reminding the animator about the empty whiteness: “Hey, whoever’s in charge here, the scenery … Where’s the scenery?”

A farm scene is hastily drawn and Daffy reappears in Musketeer costume, repeating his opening line, until he looks behind him. “OK, have it your way,” he says as he walks offstage. He reappears in overalls and a straw hat, singing, “Daffy Duck, he had a farm…” right onto a snow scene, “and on this farm he had an … igloo?”

He turns to the unseen animator, “Would it be too much to ask if we make up our minds?” Suddenly, on skis he sings “Dashing through the snow” into a Hawaiian jungle set. Quickly changing into a flowered sarong and strumming a ukulele, he switches to “Farewell to thee, farewell to thee.” And the scenery goes blank again.

There is no better way to get Daffy’s goat, as he is by now totally flustered. “Buster, it may come as a complete surprise to you to find that this is an animated cartoon. And that in animated cartoons they have scenery…“ But before Daffy can finish his sentence, a giant pencil comes into the scene and erases him. “All right, where am I?” he growls.

He is quickly drawn as a cowboy with a guitar, but as he tries to play the guitar, there is no sound. He holds up a sign asking for sound and gets every sound but the right one. Even when he tries to remonstrate, all he gets are auto horns, barnyard squawks, and the sound of a kookaburra.

By now he’s red-eyed angry, and throws a tantrum. All we hear is the end of the tantrum “...and I’ve never been so humiliated in all my life!”Embarrassed at what has been done, he looks at the animator, asking him to get organized and repeating his demand for some scenery. The animator answers by pencil-sketching a simple black and white cityscape. “That’s dandy. Ho, ho. That’s rich, I’ll say. Now how about some color, stupid?” But instead it’s Daffy that is painted in bright patterns. “Hey! Not me, you slop artist!”

Once again he’s erased, except for his beak. “Well, where’s the rest of me?” he asks. He’s redrawn as a flipper-footed quadruped with a purple daisy around his head and a yellow flag flying from his upright tail. On the flag are a screw and a baseball, signifying ‘screwball.” “That’s strange, all of sudden I don’t quite feel like myself,” he says. The artist draws a mirror and Daffy sees himself. He screams. “EEEK! You know better than that!”

Another erasure and redrawing shows Daffy as a sailor and he’s pleased; he says he’s always wanted to do a sea epic, until the background drawing sets him over water and he sinks. He swims to a deserted island in the distance. Demanding a close-up, he finds the frame shrinks around him. “This is a close-up? A close-up, you jerk! A close-up!” Then the opposite, the camera zooms in until all we see are his eyes.

As he walks away, he mutters, “Thanks for the sour persimmons, cousin.” (A line Jones and Maltese picked up from Ben Washam. It was one of his favorite sayings.) Daffy walks into a background of neutral green. He tries to reason with his tormentor, suggesting letting bygones be bygones, when the frame suddenly begins sagging in from the top. Daffy futilely tries to prop it up with a stick provided by the animator, but it breaks (“Brother, what a way to run a railroad!”), and the frame keeps sagging until Daffy eventually shreds it in a loud tantrum.

All right! Let’s get this picture started!” Suddenly, the end title card comes into view. “No, No!” Daffy shrieks as he pushes the card out of the frame. Dismissing the artist (he thinks), “You go your way and I’ll go my way,” he apologizes to the audience and tries to entertain them with a tap dance when the scene rolls up and his bottom half is on top and his top half is on bottom. He winds up arguing with himself. “Listen brother, if you wasn’t me, I’d smack you in the puss!” “Don’t let that stop you, Jack!” But as he swings at this twin the animator erases the twin and Daffy’s punch goes wild into empty space, landing him on his butt.

Daffy is now redrawn as a pilot in a plane, “Oh brother, I’m a 'Buzz Boy,'” he exclaims as he flies the plane. But the animator quickly draws a mountain and we hear the crash of the plane, which is gone except for the canopy. Daffy bails out and deploys his parachute, which is erased and replaced with an anvil, and Daffy quickly crashes.

In a daze, he’s next seen hammering the anvil and quoting the “Village Smithy” when the animator replaces the anvil with a blockbuster bomb, which explodes.

Now, burnt, blackened and beyond rage and frustration Daffy demands to see his tormentor. “Enough is enough. Who’s responsible for this … this! I demand you show yourself! Who are you, hmm?” A door is drawn in front of him and a pencil shuts the door. The frame pulls back to reveal that the artist is none other than Bugs Bunny, who looks at us, and snickers, “Ain’t I a stinker?”

We have mentioned that Duck Amuck, breaks (an understatement) the fourth wall. Other critics have mentioned that as well. But this act is hardly revolutionary, for cartoons have shattered the fourth wall since the late 1930s. Tex Avery was the first, with I Love to Singa (1936), when the policeman giving the report on the radio about the missing young owlet answers his mother after she asks her husband if the police have found him yet. In Avery’s Thugs with Dirty Mugs (1939), a patron viewing the cartoon in the audience gets up to inform the police about the plans of Killer and his gang.

In Bob Clampett’s Falling Hare (1943), the plummeting sabotaged plane stops seconds before hitting the ground. The gremlin responsible tells us “Sorry, folks, but we ran out of gas.” To which Bugs adds, “Yeah, you know how it is with these 'A' cards,” pointing with his carrot to the card in the plane’s window, a reference to gas rationing. And in Clampett’s The Big Snooze (1946), Elmer Fudd tears up his contract and quits, tired of being made a fool of by Bugs Bunny. After a Bugs-induced nightmare, not only does Elmer (in drag) turn to the audience with “Has this ever happened to any of you girls?” but he returns to the studio and pieces his contract back together, saying, “Oh, Mr. Warner. I’m back.”

But in Duck Amuck there is no fourth wall. The entire cartoon is a confrontation between its star – Daffy Duck – and the unseen animator who is foiling his every move, later revealed to us as Bugs Bunny. The only remnant of the wall left standing is visibility. Daffy cannot see the cause of his frustration and has no idea who it is.

What is revolutionary about the genius of Chuck Jones is actually more evolutionary. He is the catalyst that allows the character of Daffy Duck to ascend the cartoon development scale. When Avery first created Daffy in Porky’s Duck Hunt (1937), the character was totally loony and out of control, serving as a foil for the likes of Porky Pig and Egghead (early Elmer Fudd).

As the years wore on, Daffy began to headline cartoons, but was still a loose cannon and prone to surreal wackiness. After the war, Robert McKimson and Chuck Jones began to work on the character, giving him a sense of savvy to counteract his explosive tendencies. But whereas the character of Bugs Bunny was dominated by reason, Daffy’s emotions controlled him: he was vainglorious, staunch in his assumptions (even when usually proven wrong), mercurial, and quick to erupt. Given the chance to do the right thing, as in Tom, Turk, and Daffy (Jones, 1944), it only lasts until he realizes that in doing the wrong thing, there’s something more in it for him. He agrees to hide Tom Turkey from hunter Porky until Porky mentions all the Thanksgiving goodies Daffy would miss out on if Porky didn’t kill Tom. After a short wrestle with his conscience, Daffy is only too glad to reveal Tom’s location. But things backfire when Tom places his tail feathers on Daffy, gobbles loudly, causing Porky to mistake Daffy for a turkey.

When teamed with Porky in Drip-Along Daffy (Jones, 1951), Duck Dodgers in the 24½ Century (Jones, 1953), and Deduce, You Say (Jones, 1956), Daffy is the arrogant Know-It-All hero-type and Porky is his comic-relief assistant. While Daffy blusters and strides boldly into inextricable traps, Porky quietly saves the day. When up against Bugs Bunny in Rabbit Fire (Jones, 1951), Rabbit Seasoning (Jones, 1952), and Duck! Rabbit, Duck! (Jones, 1953), Daffy is again a slave of his emotions, arguing to have Bugs killed by Elmer. But he’s the one who always gets shot, as Bugs traps Daffy in his own verbiage. In Freleng’s Show-Biz Bugs (1958), Daffy’s ego and his jealousy of his co-star leads him to perform a dangerous trick that finally wins the audience applause. But when Bugs tells him he’s a hit and that they want him to do it again, Daffy replies that he can only do it once as he ascends to Heaven.

Remarkably though, in Duck Amuck Daffy is not the instigator (for once, if ever). He’s the victim. He’s the one trying to bring reason into an unreasonable situation, and try as he might, he never gets through to his tormentor. He even questions what he might have done to deserve such treatment. As he’s being depicted as a screwball, he says to himself, “Goodness knows, it isn’t as if I haven’t lived up to my contract, Goodness knows. And Goodness knows it isn’t as if I haven’t kept myself trim, Goodness knows. I ... I’ve done that.” But he still keeps to whatever script he’s given because he wants to be the good employee (and star of the cartoon, for once). It’s only at the end that Daffy totally loses it and demands to see who it is.

The true magic of Jones shows in the unmistakable personalities of his characters no matter what their appearance, environment, or even their voice. According to Jones, the ending, showing Bugs as the animator, is for comedic purposes only. He’s asking the audience to identify Daffy Duck. Would they still recognize him if the artist changed something about him? What if he didn’t live in the woods, or didn’t live anywhere in particular? What if he had no voice, or no face? In fact, what if he wasn’t even a duck anymore? It doesn’t matter. Whatever happens, even if he’s totally erased, Daffy is Daffy. (“All right, where am I?”) If Bugs is for comedic purposes only, then we ask, is there a real life figure he’s allegorically symbolizing? Who would be so conniving as to deliberately misunderstand everything Daffy requests? The simple answer is Edward Selzer, the unit’s producer.

After Leon Schlesinger sold his studio to Warner Brothers in 1944, the studio assigned Selzer to head the department. In his delightful autobiography, Chuck Amuck: The Life and Times of an Animated Cartoonist, Jones painted a grim portrait of Selzer, depicting him as beyond difficult, boorish, and totally without an understanding of or talent for animation. His inept managerial style was more like the man beating the drum for the slave rowers on a galley. His obtuse Judge, Jury and Hangman attitude nearly caused Freleng to quit when he poo-pooed the pairing of Sylvester and Tweety. (Tweetie Pie, the first cartoon to co-star the two, won the Academy Award for Best Animated Short in 1947.) Thank goodness that difference of opinion was resolved.

In a way, Selzer’s humorless lack of instinct was a boon for animation directors. Whatever he disapproved of would no doubt turn out to be a hilarious hit. For instance, Selzer thought that camels and bullfighting weren’t funny!” Hence, Freleng’s Sahara Hare (1955) with Yosemite Sam and a dim-witted camel, and Jones’ and Mike Maltese’s Bully for Bugs (1953) – one of the funniest Bugs Bunny cartoons. Selzer proved a dependable source for doing exactly the opposite and the clever directors cashed in on it.

One of his own quotes sums up his genius level for being wrong: One, upon entering a room and seeing his animators standing around a storyboard laughing, he asked aloud, “What in the Hell does all this laughter have to do with the making of animated cartoons?” In Duck Amuck Selzer is represented by Bugs as the interfering supervisor. The poor beset Daffy is Jones himself. He knows his own worth as an employee makes him immune to change or deletion. Jones once said, “We all want to be Bugs Bunny, but most of us are Daffy Duck.”


In 1955, Jones created Rabbit Rampage recasting Bugs Bunny as the harassed victim and Elmer Fudd as the manipulator. It was not nearly as funny. It didn’t work. Bugs is cool, savvy and doesn’t get flustered. Bugs finally gets even, but only does when backed into a corner. Elmer’s last line, “Well, anyway, I finally got even with that scwewy wabbit!” may satisfy him but not the cartoon viewers. It’s about as believable as Daffy decking Nasty Canasta with one punch.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015


Dinner and a Movie

Tomorrow, a West Side Story

By Steve Herte

Where are the blockbusters this year? I’m waiting for a movie to knock my socks off and I’m being more impressed with non-blockbusters. This better be the one.

OK, rant over. Things are calming down both at work and at home and I’m actually able to think again. The Decades channel on TV was playing a countdown of Twilight Zone episodes and I’m currently working on a personal Top 10. I loved that series, and they still have the impact they had back in the early Sixties. They say in karaoke that everyone has an era. For the longest time, mine was the 60s. So many good, memorable songs were written then. As many times as I leave that miraculous musical decade and try a newer song I still come back.

The Sixties were when I had a World’s Fair right in my back yard. Just a short bus ride from Queens Village Station and I was in the future at Flushing Meadow Park. If I had the available cash I have now I would have eaten my way through the various international cuisines featured there. As it was, at 15 I could only afford the Chung King Pavilion. But I was sad to see the fair go, and repeatedly make the trip back for the Hall of Science, Terrace on the Park and the now Queens Zoo, which occupies the space where the Chrysler Pavilions once were.

I have many memorabilia from 1964/5 and I guess they formed a part of the impetus for going to see this movie. The restaurant just happened to be close by. See what you think. Enjoy!  

Tomorrowland (Walt Disney Pictures, 2015) - Director: Brad Bird. Writers: Damon Lindleof, Brad Bird (s/p). Damon Lindleof, Brad Bird & Jeff Jensen (story). Stars: George Clooney, Britt Robertson, Hugh Laurie, Thomas Robinson, Raffey Cassidy, Shiloh Nelson, Tim McGraw, Pierce Gagnon, Keegan-Michael Key, & Kathryn Hahn. Color, 130 minutes, PG.

The trailers for this Disney film had me eager with anticipation until the movie started and I groaned, “Oh no, George Clooney is going to narrate the movie! Whose idea was that?” Fortunately, it was short lived, and his character of Frank Walker was repeatedly interrupted by Casey Newton (Robertson). The annoying stop-and-start at the beginning had me wondering what director Brad Bird had in mind.

Frank tells his tale first, about his childhood (played by Robinson) in 1964 when he submitted his invention (a jet pack made from two Electrolux vacuum cleaner tanks and various pieces of found materials) at a competition held at the New York World’s Fair. Upon learning that it doesn’t really work, it is rejected by the admissions man (Laurie) and Frank’s sent on his way while “Great Big Beautiful Tomorrow” (the theme song from the General Electric Pavilion, animated by Disney Corporation) plays in the background.

While he was making his pitch, a sweet young girl named Athena (Cassidy) smiles at him and he’s smitten. He meets her outside, they talk, and he follows her to the Pepsi Cola Pavilion (the Small World exhibit, also animated by Disney Corporation) where he leaps boundaries to get into the boat after hers (always toting his invention in a duffle bag, mind you).

Suddenly, his boat hits a barrier, the floor beneath him opens up and he log-flumes down to an underground lake. The boat mysteriously stops at something that looks like an abbreviated old-time subway car. Before he can reach the hard-hats hanging just out of reach, it transports him to Tomorrowland where giant robots repair his jet pack and he goes soaring around the fantastic futuristic landscape, once again meeting Athena.

Another interruption and the scene comes to a stop while Casey tells her story (thankfully with only one interjection from Frank). As a young girl in school (Nelson) all she heard in school were ecological and social disasters: ice caps melting, sea level rising, climate change, etc., in every class. Though she raised her hand often, the teachers ignored her until once, when she asked, “Can we fix this?” She didn’t get an answer.

Casey has been sneaking out of her house at night to sabotage the dismantling of a rocket-launching platform not far from her house. Why? Because it’s her Dad's, Eddie (McGraw), last source of employment at NASA. Eventually she’s caught and jailed but makes bail (thanks to her rather outraged Dad) and retrieves her possessions from the property office. Among her things however, is a strange pin with a stylistic blue “T” emblazoned on it that enables her to see Tomorrowland when touched.

However, seeing it and getting there are two very different things. Her visions of it do not negate the physical properties of her actual location, and she slams into walls and falls down a flight of stairs before she realizes she needs to be outside her house before she can get close to the gleaming towers in the distance. When she uses her bicycle to arrive at the approximate location, she touches the pin and gawks her way through the amazing city. Robertson’s acting is a little over the top at this point. She’s more like a puppy in a wiener factory. But the pin runs out of power just as she’s about to board a space ship and Casey finds herself waist deep in a swamp.

Of course, she wants to go to this fabulous metropolis and learns online of a sci-fi hobby shop wanting to buy pins similar to the one she has. Taking her little brother Nate (Gagnon) into her confidence, she concocts a story for her Dad about camping while she travels to Houston, Texas, to meet the very strange Hugo (Key) and Ursula (Hahn). But they are more interested in where she got the pin and where the little girl is who gave it to Casey. The two of them turn out to be androids and it takes the miraculous appearance of Athena for them to fight their way out of the shop.

Casey is quite shaken by this but learns from Athena that they must find Frank Walker to get to Tomorrowland while being pursued by black-clad androids posing as CIA agents. It takes some doing, because Frank was exiled from Tomorrowland by Nix (Laurie) when he “built something he shouldn’t have,” a major transmitter intended to scare the people of Earth into fixing the harms they’ve done to the planet by projecting future resultant disasters. But instead, it inured people into accepting their fate, and the world as Casey knows it has only 58 days left to exist.

Tomorrowland is a great film for kids – clean, great special effects, several action sequences – but adults couldn’t possibly take it seriously because it doesn’t take itself seriously. The clumsy beginning destroyed any “Wow” factor it might have had. Even though Clooney gets some good acting done in a few scenes, he could have been eliminated from the first ones. Laurie is spectacular as a semi-villain. He means well but becomes cynical and uncaring. I almost expected him to do that evil laugh he always wanted to do in the TV series House. It was great to see the New York World’s Fair again, even though it contained pavilions that didn’t exist. (I was there every weekend in the summer of 1965, so I know.) My advice is to cut the beginning and tell the story cleanly and without obstruction. Then you’ll have a great movie.

Rating: 3 out of 5 Martini glasses.

West Side Steakhouse
597 10th Ave. (Near 43rd St.)New York

After 93 steakhouses in the course of my dining experiences I’ve been to the mountaintop and sunk to the lowest valley. This one is somewhere in between. I had heard that the West Side Steakhouse was “unpretentious” and that is exactly the case. The sere, black-trimmed exterior with white lettering is simply stated and definitely “no frills.” Inside, the simple décor is continued – white, half wood-paneled walls only ornamented with framed black and white photos interspersed with small racks of wine bottles suspended by their necks. The white tablecloths have butchers’ paper on top of the cloths to protect them. As I waited at the Captain’s Station, I was struck by how small the place was (for a steakhouse). The bar takes up most of the available area.

A young lady greeted me, took my reservation time, and led me to the second to last table in the back of the restaurant. The last table was occupied by a German couple holding hands across the table, speaking in such low tones I barely could determine that it was German and gazing into each other’s eyes – totally oblivious, until the waitress arrived. As I seated myself, I looked back at the girl who led me there and I couldn’t help but think that she got her dress from The Sound of Music. The pattern looked just like the one on the play-clothes Maria made from the curtains for the Von Trapp children. I stifled a giggle.

A young man brought a pint glass of ice water and handed me the menu and wine list. My server, Justyna, appeared and asked if I wanted a cocktail. Yes, they have Beefeaters, yes, I ordered my favorite martini, and strangely yes, it was perfect. That must have been the 10th or 11th time in my life that I didn’t have to teach the bartender the correct proportions.

The menu was again simple; Appetizers (10), Salads (5), Burgers (2), West Side Specials (8), Steaks and Chops (9), and Sides (12). Once I determined what the soup of the day was, (Justyna and I had to adjust our speaking volume over the conversation to my right – two sailors in dress whites and the couple next to them) I had a three-course meal planned.

Thinking that my martini precluded wine, Justyna motioned to take away the wine list but I told her I still needed it. There was a good selection of wines, with reds on the left page and whites on the right. Some of the prices were laughable, but I found one I liked: a 2012 Old Vine Zinfandel called “Jelly Jar” from the Nova Vineyard of Lake County, on the North Coast of California. It was delightful, fruity and full-bodied.

My first course was indeed the Soup of the Day, seafood bisque. It sounded and looked a lot better than it was. The bisque part was accurate and it was a smooth tasty soup, but it could have been much hotter and excluded the chewy bits of calamari and clams. It detracted rather than added to the experience of an otherwise innovative bisque.

The same young man as before brought the breadbasket – a few slices of baguette with two wrapped pats of butter – simple, as everything else.

The spinach and shiitake mushroom salad with bacon in vinaigrette dressing was next on my order. At first, it was an impressive mound of greens with an equally impressive amount of chunky bacon. But where were the mushrooms? Here and there were some, but not as a secondary ingredient. I had to mix the salad several times to be able to taste the nearly absent dressing and, I love bacon, but these were as chewy as the clams in the soup were; a bit overdone.

When I ordered my main course, I commented to Justyna that this would be the first time I’ve been to a steakhouse and didn’t order steak (actually, now that I think of it, it was the second time. The first was a pork chop disaster at the famous Palm Restaurant) and I was wondering if I had made a “mis-steak” (pun intended) this time too.

The Braised Pork Shank stood in the center of the plate like the Devil’s Tower in Close Encounters of the Third Kind and was surrounded by a shiitake mushroom risotto in white truffle reduction. It more than made up for the two previous courses. It looked so good and was so tender and delicious I started eating before I remembered to take a picture of it. The risotto was awesome as well. The silly bit of watercress that the chef perched on top almost made me laugh, but it added a bit of green to the generally earth-toned dish. I sided this with sautéed onions, a dish virtually no one could prepare badly, and I loved it.

Whether it was the salad or not, I was unable to finish the main course and I had it bagged to go (or else dessert would not happen). Good thing I did, because the Pecan Pie was lovely and accompanied by a sculptured mound of whipped cream. I eschewed an after-dinner drink and just had a double espresso, which was enough.

I might return to the West Side Steakhouse to actually try their steaks if I happen to be in the neighborhood again (the prices are quite good) but I wouldn’t seek it out. Not while Uncle Jack’s is still in business.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Sunday, May 24, 2015

Pitch Perfect 2

Dinner and a Movie

Pitch it in “A”

By Steve Herte

You might have heard me yammer about my busy gardening weekends. This past one had the added excitement of the delivery of two major appliances. Our 50-year-old stove and refrigerator said goodbye and we entered the 20th (maybe the 21st) century. The big excitement was getting the new refrigerator into the kitchen. The deliverymen had some job, as the door to our kitchen is slightly wider at the top than at the bottom. They had to physically hoist it up to get it through, and even then it was a tight squeeze.

I’m glad my relaxation time cooled my jets from the workweek and kind of prepared me for the next day. But still: a trapezoidal door? But I digress. My Dinner and a Movie night had fun, beauty, relaxation, history, and … well, you’ll see. Enjoy!

Pitch Perfect 2 (Universal, 2015) – Director: Elizabeth Banks. Writers: Kay Cannon & Mickey Rapkin. Stars: Anna Kendrick, Rebel Wilson, Hailee Steinfeld, David Cross, Katey Sagal, Keegan-Michael Key. Snoop Dog, Brittany Snow, Ester Dean, Kelley Jakle, John Michael Higgins, & Elizabeth Banks. Color, 115 minutes, PG-13.

Now finishing their seventh year at Barden College, the a capella octet known as the “Barden Bellas” (who, by the way haven't grown a day older), have won three back-to-back championships and are about to go on tour. The first stop is a command performance for President Obama and the First Lady at the Kennedy Center. All is going fabulously until Fat Amy (Wilson) is lowered on an enormous sling of material and the worst thing happens, a wardrobe malfunction. Amy’s tights split from back to front and whoa, there’s nothing underneath! The headlines next day read “Muffgate!”

The Bellas are suspended, forbidden to recruit new members, and are replaced on the tour by a juggernaut from Germany known as “Das Sound Machine.” This group has at least three times the personnel, digital effects, multimedia light show and acrobatic choreography, as the Bellas learn when they attend one of their performances. They also learn how much taller they are, how much snootier they are, and how much disdain they have (and are not afraid to repeatedly show it) for the Bellas.

Forbidden from entering any American competitions, their only hope for redemption is to beat the Germans in an international contest – which has never been won by an American entry. They are invited to a private singing contest thrown by a wealthy eccentric (Cross) where groups have to sing songs about a particular category and in the same tempo exactly when the host points to them. They lose the $42,000 prize to Das Sound Machine when Emily Junk (Steinfeld) starts an original song that she wrote (a no-no in this contest).

Emily is a freshman at Barden whose mother, Katherine (Sagal) was a former Bella. She not only sings beautifully but she can also compose. (This will become an asset to the Bellas at the end of the film.) Up until this time, the Bellas have been doing nothing but novel covers of existing songs. Beca (Kendrick) has been handling all the arrangements, but has been having trouble lately because she has other things on her mind.

Beca realizes that all the current Bellas will have to graduate this year (apparently, you can only intentionally fail courses for so long), and she’s considering a career in the recording business. She applies as an intern at a company where her boss (Key) is desperately trying to help Snoop Dogg record a unique Christmas album. She gets his attention when she inserts “Here Comes Santa Claus” into Snoop’s “Winter Wonderland.” But Beca doesn’t tell Chloe (Snow), the unofficial leader of the Bellas, what she is planning.

While at another attempt to outdo Das Sound Machine, the Bellas accidentally ignite Cynthia Rose (Dean) with their fireworks display, Chloe decides that the whole group is going on a retreat. It just so happens that Jessica (Jakle), a former Bella, runs exactly that kind of establishment, a sort of boot camp for singers, with the object being to re-establish their group spirit. Needless to say, it works.

Perfect Pitch 2 only falls short of the first installment in that it has lost the novelty. The singing is excellent and the performances stunning. The characters are all believable in a comic sort of way, indicating good acting. (No nominations though.) The writing is the best part of this movie, and at times, it takes insult comedy to new levels. The two most notable characters, however, are the commentators: John (Higgins) and Gail (Banks). Their interactions and interjections are hilarious. Gail: “That was so touching! It even touched me.” John: “Everyone’s touched you, Gail.” Then, at another point, John says, “This could be the biggest confrontation between the United States and Germany, ever!” To which Gail replies, “Crack a book, John.”

I saw several adults bringing in slews of young children to the film. While it doesn’t have vulgarity (the worst it gets is when Amy refers to Das Sound Machine as “the Deutsch Bags”) and any love scenes are pure slapstick comedy, there is sexual innuendo throughout the dialogue and the onstage performances. If your kids are OK with that, by all means, bring them. I was just enthralled with the harmonies and the comedy.

Rating: 3 ½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Pier A Harbor House
22 Battery PlaceNew York

Have you ever gone to a restaurant just because of the building? I just did. Knowing that Pier A was undergoing renovations, but not knowing what it was becoming or when it would reopen, I was ready to react when I saw “Dine at Pier A” on I visited their website, which is rich in photos but woefully poor in information (like the menu – it’s missing). I didn’t care, and tried other websites to see what kind of food is served there, finding only “Bar Food” (burgers, fries, oysters, drinks). Still, I didn’t care. This is Pier A!

Pier A opened in 1886 as the headquarters for the New York Police and Department of Docks. Later it was a VIP entrance for ambassadors going to Ellis Island and lastly, it was the main station for the Marine Division of the New York City Fire Department. Fireboats docked here. It deserves its listing on the National Register of Historic Places. This building has been closed for almost 40 years. I made the reservation.

I gathered up my things and followed my greeter down the long corridor, inspecting every nook and cranny, marveling all the way. We finally arrived at a charming dining room with a beautiful view of New York harbor and only five or six tables, one of which was occupied by a couple. My table was in the opposite corner from them and my chair faced the windows. Soon, Zsuzsanna, my server (a young man), arrived to take my water preference and present me with the menu and the wine list. He asked if I wanted a cocktail and, after confirming Beefeater’s availability, I ordered my favorite martini.

This was definitely not a bar menu. This was fine dining, and I was delighted. Surprisingly, selecting a three-course meal and a wine took no time at all. The wine list was impressive in size and hilarious in prices; but I did locate an affordable, perfect red. The 2013 Dashe Cellars, Mendocino “Les Enfants Terrible” Zinfandel had a spicy nose and a full-bodied flavor, and proved itself the match for all my dishes.

The “peeky-toe crab cake” could only be described by the word delectable. Smaller than the usual crab cake, it was a little sweet but still had the great crab flavor I love. Topped with a light tartar sauce and crowned with baby cress, and in a fruity sauce, it was almost like a dessert.

The second course was the smallest serving of pasta I’ve seen in a long time. I remembered Helene qualifying this size as “cuisine minceur” (small cooking). But make no mistake, this house-made fettuccini was big on flavor. The reggio parmigiano cheese it was made with added a tart, cheesy edge to the dish and the fresh black pepper added spice. I ate it slowly between sips of wine, enjoying every bite.

The small dishes ended at the main course. The rack of lamb was a nice portion of four succulent lamb chops with the bones entwined in an embrace arched over juicy red peppers and sun-dried tomato with red onion on top. They were perfectly cooked and just what I wanted. (A friend of mine had a lamb dish for lunch and it set my craving.) The side dish brought back two memories. The “spring succotash risotto” melded the fantastic succotash I had in Atlanta, Georgia, with the amazing risotto I had in Wildwood, New Jersey.

But those who know me know this is not the end to the decadence. I finished my entrée and side and was doubtful about dessert. When I saw the poached rhubarb with homemade chocolate and vanilla ice cream resting on an open-faced crepe I was sold. It was marvelous and only exceeded by the double espresso and a fine glass of Grand Marnier Centenaire.

A historic building and a fantastic meal – could I ask for more? I learned later on that the first floor of Pier A opened last November, but the second floor was only opened in January 2015 and wasn’t fully operational until April. Pier A is a special place to take that special someone. As I have that special someone, I will definitely visit again.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Friday, May 22, 2015

TCM TiVo Alert for May 23-31

May 23–May 31


TWELVE O'CLOCK HIGH (May 23, 5:30 pm): Gregory Peck shows great versatility in this film as a merciless brigadier general demanding Air Force bombers continue more dangerous missions to hit German targets during World War II. Peck pushes them beyond their limits and shows no mercy, removing the unit's commanding officer when he speaks up for his men. Peck's character evolves as the unit suffers heavy casualties, but never becomes warm and fuzzy. The film is one of the finest examples of the psychological impact of war, particularly on those in leadership positions, with Peck giving a standout and memorable performance.

TO SIR, WITH LOVE (May 27, 3:15 pm): A 1967 JD film with Sidney Poitier teaching at a poor predominantly white high school on the East End of London to make ends meet. Poitier has to deal with racism as well as try to reach kids who are doomed to lives of poverty, violence and misery. It's a bit unrealistic with Poitier impacting the lives of nearly every kid, teaching them about respect, and being honorable. But Poitier is wonderful and many of the kids, who are virtual unknowns, put in solid performances. The title song is a classic, sung by Lulu, who plays one of the students. 


GRAND ILLUSION (May 24, 3:00 am): This is a “Must See” in every sense of the word. Jean Renoir directed this classic about three French prisoners in a German POW camp and their relationship with the Commandant. Jean Gabin, Pierre Fresnay, and Marcel Dalio (remember him as the croupier in Casablanca?) are the prisoners and Erich Von Stroheim is the Commandant. It was the first foreign film to be nominated for an Oscar, but more importantly, Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels banned any showings during World War II. That alone should ensure it immortal status.

PATTON (May 25, 10:15 pm): George C. Scott was never better in this biopic of World War II’s most iconic general, and the Academy knew it as well, awarding him the Best Actor Oscar for his efforts (which he refused). It’s a good, old-fashioned epic. We knew who the Good Guys were and who the Bad Guys were, and never the twain did meet. There are historical inaccuracies galore, but this is Hollywood. If it’s a case of legend versus fact, print the legend. Karl Malden is excellent as General Omar Bradley, and Michael Bates makes for a feisty Montgomery, with whom Patton was always in competition. Does it tell us much about the inner Patton? Not really, but just go along for the ride. You won’t be disappointed.

WE DISAGREE ON ... FURY (May 30, 10:30 pm)

ED: B. This film, Fritz Lang’s first in America, is an excellent drama of lynch mob and mob rule in a small American town, with Spencer Tracy as their innocent victim. I love Lang’s cynicism, especially the scenes of women gossiping, and then a quick cut to chickens clucking in a barnyard, or close-up of people joyfully holding their babies up for a better view of Tracy as the courthouse burns out of control. But this is a film that would have served us better if it were made in the Pre-Code era, and at an MGM where Irving Thalberg was in control. In the final scenes, where Tracy somehow comes to his senses, admits to conspiring for the deaths of his torturers, and the reconciliation between Tracy and Sylvia Sidney, with Tracy embracing the American Dream, not only went against the grain of the picture, but were said to have been forced on the film by MGM and Louis Mayer, who hated the idea of the film and Lang as well. Also cut were scenes of African-Americans listening to a radio speech by the movie’s district attorney condemning lynching, and another where an African-American laundress is singing a song of freedom while hanging out the wash. The interference by MGM is what lowers the grade for me as it compromises the integrity of the film and Lang’s vision, for Lang had the unusual ability to understand and display the darker parts of the human spirit.

 Fritz Lang's first American film after leaving Nazi Germany is one of his finest. Fury is a gritty, cynical film about mob-rule mentality. It looks like it's from Warner Brothers, but it's an MGM production. It was made in 1936, but remains fresh nearly 80 years later. It's Spencer Tracy's first great role, and among four films in 1936 in which he starred. RiffraffSan Francisco and Libeled Lady were the other three. For many actors, that would be an excellent cinematic career. For Tracy, it was a single year. In Fury, Tracy is a "Typical Joe" – he's even named Joe Wilson – who's operating a gas station and saving money so he can be reunited with his fiancée, Katherine Grant (Sylvia Sidney), and be married. On his way to see her, Joe is stopped in a small town and through circumstantial evidence is arrested for kidnapping a young girl. Lang does a perfect job of showing step by step the way gossip escalates into an angry, violent mob. The visuals are outstanding. Tracy, who is innocent, is taken to the local jail. The tension outside among the town's residents mounts to the point that a mob overwhelms local law enforcement, burns the building down and presumably kills Joe. We find out later that Joe miraculously escaped and isn't dead. With the help of his brothers, he is making those who tried to kill him pay for his "murder." The range shown by Tracy – going from a happy-go-lucky guy to a dark, angry, bitter man seeking revenge – is outstanding, and one of his finest performances. As for the scripted ending, I'm fine with it though I will concede it gets a little preachy. After an impassioned plea from Katherine, Joe realizes he's wrong and goes to the courthouse to stop the convictions of the 22 people charged with his murder. In his speech, Joe said he used to be proud of his country, but his ideals died in that fire. As Ed mentioned, there is some disappointment that a few of the scenes Lang filmed didn't make it into the finished product. But what we have is an exciting and insightful film that does a splendid job of showing the dark side of humanity – first with the mob and then with Joe. 

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

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2

Gallagher’s Forum

By Jon Gallagher

Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 (Columbia, 2015) – Director: Andy Fickman. Writers: Kevin James, Nick Bakay (s/p and characters). Stars: Kevin James, Raini Rodriguez, Eduardo Verastegui, Daniella Alonso, Neil McDonough, David Henrie, D.B. Woodside, Nicholas Turturro, Loni Love, Gary Valentine, Ana Gasteyer, Shelly Desai, Steffiana De La Cruz, Adhir Kalyan, & Bob Clendenin. Color, 94 minutes, PG.

This is not the type of movie that I usually spend money to see. However, given the chance by my oldest daughter to see it with her and my grandchildren, I jumped at the chance. I’m hooked up to oxygen 24/7 so the opportunity to go to a theater to see a movie doesn’t present itself that often. The fact that it was playing across the street along with the company I’d be keeping weighed heavily in the decision to go see this film.

This movie will never be mistaken for any sort of classic. We won’t hear the title in any discussion at or about the Academy Awards. No one will disseminate the movie for great plot twists, nor will they praise anyone for superb acting. The whole purpose of this movie was to make people forget about life for an hour and a half and perhaps get a few chuckles from them.

Given that purpose, the movie does what it set out to do.

This is a Kevin James comedy vehicle, plain and simple. If you don’t like his subtle, “I’m taking myself way too seriously with my tongue in cheek acting” humor, combined with seemingly endless slapstick humor and sight gags, then you won’t enjoy this movie at all. You have been warned.

James reprises his role as Paul Blart, the mall security guard who takes himself and his job WAY too seriously. This time, he and his daughter are in Las Vegas at a national convention of rent-a-cops and he expects to be the keynote speaker for the gala. His daughter, who is getting ready to go off to college, rebels against her over-protective father and ends up getting kidnapped by a band of high-tech art thieves who are there to loot the hotel of its pricy art collection.

It’s up to our hero to gain the respect of his peers, solve the crime (which the hotel doesn’t even know is happening) and save his daughter, all while using his finely honed skills and a lot of new gadgets that are on sale or demo for the convention.

Neal McDonough (Band of Brothers) plays Vincent, the villain of the piece, and he does an okay job as the tongue-in-cheek bad guy. There’s just so much you can do with a role like this short of turning it down.

I’ll have to admit that towards the end of the movie, the choreographed fight scene between Blart’s Legion of Super Rent-a-Cops and the Assembled Bad Guys is quite entertaining, if not predictable at times. Still, there are enough chuckles during the scene to keep it interesting and entertaining.

There are times when you don’t want to see an overly dramatic movie. There are times when you don’t care about the acting. There are times when you just want to sit down and see a “stupid-silly” movie, and this one fits the bill.

I enjoyed it for what it was. The grandkids laughed most of the way through it and at no time was I embarrassed by what was happening on screen.

I wouldn’t pay big money to go see it in a theater (our small theater is $5 a seat). As for renting it, I’d wait till it was not quite new and pick it up for a discounted price at the local video store.

I’ll give it a B-. I was expecting a lot worse.