Saturday, December 31, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for January 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


January 2: At 1:30 pm, it’s Svengali (1931), with John Barrymore as the maestro who uses his telepathic powers to transform the doll-faced Marian Marsh from a beautiful model into a great singer. Based on the George du Maurier novel Trilby, it made “Svengali,” as meaning one who attempts another, usually with selfish or evil intentions, into a household word. Marsh is captivating and Barrymore is his usual self, though this was filmed as years of alcohol began to take their toll.

January 6: Two good entries, beginning at 5:15 pm with 1933’s The Life of Jimmy Dolan. Douglas Fairbanks Jr. stars as a boxer hyped as squeaky clean, a youth loyal to his mother. At a party after he wins the championship, Dolan is living it up with booze and broads. A reporter is discovered among the revelers and he intends to blow the whistle. Jimmy hits him in an attempt to stop him and ends up killing the reporter. His manager and girl friend take it on the lam, leaving Jimmy to face the charges. While speeding away their car crashes, burning their bodies beyond recognition. Because the manager was wearing Jimmy’s watch at the time, the police think it’s Jimmy and close the case. But a disrupted detective named Phlaxer (Guy Kibbee) isn’t buying it and thinks Dolan is still alive. Meanwhile, Dolan ends up broke and dirty at a farm run by Peggy (Loretta Young) and her aunt, Mrs. Moore (Aline MacMahon), as a home for crippled children. They nurse him back to health and he works off his debt to them on the farm, until Phloxes tracks him down. If this seems somehow familiar, you’re probably thinking of the remake, They Made Me a Criminal (1939), with John Garfield as the boxer and Claude Rains as the detective. Amazingly, the remake even kept the original Pre-Code ending. As the original is not shown that often we strongly recommend it. Look for John Wayne as a boxer and Mickey Rooney as a kid named “Freckles.”

Following at 6:45 pm, Jimmy Cagney takes on the syndicate in Taxi! (1932). Cagney is a hack driver working for small-time operator Guy Kibbee and in love with his daughter, Loretta Young. It’s Cagney in his feisty Tom Powers persona, but this time working on the side of right against the big company trying to drive independent cabbies out of business. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and we get to hear Cagney speaking Yiddish, which he learned growing up in his New York neighborhood.

January 9: Speaking of big business, at 8:00 pm it’s Ruth Chatterton and George Brent in Female (1933), one of the quintessential Pre-Code films. Chatterton is Alison Drake,  the CEO of a large automobile firm who, when she wants company, calls on a boy toy. They confirm her belief that men, like women, can be bought with money and power. She meets her match in engineer George Brent, with whom she falls in love and who teaches her the proper place for a woman. Like most films of the era in which a woman wields power, it takes a strong man to put her back in her place. Chatterton and Brent were married at the time of filming.

January 12: Ugly ducking Norma Shearer becomes a swan to the surprise of her philandering husband in Let Us Be Gay (1930), airing at 9:30 am. Check out the pre-glam Shearer in the beginning. And you can our review of it here.

January 15: Lionel Barrymore won an Oscar for his portrayal of a brilliant, but hopelessly alcoholic, criminal lawyer in A Free Soul (1931), airing at noon. He gets gangster Clark Gable off the hook with a stunt that anticipates the O.J. Simpson trial. Once free, Gable moves on to Barrymore’s daughter Norma Shearer. Read our review of it here.


January 4: At 1:45 pm, it’s the time RKO tried to force Katharine Hepburn into, which resulted in her being released from her contract, Mother Carey’s Chickens (1938), about a widow with four children who fights to save her home. Ruby Keeler plays Kitty Carey, the role RKO wanted Hepburn to take. It’s a stinker, but interesting to watch, as one can try to see Hepburn in the role.

Victor McLaglen is a foreman in a munitions plant who must protect absent-minded scientist Edmond O’Brien from enemy agents as he creates a new explosive in 1942’s Powder Town, at 5:00 pm.

January 9: John Wayne stars with Sheila Terry and a pre-Gabby George Hayes in 1934’s The Lawless Frontier at the ungodly hour of 5:00 am. As with all Wayne’s early Poverty Row productions, it’s a must.


January 1: Ring in the new year with a day of Hitchcock films.

January 2: At 4:30 pm, it’s one of the most unsettling films made during that time, The Hypnotic Eye (1960). Hypnotist Jacques Bergerac plants post-hypnotic suggestions that compel beautiful women to later mutilate themselves. Co-starring the beautiful Allison Hayes as Bergerac’s assistant, Justine. We recommend this one highly.

January 3: The TCM Spotlight this month is on prison films. Nothing new, though tonight we do recommend Brute Force (1947, 10:15 pm) and the Pre-Code classic, The Big House (1930, 1:30 am).

January 7: For sheer ineptness of plot, direction and acting, tune into Gymkata (1985) at 2:00 am with Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas as a martial artists expert who uses gymnastics to subdue the bad guys. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds.

January 10: Prison films worth watching tonight include Papillion (1973, 8:00 pm), Escape From Alcatraz (1979, 10:45 pm), and the Pre-Code I Am A Fugitive From A Chain Gang (1932, 3:00 am).

January 11: At 10:00 am, it’s the venerable The Thing From Another World (1951), a film I could watch on a endless loop. I had such a crush on Margaret Sheridan as a kid.

January 13: The rarely seen The Thirteenth Chair (1937), with Lewis Stone, Dame May Whitty and Madge Evans shows today at 4:30 pm. A phony psychic, played by Whitty, tries to solve a murder that took place during her seance.

January 14: A double-feature of sorts, with Phyliss Davis starring as an inmate in a women’s prison on an isolated island in Terminal Island (1973), leads off at 2:00 am, followed by director Jamaa Fanaka’s brutal and engrossing Penitentiary (1980) at 3:30 am. Leon Kennedy is a regular guy framed and sent to a maximum security penitentiary where the inmate have names like “Seldom Seen,” and “Half-Dead.” To survive, “Too Sweet,” as he’s now called, must take part in the prison boxing tournament, which he learns all too late is rigged.


January 8: At 2:00 am look for In The Mood For Love (2000), Wong Kar-Wai’s master stroke of a beautifully layered view of a relationship that develops when a man and woman discover their spouses are cheating with each other. It’s 1962 Hong Kong. Cow Mo-Wan (Tony Leung) and Su Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung) are neighbors in an apartment building. He is a journalist who publishes martial arts novels and she is a secretary for a shipping company. He sees from the beginning that they will get together, but the beauty of this is the way in which it is done. As their spouses are often away, Chow and Li-Zhen spend a lot of the together as friends, having in common such things as noodle shops to martial arts. When they discover their spouses are having an affair, they take comfort in their growing friendship even as they vow not to follow in the footsteps of their spouses. And therein lies the beauty of this film. We expect them to get physical, but Wong is too skilled to take the easy way out. As the film progresses we find ourselves in awe of Wong’s ability to take such a simple story and make it so moving and compelling. For those who love romances, this film fits the bill perfectly. 

January 15: A film from Federico Fellini is always welcome, even if it is such a late entry as his 1984 opus And The Ship Sails On, which airs at 2:00 am. It boasts a simple plot: the year is 1914, and a luxury liner leaves Italy, occupied by various statesmen, aristocrats and members of the opera world is on its way to a remote island, where the ashes of the world’s greatest soprano are to be scattered. The voyage is chronicled by a journalist, who meets the singer's many eccentric friends and admirers. Everything is fine for the first few days, but on the third day the captain has to save a large number of Serbian refugees from the sea. World War I has been declared. Like many a Fellini film the characters are broadly drawn, with unique physical features and behavior dominating. In other words, they are caricatures drawn stereotypically, for this is a gentle satire of the pre-World War I aristocracy. The film blossoms as the passengers at first view the refugees with disdain. Slowly worlds of the rich and poor come together. Look for the scene where the aristocrats try to trace the roots of the Serbian dances and eventually go down on deck to dance with the Serbians, all done to a beautiful musical score. Also worth noting are the scenes of the wine glass concert and the scene in the boiler room where great opera singers compete to impress the sailors below. It’s a typical Fellini mix of light-heartedness and tragedy. The film bombed at the box office when it was released, but is seen as a gem today. 

Thursday, December 29, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for January 1-7

January 1–January 7

THE GRAPES OF WRATH (January 2, 2:15 am): Only a year after John Steinbeck's 1939 classic story of the Joad family, Okies who travel to California after the Dust Bowl wipes out their farm, life doesn't get much better for the family on their drive and even worse once they get to the state. The book is a classic, but the film is even better. The film and book are certainly left-wing, pro-labor union and pro-Communist. As Roger Ebert has written, it's odd that Director John Ford and Executive Producer Darryl F. Zanuck, both conservatives, made this film. Despite the tragic story, the movie is beautiful and very moving. You'd be hard-pressed to find better acting than the performances here by Henry Fonda (Tom Joad), John Carradine (Jim Casy, a former pastor turned union organizer) and Jane Darwell (Ma Joad). Tom's goodbye speech to his mother can move you to tears: "I'll be all around in the dark. I'll be everywhere. Wherever you can look, wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I'll be there. Wherever there's a cop beatin' up a guy, I'll be there. I'll be in the way guys yell when they're mad. I'll be in the way kids laugh when they're hungry and they know supper's ready, and when the people are eatin' the stuff they raise and livin' in the houses they build, I'll be there, too." Ma says: "I don't understand it, Tom." He replies: "Me, neither, Ma, but just somethin' I been thinkin' about."

HEAVEN CAN WAIT (January 4, 8:00 pm): This 1978 remake of Here Comes Mr. Jordan is better than the original, and the original is a great film. Warren Beatty is Joe Pendleton, a quirky backup quarterback for the Los Angeles Rams who's about to get the starting job. He is killed in a tunnel when his bicycle collides with a truck. The problem is he's not supposed to die, but an overanxious "escort" (played by Buck Henry, who co-directed the film with Beatty) takes him early to Heaven. Pendleton's body is cremated before the problem is resolved so a new body is needed. He ends up as Leo Farnsworth, a ruthless businessman killed by his cheating wife (Diane Cannon) and his personal secretary (Charles Grodin) as the two are having an affair. It's funny, it's sweet, it's charming and the acting is extraordinary. In addition to the actors above, excellent performances are given by an all-star cast that includes Jack Warden, Julie Christie, Vincent Gardenia and James Mason as Mr. Jordan. It was nominated for nine Oscars, winning just one.


THE WOMAN IN GREEN (January 2, 6:15 am): When a series of murders takes place in London with the victims all missing their right forefingers, it sounds like a case for Sherlock Holmes. And that’s exactly what it is, as Homes and Watson delve into the shadowy worlds of hypnotism and blackmail. This “B” from Universal doesn’t slow down for a minute as Holmes, impeccably played by Basil Rathbone, takes on his greatest adversary in the person off the great Henry Daniell. An enjoyably time for the viewer.

TAXI (January 6, 6:45 pm): Cagney is great as a hotheaded hack fighting a syndicate that seeks to control independent taxi owners. Loretta Young co-stars as his girlfriend (and eventual wife), whose father, Guy Kibbee, owns the company Cagney hacks for. Check out the scene where Cagney and Young enter a dance contest won by George Raft, who gets punched out of Cagney for his troubles. Yeah, it’s hokey, but it’s also riveting to watch. And watch for Cagney speaking Yiddish in the opening scenes.

WE DISAGREE ON ... SAN QUENTIN (January 4, 6:30 am)

ED: C. San Quentin is an entertaining programmer with strong performances by Bogie, Ann Sheridan, Pat O’Brien, and especially Barton MacLane. However, it is a programmer, churned out quickly and totally formula. Bogie is the hot-headed, rebellious convict whose older sister, Sheridan, is dating the captain of the guards, O’Brien. MacLane is the evil guard who manipulates Bogie into escaping. Directed by studio hack Lloyd Bacon, who turned them out fast and no-frills, this is one of two prison drama releases from Warners that year, both with Sheridan. Entertaining, yes, Memorable, no. In later interviews, even Bogie had trouble remembering he was in it.

DAVID: B. Released in 1937, during Humphrey Bogart's time at Warner Brothers when the studio had little idea what to do with him, San Quentin is an enjoyable 70-minute crime drama that has Bogie as an inmate at San Quentin trying to go straight. While Pat O'Brien and Ann Sheridan get top billing, it's Bogart as Sheridan's kid brother who shines the brightest. He's also in the most scenes. O'Brien is the new captain of the guards who falls for Sheridan, a nightclub singer. Because of her brother's experiences with law enforcement, Sheridan isn't a fan of prison guards so O'Brien keeps that a secret from her until she find out, leading to a falling out between the two. Meanwhile, O'Brien is giving special treatment to Bogart, primarily because he sees some good in him and believes he can be rehabilitated. But the other inmates, particularly those who have been in San Quentin for a lot longer, say it's because O'Brien is dating Bogart's sister. The film moves along at a brisk pace, well directed by Lloyd Bacon – Ed has mentioned Bacon numerous times over the years, but I believe this is the first time he refers to him as a "studio hack." Ed even pays tribute to Bacon in this article. The best scene is at the end after Bogie escapes, but makes it back to San Quentin – the film was shot on location at the prison – to show O'Brien that he was truly rehabilitated.

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

Wednesday, December 28, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Passengers (Columbia, 2016) – Director: Morten Tyldum. Writer: Jon Spalhts. Stars: Jennifer Lawrence, Chris Pratt, Michael Sheen, Lawrence Fishburne, Andy Garcia, Vince Foster, Kara Flowers, Conor Brophy, Julee Cerda, Aurora Perrineau, Lauren Farmer, Emerald Mayne, Kristin Brock, Tom Ferrari, & Quansae Rutledge. Color & 3D, Rated PG-13, 116 minutes.

The Starship Avalon, owned by the Homestead Corporation, is on its 120-year course for the Homestead Colony – an Earth-like planet on the other side of the galaxy – with 5,259 people in stasis pods. The ship looks remarkably like a piece of the double helix of DNA attached to a hypodermic needle that emits a force field umbrella from its tip. This is not its maiden voyage. It’s been there and back before. And yet, in the vast emptiness of space, this time it encounters an asteroid field and the audience sees one particularly large rock heading straight for the ship. 

We hear the computer send out a warning of “Imminent Collision” in red letters, but no one is awake to act on it. Apparently, evasive maneuvers were not programmed into it. The rock hits the force field and breaks up, the Avalon is shaken and various computer screens light up red. One by one they turn green as the computer makes repairs, all except one.

Jim Preston (Pratt), a skilled mechanic, is awakened from his 120-year sleep with 90 years left for the journey. There is no way to repair his pod, and even if there were, it is not equipped to put him back into stasis. A 3D hologram of a stewardess directs him about as if the ship were arriving at its destination. He’s baffled and after a year of reading manuals and trying to get onto the bridge of the Avalon and failing, he decides to upgrade his meager cabin to first class by forcing his way in. All about him, things flicker on and off and cleaner robots malfunction one by one. His only company is Arthur (Sheen), an android bartender, who is human enough from the waist up.

Jim falls in love with Aurora Lane (Lawrence), a writer, still safely in her stasis pod. He wrestles with his conscience and discusses it with Arthur, but decides to read another manual, short out her pod, and awaken her. After swearing Arthur to secrecy about his tinkering, he courts Aurora and they become a loving couple, even to the point of doing the nasty on the breakfast table. Things are still misfiring and malfunctioning around them, but they’re having a high old time anyway. Until Arthur malfunctions and reveals Jim’s secret to Aurora. Now she hates him for “taking her life away.”

It’s not until the breakfast machine spews gallons of wet cereal on Aurora and she nearly drowns in the pool when the gravity suddenly switches off that she realizes that she and Jim need each other. And then another pod malfunctions and Gus Mancuso (Fishburne), a part of the crew is awakened. Now they have access to the bridge, but all systems look OK from there. Gus however, is not OK. He’s coughing up blood. A short session in the AutoDoc machine and they learn that he has hours left to live. It’s Laurence Fishburne’s shortest time on screen, almost a cameo. But before he dies he tells them, “Search the ship. Look for something broken, something big.”

The audience cannot help but laugh, knowing the immense size of the Avalon. The Grand Concourse alone looks like Foxwoods’ shopping area if it was designed by the crew of Lost in Space. If it weren’t so comical, Passengers might have been a romantic space love story. But the love scenes are clumsy.

Forget the science accuracy. Gus’ opening line is “Who the hell planted a tree on my ship?” Jim somehow opened a hole in the floor of the Grand Concourse and planted a small, obviously artificial, oak tree to impress Aurora. (You can see the wires in the leaves as she admires it.) The zero gravity pool scene has a major problem. Most of the water in the pool forms a huge globule, as water would do in zero gravity, but another part of the pool water forms a breaker wave that slaps Aurora down when she swims to the surface. Not possible.

Come Oscar time, Passengers will probably be nominated for set design (they are fabulous) and perhaps for costume design (Jennifer’s bathing suit is a point for that), but very little else. My favorite quote was from Arthur, “I was laughing at the man not wearing pants, then I realized, I have no legs.” And speaking of cameo appearances, we only see Captain Norris (Garcia) briefly at the end. The film is entertaining and almost believable in parts, but too close to comedy to be taken seriously.

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Autre Kyo-Ya
10 Stuyvesant St.New York

French and Japanese cuisines have been melting together for a while now, using ingredients from one and presentations from the other, but this is the first time I’ve found a restaurant where the name is both French and Japanese. 

Surprisingly, at 7:00 pm on a Friday, this restaurant had only two of its 12 tables occupied. Walking around the block before entering I noticed many other Japanese-style places on the same block doing lively businesses, and it made me wonder. My smiling and highly informative server, Kazuya, explained that the restaurant has only been open for a little less than a year, and their first Kyo-Ya was already well known. Hence, the Autre, which means “other” in French. He loosely translated Kyo-Ya as a place for people, music and enjoyment. 

Asked if I wanted a drink, I remembered our location was on Stuyvesant Street and chose the Stuyvesant Cocktail: Laphroaig 10-year single malt scotch, fernet branca (a type of amaro, a bitter tasting Italian spirit), and yukari powder (dried and pulverized red shiso flakes, an herb in the mint family) and garnished with a large shiso leaf. It was an interesting flavor, as I’ve never had Laphroaig mixed with anything else. However, the resulting taste was smoky, slightly bitter, but pleasant.

Kazuya walked me through the menu and helped me select three courses and a side dish. When he returned I selected the 2013 Vinium Cellars Chenin Blanc from Clarksburg, California. It was another impressive wine from a screw-top bottle. The crispness of this white wine went well with all my courses.

My first course was a signature dish for Kyo-Ya: sea urchin consommé gelée – onsen style (slow-cooked at low temperature) egg, citrus aroma, and parsnip purée. The sea urchin flesh was on the surface of the parsnip purée in five points, topped with edible flowers. Below the creamy parsnip was the gelled urchin. I’ve had sea urchin before and I love the sweet-briny flavor of them.

Next, the house smoked octopus – sliced charcoal grilled octopus, celery root puree, and smoked soy sauce. It was beautifully white and pink with bright green pea pods on top and beyond tender and moist. The sauce formed a foam around the pieces of octopus, increasing the attractiveness of the dish.

I originally wanted the branzino, but Kazuya told me it was a dish for two people, a whole fish. I selected the roasted Australian lamb instead, with basil chili, fingerling potatoes, seared nasu eggplant (a long, narrow Japanese variety) and halved Brussels sprouts. The lamb was perfectly cooked to my specifications, juicy, tender, and medium rare. The eggplant was a novel flavor – a little spicier than more common eggplant. The basil chili added an unexpected zip to the meal. The side dish, roasted beets with yoghurt and pistachio, was a cooling effect after the chili.

My dessert was quintessential Japanese: the Azuki Yokan: a little, flourless red-bean jelly cake topped with gold leaf and swirled round by a sweet green tea sauce. This was a light finish to a diverse dinner. Normally, I would have tea after a Japanese meal but this time I asked Kazuya for his favorite sake. He pointed it out on the impressive list and I ordered it. I could taste the plums in this wonderful sake. I thanked Kazuya for widening my knowledge of sake and his meticulous help throughout my dinner. 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, December 26, 2016

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday

Films in Focus

By Christine

Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot (Mr. Hulot’s Holiday) (Discina, 1953) – Director: Jacques Tati. Writers: Henri Marquet (s/p, dialogue), Jacques Tati (s/p, dialogue, story), Jacques Lagrange (s/p, uncredited), Pierre Aubert (s/p, uncredited). Cast: Jacques Tati, Nathalie Pascaud, Louis Perrault, Andre Dubois, Lucien Fregis, Raymond Carl, Micheline Rolla, Valentine Camax, Marguerite Gérard, René Lacourt & Suzy Willy. B&W, 83 minutes.

Every film buff I have known has a special film. 

I’m not taking about a favorite film, for there are usually more than one of them. But a special film, one that they look back upon with a loving remembrance, for it came along at a special time in their lives, or is remembered from an especially nostalgic time, say childhood, when they first watched it at a young age with their parents in the comfortable cocoon of the family, and it has had a magical effect on them since then. 

For me, that special film is Les vacancies de Monsieur Hulot. It was the film my husband took me to see on our first date, and where I not only fell in love with him, but also knew that I would marry him. 

On each anniversary, we would look to find a theater running the movie, after which we had dinner. Then videotapes came along. We would go out to an early dinner, then come home and watch the movie. 

When our children were growing up, we exposed them to the joys of the film. They weren’t as enthusiastic as we were, of course. When they got older we began spending large parts of our annual summer vacations at Saint Marc-sur-mer (St. Marc by the Sea), where the movie was filmed. While they could never be said to be big fans of the movie, they were big fans of St. Marc, as the beach was wonderful. For them, it was paradise and their saddest day was when we packed to leave. Were it up to them, we would never have left.

It’s easy to be drawn to a film such as this, as much of the French moviegoing public was when the film was released. The reason for its popularity, besides the harmless antics of Mr. Hulot, is that Jacques Tati had his finger firmly on the pulse of French culture and its obsession with the summer vacation, which occurs every August. 

As France returned to normality after the years of occupation during the war, the summer vacation regained its central position with a vengeance. The postwar economic recovery had bestowed more largesse on more people, and while class and political distinctions were not entirely erased, more people were able to partake of and enjoy a vacation.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is the film in which Tati introduced his most famous and enduring character, Mr. Hulot, to the public. It has no plot as such, which allows Tati to draw the humor from everyday circumstances, as the film perfectly captures the seemingly endless drifting of a childhood vacation because there is nothing outside to tie it all together. Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a series of vignettes set over the course of a week at a beach resort with the only “beginning” and “end” being in the sense that the film starts with the guests arriving and finishes with them leaving. Tati’s film is a satire, a gentle poke at the newly emerging middle class who are so immersed in getting there that they find themselves trapped in their conventions and rigid social roles to the point that they forget how to relax and have a good time. By unfolding the film in a series of vignettes and using as little spoken dialogue as possible, Tati comes across more as an observer than as an active participant.

Though it has the look of improvisation, each scene has been meticulously planned. When Tati made this film in 1953, the summer vacation had not yet become the institution it is now in France. Workers had only two weeks holiday. Because not many owned cars at the time, they were reliant on mass transportation. Thus, the vacation spot had to be a place they could reach fast and return from just as quickly. For most Parisians, the most popular places were Normandy and the Brittany shore, which was where Mr. Hulot’s Holiday was filmed. Saint Marc-sur-mer had the reputation at the time of being an affordable place to spend a holiday, and as such, was crowded every summer season.

And for those who were city bound because they could not afford to take a vacation, the film did just that for them and at the same time showed them what they were not missing.

One reason for the film’s magical effect on viewers is that it was actually shot in the resort town of Saint Marc-sur-mer. The hotel is a real one, though its entrance was constructed by the film’s crew so as not to disturb things too much. The restaurant scenes were filmed in a studio in Paris.

Les vacancies opens with a shot of an empty seashore as the opening credits roll. We hear the sound of the waves crashing onto the beach to the accompanying sounds of Alain Romans’ 1952 cool jazz theme, “Quel temps fait-il à Paris” (“What’s the weather in Paris?”). The music will be the film’s motif, providing a comforting feeling. Tati swiftly cuts to a crowded train station where passengers are being misdirected from one platform to another by the barely legible instructions emanating from a loudspeaker. As the train arrives, it’s packed with other vacationers and the crowd has to scramble to find seating or standing room. A lovely young lady is able to board; we will later get to know her as Martine (Pascaud), and she will become one of the guests the camera follows throughout the film.

As the train speeds along the countryside, we are treated to the sight of a strange car navigating its way along the country road. Inside the car is Mr. Hulot. Though many French citizens drove such a vehicle in the postwar years, by the time Tati was filming this movie, these cars had become fewer and fewer. The choice of Hulot’s car distinguishes him immediately; he is a square peg among the round holes.

As Hulot putts along, bigger cars speed by, at one point raising such a cloud of dust as to force Hulot off the road. As he drives through a small town, the cobblestone street causes his car to shake and rattle so much we fear it will fall apart. A quick sight gag in the town involves a dog that likes to lie in the street. The bigger cars stop and blow their horns impatiently until the dog leaves. But when Hulot comes by he stops and squeezes the taxi horn on the side of his car, causing the dog to rise and come over to greet the driver. Hulot pats the dog and appears to give him a treat before going on his way, giving us the feeling that he’s genuinely sorry for having disturbed the dog. He’s in no hurry; he knows he’ll eventually get there.

Hulot’s arrival at the hotel is marked by his car backfiring with gears grinding. Children run to see what’s making all that noise and upsetting the tranquility of the beach. When Hulot gets out of the car, we get to soak in Tati’s mise-en-scene by observing the picture postcard setting of the hotel and surrounding beach. Hulot enters the hotel to check in, inadvertently leaving the front door open, through which a gust of wind comes through, disrupting everything in the parlor – a sure signal to us that not only has Hulot arrived, but also a hint of what his presence portends.

Hulot is an exaggerated character. Tall and thin, clad in a poplin coat and crumpled hat, striped socks, trousers which are clearly too short, carrying a rolled umbrella, and a pipe firmly clenched between his teeth, Hulot makes an awkward, yet hilarious figure, topped off with his odd stiff-legged gait. His actions are exaggerated, from his walk to his stance, to the way he serves a tennis or ping pong ball, and even to the people he meets. He is polite to everyone and always offers assistance, even if it is not requested. Hulot is so overly polite that when the announcer on the radio in the hotel’s lounge says “Good night, everybody!” he bows and doffs his hat.

If Hulot seems like a mime, there is good reason. Tati began his career in show business as a mime and toured Paris music halls displaying his talents in acrobatics, impersonations and comic drunken waiter and tennis player sketches. His tennis antics later in the film are directly lifted from his music hall days. He also worked as a bit player in movies, which whetted his appetite for feature films after the war. 

There are few close-ups in the film, which is intentional, for close-ups tend to divide a film into stars and supporting players, and Tati wanted to show the totality of the holiday experience; he wants us to see it conceived as a whole, not in parts. His use of medium and long shots instead was specifically to focus our attention on the human comedy that results when people interact and to emphasize that he, along with us in the audience, are observers. The many visual gags Tati employs in the course of the film are designed with just that in mind. 

At first the camera sticks by the hotel, slowly venturing out onto the beach. Later, it will move further about, capturing the life of the vacationers, mimicking what vacationers do on their holidays: at first sticking close to base, then as the vacation wears on and they become more familiar with their surroundings, venturing forth into other areas. Our guide for these excursions will be Hulot himself. Though he is always around, he is the man nobody quite sees. His fellow vacationers live compartmentalized lives, wrapped up in their own worlds, with their companions and plans. They notice Hulot only when something happens to upset their worlds, as it usually does when he’s around. His spontaneity, which can be seen in his gestures (such as his tennis serves both on the court and later while playing ping pong at the hotel), gives him an almost foreign quality unsettling to those hidebound by routine. We see by his gentlemanly manner and politeness that he wants to conform, to accept their unspoken etiquette, but time and again he involuntarily disrupts their rigid protocol.

The film eschews dialogue, effectively transforming it into part of the background noise and limiting it only to a few spoken lines, mainly to satirize the silly, pointless things people say to one another. Hulot himself remains a silent character; his dialogue limited to few words (except to state and spell his name when he checks in). What little dialogue there is between the other characters is simple and infrequent enough that even those who do not speak French can understand the gist without recourse to subtitles. To use dialogue would make for a different film, causing Hulot’s character to adapt accordingly and lose the magic he achieves by making him an active participant instead of a bemused observer. Tati uses these few spoken lines to underline moods and situations, things that by themselves can’t be put into words. In this way, along with the wide-angle shots, Tati is able to say much more than dialogue would allow, and enables us to see the entire situation instead of having it interpreted through the prism of words.

In addition to words, sounds also have a place in Hulot’s world. He arrives at the hotel restaurant to the constant “thunk” the door makes each time it is opened. Hulot is seated near the door, along with what we can surmise are other single men. Does he complain about the door? No, it is part of his world. There is also the bell just outside the hotel’s entrance, which is rung to signify lunch and dinner. The vacationers, upon hearing the bell, drop whatever they are doing and line up to enter the restaurant, unable to break from their routine, even on vacation. The same is true of “Mr. Schmutz” (German for “dirt”), a businessman who is being constantly called to the hotel lobby to answer the telephone. Each time we hear it ring we know it’s for him and we wonder why he even took his family on vacation. When his family poses for a group picture in front of the hotel, he has to pause to answer the phone. Even the sound of a radio is used to good effect for the hotel guests: the end of the broadcast day signals their bedtime.

The humor in the film follows from Hulot’s interactions with his fellow vacationers, who represent the kind that we have come across ourselves during the course of many vacations. Tati doesn’t make a big point of establishing characters, but we gradually come to recognize them. There’s the older couple who seemingly camp out in the hotel’s restaurant, looking at life going on outside the window. The bored, mischievous young boy, busy trying to set fire to the beach dressing tents with his magnifying glass. The army officer who constantly regales his companions with tales of his military career. A young intellectual spouting meaningless Marxist analysis to anyone unfortunate enough to sit next to him. An older wandering couple on the beach with the wife finding interesting sea shells and handing them to her husband, who throws them away when she isn’t looking. We also have a stuffy waiter (Carl) constantly mouthing complaints to himself and obsessed with trying to catch Hulot at something. Tati takes these outwardly clichéd familiar “types,” and presents them to comic effect, transforming the bland and rude into the genial, which makes his disruption of their ordered worlds all the more enjoyable. 

Perhaps no other scene more emphasizes the gulf between Hulot and the other vacationers than when the daily newspapers arrive. People surround the vendor, hungry for news of civilization. Hulot also buys a newspaper, but ignores its contents, instead folding its pages into a silly cap he later wears during his tennis match.

Of the other characters we see throughout the film, one does stand out, the lovely blonde Martine. At first she seems to be vacationing by herself, but later her aunt (Rolla) arrives, complaining about the delays she experienced getting there. Hulot, ever the eligible bachelor, seems taken with her, but her reaction is one of bewilderment as she sizes him up. Though she keeps him at arms length throughout the film, she is still attracted to him, not because he is particularly good looking, but because she senses he is different from the rest. She strikes us as someone who herself wants to break away, perhaps feeling too penned in during a time when she should be able to let loose a little. Maybe that is why she plays tennis with him and agrees to go horseback riding, though the event ends in a disaster of slapstick for Hulot as his horse proves an unwilling partner.

Throughout it all, Tati wants to make sure that it’s Mr. Hulot we laugh at, designing his gags to emphasize the disruption Hulot causes. In one scene, a man stands on the beach next to his boat, painting its name onto the hull. Suddenly the locked winch is released, and the trailer slips into the ocean. The painter’s brush, though, remains stationary, with the result that a long, brushstroke is painted across the ship’s front. The owner asks those nearby if they are responsible. They answer in the negative. As a crowd gathers and leaves, we see Hulot nervously standing in front of a post using his towel to dry his back, unaware that the towel is itself wrapped around the post, not touching him. He pulls it back and forth to dry himself, down his back, to his bottom and then feet, but the towel never touches his body. Nevertheless, Hulot continues, his eyes shifting from the man and looking out into space. A jogger doing stretching exercises while running by. Hulot follows him, copying the man’s motions. Once out of sight, he runs away and ducks behind a tent, clearly the cause of the mishap.

Tati’s gags are made funnier because they are rooted in the reality of the situation, but there are times when he rejects the easy gag. He wants us to laugh, but he also wants something more. For instance, we see a little boy buying two ice cream cones from the vendor. Carrying both cones he ascends the stairs to the hotel where he comes to a door. He has to reach up and turn the handle 180 degrees to enter, which would turn one cone upside down. We cringe as we anticipate the young boy’s trauma when the cone spills out the ice cream. But Tati surprises us, the ice cream cone defies gravity and stays in place. Our tension is broken as he walks to the ballroom, hands the cone to a friend, and we observe them happily munching on their treats as they watch the room being prepared for a masked ball that will take place.

One of the best scenes in the film comes as an anti-climax of sorts. We saw earlier that the hotel has posted notices for an upcoming masked ball. As we read the poster we begin to wonder what Hulot is going to do to upset this event. But then we are surprised when we discover that the only people to dress for the occasion are Hulot, Martine, and a few children. Everyone else is in the lounge listening to a politician blather on over the radio. From the snatches of sound we hear that the politician is speaking in cliches. Hulot plays “Quel temps fait-il à Paris” on the record player and invites Martine to dance. They dance alone, shut off in the room while through the glass we see the other guests intently listening to the radio. Hulot turns up the volume on the record player to drown out the politician.

The last night of vacation finds Hulot being chased by a small dog. He runs into a shed to escape. Lighting a match to get his bearings, he inadvertently ignites the fireworks stored there, which blaze forth and awaken everyone in the hotel. 

The holiday comes to a bittersweet end, with people shaking each other’s hand, collecting addresses and promising to stay in touch. The man (Lacourt) of the old strolling couple seeks out Hulot, who is playing with a couple of children in the sand, and makes it a point to shake his hand, telling him how much he enjoyed himself and asking if Hulot will return the next year. When Hulot answers that he will, the man is thrilled; he has been enjoying himself vicariously through Hulot during the entire stay. As everyone leaves, Hulot’s car is the last to drive off and the film ends with it’s only color insert – a red stamp marked with the location from where the postcard was sent. We know however, that the vacationers will meet again the next summer.

Mr. Hulot’s Holiday is a film that subtly, yet completely, captures our nostalgia for happy days gone by. It’s about nothing more complicated than our desire to get away for a few days of play, breathing in the refreshing sea air and not having to worry about what tomorrow will bring. That’s the hope that animates all vacations and makes their ending so much the sadder. And yet, when we watch it again, it’s like going on vacation once more. The same place is there along with the same people. Therein lies the real beauty of the film: it’s as though we could come back again. That’s what gives the movie its special appeal. 

As for myself, after my retirement, our family took up roots and moved from Paris to the town where Hulot worked his magic. We still find it magical every day, no matter what the weather is in Paris. 

NOTES: Next to Tati, the character most noticed by viewers is the beautiful Nathalie Pascaud. She has an interesting backstory. Born Jacqueline Schillio, she and her businessman husband were friends of Tati. Tati cast her as Martine, and to overcome any resistance her husband might have to her participation, he cast him as Mr. Schmutz, the telephone-bound businessman. Not being a professional actress, her only other credit is Le temps des copains (Time Buddies), a 1963 film adaptation of a television series about three young men in Paris that ran from 1961 to 1962. 

Shooting on the film began in July 1951 and was supposed to end in September, but that August was cold, rainy and gray on the Brittany shore and the production finally wrapped in October. Sand was a particular problem, getting into the camera, ruining the film and necessitating retakes.

Although the car Mr. Hulot drives looks as if it was cobbled together especially for the film, it is an actual car. To be specific, it’s a 1924 Amilcar, made by a company that existed from 1921 to 1940. They made passenger cars but later specialized in racing cars. 

Friday, December 23, 2016

Collateral Beauty

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Collateral Beauty (WB, 2016) – Director: David Frankel. Writer: Allan Loeb. Stars: Will Smith, Edward Norton, Kate Winslet, Michael Peña, Helen Mirren, Naomie Harris, Keira Knightley, Jacob Latimore, Ann Dowd, Liza Colón-Zayas, Natalie Gold, Kylie Rogers, Shirley Rumierk, Alyssa Cheatham, & Benjamin Snyder. Color, Rated PG-13, 97 minutes.

Children don’t come from you, they go through you.” “You don’t need her permission to be her father.” “You’re losing someone? Don’t forget to notice the collateral beauty.”

This multi-moralistic movie starts slow and plodding with Howard Inlet (Smith) being introduced at a corporate meeting by his best friend and partner, Whit Yardsham (Norton). He asks the assemblage what their “why” is. Why did they come to the meeting (aside from being fired if they didn’t)? Then he goes on to discuss the three constants: love, time and death. Yeah, yeah, and so on and so on. A good corporate speech.

Then, as the plot progresses, we learn that he lost his six-year-old daughter to a rare form of brain cancer. Howard clams up, discontinues his charismatic leadership and spends all of his office time setting up elaborate strings of multicolored dominoes and knocking them down. He’s completely withdrawn and the company is floundering, about to lose a mega-million-dollar contract. Whit and Howard’s two closest compatriots, Claire Wilson (Winslet) and Simon Scott (Peῆa), are at a loss as to how to get Howard back on track. A private investigator, Sally Price (Dowd) reveals he’s now writing letters to the Universe, addressed to his constants, love, time and death.

At an audition campaign, Whit meets a young actress, Aimee Moore (Knightly) who impresses him with her reversal of a tag line to “Shed your skin and find your life.” He follows her to a small repertory theater where she and her two fellow actors, Brigitte (Mirren) and Raffi (Latimore), are rehearsing a play. An idea is born. Whit, Claire and Simon contract the three actors to play parts in the most outrageous intervention of all time. They are to represent the personifications of the three constants and answer Howard’s letters. Brigitte will play death, Raffi time, and Aimee love. The scam is carefully worked out to appear as if nobody can see them if they don’t want to be seen and they are digitally removed from the video taken by the private investigator. All it will cost them is $20,000 apiece.

As the plan is set in motion, the film picks up the tempo as one by one, the actors interact with Howard, while at the same time becoming closer with their respective “coaches” – Brigitte with Scott, Aimee with Whit and Raffi with Claire. A double bonus is achieved as Howard’s problem is being solved for each. Whit’s daughter blames him for his divorce with her mom, Simon hasn’t told his family that his cancer has reappeared and is fatal, and Claire has always wanted children but never succeeded.

Aside from the slow start, Collateral Beauty is an excellent film. Will Smith will make you cry as he struggles with his internal fears. Helen Mirren is fabulous as the consummate actor playing a consummate actor. And the twist at the end involving the leader of an encounter group for people who have lost someone to death, Madeleine is played tenderly and capably by Naomie Harris. I enjoyed Collateral Beauty despite the fact that the trailers led me to believe that death, time and love actually visited Howard. It would have been more spiritual, but wouldn’t have worked out in the long run. This movie is a must see.

Rating: out of 5 Martini glasses.

Jue Lan Club
49 W. 20th St.New York

Jue Lan Club bills themselves as serving “Chinese food for people who do not like Chinese food.” That would be a turn-off for me if I had seen it before dining there.

Pronounced “U” Lan, the restaurant name means “determination to create change” and hails back to a club founded by avant-garde artists in the early 1930s in Paris. The entrance is a lit, white enclosed awning leading to twin red doors. Inside it’s dimly lit; votive candles flicker on all the bare wood tables and the semi-circular, green velvet banquettes surround the tables conspiratorially. There are several rooms and I was led to the first table in one of them. The brick wall on one side featured three stained glass windows and the wall to my back was papered with a burnished gold Asian design.

I found the food menu and the wine list already on the table and as I perused both I asked my server, Geo, if there was a separate cocktail list. There was. I told him I was in the mood for adventure and asked for the most unusual drink. He suggested the Lady Dragon cocktail – Grey Goose vodka, fresh lemon juice, and rosemary-infused agave. The main flavor was lemon but in the background were the rosemary and the slight sting of the vodka. A good drink.

While I was thus engaged with the menus another server brought an amuse-bouche, a crisp little bishop’s cap filled with crab meat in an orange sauce. Very nice. Geo asked if I had decided on an appetizer and I gave him the two first courses to put in.

I ordered my entrée and wine. They were out of the one I ordered, but Geo brought me a 2013 Albert Boxler “Reserve” Pinot Blanc from Alsace. A lovely wine with the crispness I wanted, it was chilled perfectly and had a slight acid tang with a beautiful golden color.

It went perfectly with the short rib Bao buns wrapped around chunks of short rib with jalapeno, pickled cucumber and shredded carrots. The second course, crab and pork soup dumplings with beef broth, arrived almost simultaneously with the buns, but they were in a bamboo steamer and would stay hot longer than the exposed Baos. I finished the Bao buns first as they were rapidly getting cold. I love the texture of Chinese buns, a spongy, almost bread-like quality. The jalapeno was just there for an accent and did not mar the savory short rib flavor.

The soup dumplings did indeed remain hot in their steamer and weren’t there too long before I started eating them. They came with a soy dipping sauce, but didn’t need it. The crab and pork ground together made a good, tasty combination. But where was the beef broth?

I chose the main course for its description. The green prawns with Chinese water spinach, chili, red peppers and cashews did, remarkably, have bright green prawns. How did they get them that vivid color? They were tender with a slight crunch and a spicy aftertaste, which the wine accentuated magically. The entire dish was a marvel and changed my mind about prawns. I had always thought of them as an “Eh!” seafood, not too special. These were special. It was served with a bowl of sticky white rice, just as one would expect in a regular Chinese restaurant.

You will never find a dessert called infamous chocolate mousse – dark chocolate, mirror glaze, red berry compote, flourless sponge and green tea gelato – on any menu in Chinatown, much less anything chocolate at all. But this was a lovely dessert, simple, yet decadent and just the right size. If anything, it was more French than Chinese. The Earl Grey tea I ordered to go with it clinched the non-Chinese atmosphere. Then it hit me. None of the servers were Asian and neither were the patrons. I guess the motto got around. I’m almost glad I didn’t order the Peking duck. Still, Jue Lan Club is a charming bistro with comfortable seating, romantic lighting and good food and wine. It just isn’t Chinese.

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