Sunday, January 31, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for February 1-15

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea


As we know, TCM is devoting the month of February, along with the first two days in March, to its annual “31 Days of Oscar” festival. Unlike last year, there’s little that’s new this time around. It’s mostly the same old films. Because of this, we are changing our format for the month. We will feature a different film each day; a film that we feel is usually not discussed and sometimes overlooked.

February 1: Our choice for the day is the Broadway Melody of 1936 from MGM, airing at 10:00 am. Jack Benny plays a Walter Winchell-esque Broadway columnist who is locked in a feud with producer Robert Taylor. The real reason to watch is the marvelous performance by Eleanor Powell in her first major role in a big-budget film. She plays Taylor’s childhood sweetheart who gets into his show by masquerading as Mlle. Arlette, a famous French stage star. The film also boasts a strong supporting cast led by Una Merkel, Buddy and Vilma Ebsen, and Frances Langford. But it’s Powell who is the showstopper. Three of the songs: “I’ve Got a Feelin’ You’re Fooling,” “Broadway Rhythm,” and “You Are My Lucky Star” would later be recycled in the 1951 classic, Singin’ in the Rain. Nominated for three Oscars, it won for Best Dance Direction (Dave Gould).

February 2: Our pick here is Forbidden Planet (MGM, 1956) at 1:45 pm. One of the classics of science-fiction cinema, it boasts excellent special effects and an intelligent story. A group of space troops, led by Leslie Nielsen, has come to the planet Altira-4 to relieve the members of the Bellerophon mission 20 years earlier. But upon landing, they learn that the only survivors are Dr. Edward Morbius (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter, Altaira (Anne Francis), along with Robby the Robot, which Morbius had pieced together years ago. Nielsen must phone home for further instructions as how to handle this new situation, while Morbius wants him and his crew gone as soon as possible. Nielsen, however, is suspicious. Something’s not passing the smell test, and when several of his crew meet their deaths, things heat up fast. Those new to this classic will love it while us old hands can certainly watch it once more. It won the Oscar for Best Effects, Special Effects (A. Arnold Gillespie, Irving G. Riles, and Wesley C. Miller).

February 3: At 11:15 am it’s Edward G. Robinson in the hard-hitting Five Star Final (WB, 1931). Eddie G. is the editor of the New York Gazette, a tabloid scandal sheet. Ordered by the paper’s owner (Oscar Apfel) to re-examine a sensational murder case of the recent past, Eddie’s digging results in heartache and death, forcing him to review his role in muck slinging. Aline MacMahon is excellent as his lovestruck, loyal secretary, and Boris Karloff comes close to stealing the film with his performance as a sleazebag reporter. It garnered only one nomination for a Oscar – in the category of Best Picture.

February 4: Sometimes nothing can be a real cool hand, especially when Cool Hand Luke (WB, 1967) is scheduled to play (8:00 pm). Paul Newman was never better than as Lucas Jackson, a man who just doesn’t fit in, no matter where he is, and this time he’s in jail for sawing the heads of parking meters while drunk. His natural inclination to stand up for his principles makes him a hero of sorts on the road gang, especially after he’s befriended by convict leader Dragline (George Kennedy). He gets along fine at first with the powers-that-be until they break his honor code by punishing him for something he hasn’t done. Then it’s war, even though he knows he will lose in the end. Newman was nominated for Best Actor, but fell short, while Kennedy won for Best Supporting Actor (the film received four nominations, including Best Actor for Paul Newman). Part of the fun of the film is watching for familiar actors in supporting parts, such as Wayne Rogers, J.D. Cannon, Strother Martin, Lou Antonio, Jo Van Fleet, Richard Davalos, Harry Dean Stanton, Joe Don Baker, James Gammon, Ralph Waite, Anthony Zerbe, and, of course, Dennis Hopper.

February 5: It’s time for a bit of the “Lubitsch touch,” and so we recommend The Smiling Lieutenant (Paramount, 1931). Based on the popular 1907 operetta, A Waltz Dream, by Leopold Jacobson, Felix Doermann, and Oscar Straus, Maurice Chevelier is Nikolaus “Niki” von Preyn, a lieutenant in the Austrian Royal Guard who smiles and winks at his girlfriend, Franzi (Colbert), across the street. Unfortunately, the King of Flausenthurm and his sheltered daughter, Princess Anna (Miriam Hopkins), are passing by at that very moment, and Anna thinks Niki was winking and smiling at her and making fun of her. One misunderstanding leads to another, as Niki has to think his way out of this mess. Simply put, it’s a delightful movie, with all three stars giving terrific performances. It was nominated for an Oscar as Best Picture.

February 6: At 12:30 am it’s the film that changed Hollywood: Easy Rider (Columbia, 1969). Made for $555,000, it ended up grossing over $60 million. But more importantly, it changed the reigning paradigm in Hollywood and ushered in a youth movement that changed the industry. It was a road film on acid and a lot of pot, and also revitalized the career of Jack Nicholson, who was about to leave an unsuccessful acting career for one as a producer. Nicholson was nominated for Best Supporting Actor and the trio of Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and Terry Southern for Best Writing, Story and Screenplay Based on Material Not Previously Published or Produced.

February 7: For those looking for a nice change of pace, we suggest Key Largo (WB, 1948). Even though it airs at the hour of 2:15 am, it’s still worth a viewing. Or simply record it for later. Eddie G. Robinson is mesmerizing as deported crime boss Johnny Rocco, who is up from Cuba to deliver some counterfeit money. But an approaching storm has delayed his contacts. His stopover at James Temple’s (Lionel Barrymore) hotel on Key Largo proves to be fateful, as returning veteran Humphrey Bogart has come to pay his respects to Nora Temple (Lauren Bacall), the widow of an Army buddy killed in Italy. The drama just keeps building from there, with the hurricane ratcheting things to the boiling point. Claire Trevor won the Supporting Actress Oscar for her performance as Gaye Dawn, Rocco’s alcoholic former mistress.

February 8: At 10:00 pm comes Patton (20th Century Fox, 1970), one of the best war films ever made, with George C. Scott literally becoming the embodiment of General George S. Patton. Though it purports to be a documentary of the general’s life, it is a highly mythologized version of Patton we see on the screen. His arrogance and egotism, which almost got him removed from the theater of war, are seen here as virtues. Even his slapping of a shell-shocked soldier (Tim Considine) is seen as just another day with George. The film won a bushel of awards, including Best Director (Franklin J. Schaffner), Best Adapted Screenplay (Francis Ford Coppola), Best Picture, and Best Actor, which was refused by Scott.

February 9: Of all the ‘70s and beyond musicals, our favorite by far is Cabaret, which will be shown at 8:00 pm. It’s easily Liza Minnelli’s best performance and most likely her most memorable one. Based on “Sally Bowles,” a short story by Christopher Isherwood (from his collection Berlin Stories), the movie captures perfectly the setting and mood of early ‘30s Berlin, just before Hitler became chancellor in 1933. Minnelli is Sally Bowles, a bohemian young dancer who performs at the Kit Kat Club. Joel Grey, who steals the film, is the emcee at the club. Michael York plays Brian Roberts, a bisexual writer (based on Isherwood), who shares his bed with Sally and Maximilian von Heune (Helmut Griem). Director Bob Fosse took the Broadway musical on which the film is based and increased the focus of the film on the Kit Kat Club, cutting all but one of the musical numbers that took place outside the club. The number he kept in was the harrowing “Tomorrow Belongs to Me,” a folk song spontaneously sung by young Nazis at an outdoor café. I have seen this film numerous times and the scene still sends a chill down my spine. A point of trivia that’s worth mentioning is that when the musical opened in London’s West End in 1966, the role of Sally Bowles was played by Dame Judi Dench. Cabaret was nominated for 10 Oscars, with Minnelli winning Best Actress, Grey winning Best Supporting Actor, and Fosse walking away with Best Director.

February 10: War pictures can be hit or miss, but one film that always hits the mark is The Great Escape (8:00 pm). Based on the true story of the mass escape from the supposedly escape-proof Luftstalag 3 in Silesia, Germany, it boasts an impressive ensemble cast headed by Sir Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Garner, James Donald, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Donald Pleasence. Because most of the POWs who escaped were British, McQueen, Garner and Bronson were added for American audiences. The movie is based on a novel by Paul Brickhill, a former prisoner at the Luftstalag, with the screenplay written by James Clavell and W.R. Burnett. Brickhill took part in the preparations for escape, but was not among the 250 men chosen by lot. Of the 250 that escaped, 50 (including leader Roger Bushnell) were captured and executed by the Gestapo. The rest, except for three that escaped to England, were recaptured and returned to prison. When it came to the Academy Award, the film garnered only one nomination, that for Best Film Editing (Ferris Webster).

February 11: We would be forever remiss if we didn’t recommend The Life of Emile Zola (8:30 am). It’s a sincere, if mostly fictional, account of the famous novelist’s life, with particular focus on his campaign to free Captain Alfred Dreyfus, who was framed for espionage and sent to Devil’s Island. Muni, whose idea of acting was over-emoting from behind lots of make-up, stars as Zola, with Joseph Schildkraut in the pivotal role of Captain Dreyfus. Schildkraut won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and the film won for Best Picture. The trio of Heinz Herald, Geza Herczeg and Norman Reilly Raine also won for Best Writing, Screenplay. Gale Sondergaard plays Lucie Dreyfus, and Gloria Holden, who two years earlier won fame as the title character in Dracula’s Daughter, plays Zola’s wife, Alexandrine. Muni can be a bit difficult to take at times as he putters around, but the picture is engrossing from start to finish under the firm hand of director William Dieterle.

February 12: One of the few premieres during this year's Oscar-fest has to be aired at the ungodly hour of 3:15 am. But once we tell you it’s Goodfellas, you’ll know the reason why and why it’s worth it to be shown at such as late hour if viewers want to see it uncut. It may have set a record for the use of the F-word (about 300 times) in a film. However, without the profanity, the movie loses much of its impact, for the language helps convey the violent world in which the film’s characters lived and died. Although it’s been rated in various polls as the second greatest gangster film ever made, behind The Godfather, our opinion is that it outranks its Mob predecessor. While The Godfather romanticized its mobsters and saw Don Corleone as essentially a man of honor, Goodfellas portrays its mobsters for what they truly are: dishonorable lowlifes who cheat and betray each other without a second thought. We are also of the opinion that it is director Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece; an almost flawless piece of cinema. Boasting a cast headed by Robert De Niro, Paul Sorvino, Joe Pesci, Ray Liotta, and Lorraine Bracco, it also featured several recognizable actors in supporting roles, including Michael Imperioli and Tony Sirico, who went on to star in HBO’s successful Mob drama, The Sopranos. It was nominated for six Oscars, only winning in the Best Supporting Actor category (Pesci). Four interesting bits of trivia: First, the character played by Robert De Niro was Jimmy Burke, who masterminded the famous 1978 Lufthansa heist. The character was renamed “Jimmy Conway” in the film for legal reasons, but in real life, “Burke” was Jimmy adopted name. He was born to a woman named “Conway.” Second, Julie Garfield, John Garfield’s daughter, played Jimmy Conway’s wife, Mickey. Third, a sequel of sorts to Goodfellas was My Blue Heaven, which is really about the later life of Henry Hill after he entered the Witness Protection Program. Nora Ephron, whose husband, Nicholas Pileggi, wrote Wiseguy, the book upon which Goodfellas was based, wrote the film. (Pileggi also co-authored the script to Goodfellas with Scorsese.) Fourth, in the film, Hill is relocated to Youngstown, Ohio, which in reality was a Mob haven, and the newspaper he gets at the end of the movie is The Vindicator, the daily newspaper of that city. The longtime politics writer and city hall reporter for that newspaper is our own David Skolnick.

February 13: Director Stanley Kubrick and novelist Vladimir Nabokov did the near impossible when they wrote the screenplay for Nabokov’s novel about pedophilia, Lolita, which airs at 12:30 am. James Mason gives an excellent, nuanced performance as Nabokov’s tortured protagonist, Humbert Humbert, a middle-aged academic so obsessed with sexually precocious nymphet Lolita Haze that he marries her overbearing mother, Charlotte, just to be with her. When Charlotte is killed after being hit by a car, Humbert takes charge of Lolita, figuring he has finally realized his dream. However, he loses his dream girl to equally amoral television playwright Clare Quilty, who has wooed her away from Humbert. This leads to a tragic chain of events that will end with Quilty’s death and Humbert in prison. Mason’s supporting cast is excellent: Shelley Winters as Charlotte, Peter Sellers as the devious Quilty, and Sue Lyon, who turned 13 during filming, became a major star overnight. Kubrick shot the film in England to avoid meddling from both the studio and groups such as the Legion of Decency, even though they earlier approved the script. Errol Flynn proposed both himself and his teenage love, Beverly Aadland, for the lead roles, but Kubrick declined the offer as he already had trouble enough. The film did not fare well with the Academy; its only nomination was for Best Adapted Screenplay.

February 14: To recommend any film other than Casablanca (8:00 pm) this night would be sheer blasphemy. There has been much written about this beloved film, and we think most film buffs are familiar with the backstory: how it was improvised from day to day (Ingrid Bergman reportedly didn’t even know until the last minute whether her character would be going away with Humphrey Bogart or Paul Henried), and the famous story of how it was to originally star George Raft, Ronald Reagan and Ann Sheridan before cooler heads prevailed. At any rate there is no doubt about the hold it has had not only on film fans but also the American public at large since the early ‘60s, when a small theater in Massachusetts began showing it for three weeks every year to bigger and bigger crowds. Since then Casablanca has rightfully earned a place as a staple of American pop culture. Even those who haven’t seen it can quote lines of dialogue, such as “Here’s looking to you, kid,” and “Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.” Even Captain Renault’s line, “Major Strasser has been shot . . . Round up the usual suspects,” was turned into a hit movie by Bryan Singer and Christopher McQuarrie. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three for Best Picture, Best Director (Michael Curtiz), and Best Writing, Screenplay (Julius J. Epstein, Philip G. Epstein, and Howard Koch). Another famous story told about the film concerned its director, the Hungarian-born Michael Curtiz, who was famous for mangling the English language. One day, he supposedly wanted to see how Ingrid Bergman’s character, Ilsa Lund, would look with a pet dog. He decided on a French Poodle and sent a young stagehand to scour the studio for one. The young man returned over an hour later with a different breed of dog, telling an annoyed Curtiz that he couldn’t find a French Poodle. “Never mind,” Curtiz supposedly shot back. “The next time I send an idiot out for something, I go myself.”

February 15: James Cagney began his career in show business as a dancer on the stage, yet only five of his 69 films allowed him a role that called for singing and dancing. Yet it was one of those, 1942’s Yankee Doodle Dandy (10:00 pm), where he won his only Oscar. Ostensibly the story of Irish-Åmerican singer-dancer-playwright-composer George M. Cohan, it contains little in the way of facts, but much in the way of blarney – and music. Cagney gives a mesmerizing performance as Cohan, even going to the trouble of copying Cohan’s dancing style, which he used to great effect. Walter Huston, Rosemary DeCamp, Joan Leslie, and sister Jeanne Cagney provide solid support. In fact, the film was a family affair: in addition to Cagney’s sister, Jeanne, as Cohan’s sister, Josie, brother William Cagney served as associate producer. With its many flag-waving musical moments, it was the perfect choice for World War II audiences, and became not only the top grossing film of the year, but also the top grossing film in Warner Bros. history to that point. Cagney was eager to play Cohan, for in addition to the singing and dancing, the flag-waving in the film would quiet persistent accusation that he was a communist sympathizer because of his union activity (president of SAG) and his enthusiastic support for FDR’s New Deal. The film was nominated for eight Oscars, winning three for Best Actor (Cagney), Best Sound, Recording (Nathan Levinson), and Best Music, Scoring of a Musical Picture (Ray Heindorf and Heinz Roemheld). It was also nominated for Best Picture, and Walter Huston, who played Cohan’s father, was nominated for Best Supporting Actor. The only stain on the film, for me, is a minor one: given the subject matter, it cried out for Technicolor. Filming it in black and white was a disappointment.

Friday, January 29, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for February 1-7

February 1–February 7


BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK (February 2, 3:30 pm): This 1955 film combines the suspense of an Alfred Hitchcock thriller with the action of a great martial-arts movie done in a Western style. The cast is filled with all-stars, led by Spencer Tracy playing a mysterious stranger with the use of only one arm. Robert Ryan is the main bad guy, aided by Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine, along with Dean Jagger as the town's alcoholic sheriff and Walter Brennan as its undertaker. It's obvious from the moment the stranger, John J. Macreedy (Tracy), gets off the train in Black Rock that, well, it's going to be a bad day there. Macreedy has a reason to be in town. That reason and his presence in Black Rock results in a lot of havoc for the townsfolk. The best scene is when Macreedy, using martial arts and only one hand, beats up Coley Trimble (played by Borgnine in my favorite role of his in cinema) in a bar fight. He only hits Trimble about five times and the fight lasts for about two minutes, but it's incredibly effective. See for yourself. A smart story with excellent action and great acting. 

IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT (February 5, 11:45 pm): An absolute classic, directed by Frank Capra, about a runaway snobby socialite (Claudette Colbert) and a reporter (Clark Gable). This movie really put the two actors on the movie map even though they both already had about 20 credits to their names. It's a wonderful screwball romantic comedy with great chemistry between the pair. The story takes place over more than one night despite the title. It's a wonderful film with two of cinema's most famous scenes. The first has Colbert successfully hitching a ride, after Gable fails, by lifting up her skirt and showing her leg. The other has the two of them sharing a room and Gable putting up a blanket to separate them, calling it "the walls of Jericho," which ties in nicely at the end of the film. Released in 1934, it has aged well.


FORBIDDEN PLANET (February 2, 1:45 pm): It’s one of the best sci-fi films ever made, based on Shakespeare’s The Tempest, though it seems somewhat dated today. Leslie Nielsen leads a mission to plant Altair 4 to find out the fate of an expedition that landed there 20 years ago. What they discover is that one man (Walter Pidgeon) and his daughter (Anne Francis) are left of the original expedition. Pidgeon leads them on a fantastic tour of a lost civilization that populated the planet years ago. Though way ahead of Earth in technology, they were suddenly wiped out one night while on the verge of their “greatest discovery.” Then when crewmembers begin dying mysteriously, a search is conducted for their killer. What they ultimately discover about the monster and the planet keeps us in thrall. Don’t let the Shakespeare connection throw you off; for sci-fi fans, it’s a must. And for those that aren’t so sure, it’s still an intelligent movie nonetheless.

JOAN OF PARIS (February 3, 1:45 am): This is a different kind of war film, and one of the first to celebrate the Resistance in France. Joan (Michele Morgan) is a waitress who accidentally gets caught up in the pursuit of five RAF pilots, who are stranded in France, and their Free French leader, Paul Lavallier (Paul Henried), who must get them out of the country. It won’t be easy, because the Gestapo, led by Herr Funk (Laird Cregar), is hot on their trail. As events build, Funk gets Joan in a compromising position: if she betrays the fliers, he’ll save Paul. But Joan betrays Funk and leads everyone to safety, all the while knowing that she will die because of her decision. It’s a film that boasts several excellent performances. Cregar is magnificent as the Gestapo chief, oozing villainy, and Morgan is wonderful as the doomed Joan. Look for Alan Ladd in a bit part as “Baby,” one of the downed pilots.
WE DISAGREE ON ... THE FORTUNE COOKIE (February 7, 12:15 pm)

ED: B+. Billy Wilder and I.A.L. Diamond have joined forces once again to produce another comedy masterpiece. Walter Matthau is right on target as an ambulance-chasing shyster who convinces his cameraman brother-in-law Jack Lemmon to sue for damages after a football player crashes into him and sends the unfortunate Lemmon to the hospital. Lemmon is fine after his near-tragedy, but Matthau convinces him to fake various injuries so he can sue everyone concerned for negligence. Lemmon is not so sure about the plan, but after he sees that this could lead him to get back with his ex-wife, he goes whole hog for the scheme. However, what Lemmon did not anticipate is that the Cleveland Brown (Ron Rich) who ran into him feels absolutely lousy about what happened and is beginning to find solace in the bottle. This, in turn, magnifies Lemmon’s guilt. This was the first pairing of Matthau and Lemmon and the chemistry between the two is fantastic. This was also Matthau’s breakout role as a comic actor and won him the Best Supporting Actor Oscar. I’ve often wondered – has Billy Wilder ever made a bad movie?

DAVID: A+. This is one of those films in which the only disagreement between the two of us is the level to which we love this movie. In Ed's case, The Fortune Cookie is a B+ movie. A very good grade, but it's an A+ to me. It's the first time Walter Matthau and Jack Lemmon team up and it's their best. It's also Billy Wilder's finest and most clever comedy. It's cynical, somewhat dark while also hysterically funny. The plot is simple enough: Lemmon is Harry Hinkle, a rather pathetic TV cameraman, who gets knocked silly by a Cleveland Browns player during a game on the sidelines. His brother-in-law is an unscrupulous attorney "Whiplash" Willie Gingrich (Matthau) who convinces Harry to fake more serious injuries to get a fat fraudulent settlement from an insurance company. (Wilder apparently had a thing for insurance company fraud as a plot.) Matthau steals the film as he takes the insurance scheme further and further until poor naive Harry finally stands up for himself. There are excellent performances by Ron Rich as Boom Boom Jackson, the Browns player who accidentally runs into Harry, Judi West as Harry's conniving ex-wife Sandy, and Cliff Osmond as the insurance investigator who questions the severity of the injury. And to answer Ed's question about a bad Billy Wilder film, you have to go to his last one – the lifeless Buddy Buddy from 1981 that also stars Lemmon and Wilder. Most either didn't see it or forget it, which is a good thing as it was one of the very few misses in Wilder's career.

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

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The 5th Wave

Dinner and a Movie

The “Others” Are Coming, Unleash the Hounds!

By Steve Herte

I’ve heard that weather forecasting is not an exact science, but this is ridiculous. I checked the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) for the weather. I was happy that the snow accumulations would be four to eight inches. Hmph! I shoveled 23 inches.

The 5th Wave (Columbia, 2016) – Director: J Blakeson. Writers: Susannah Grant, Akiva Goldman, & Jeff Pinkner (s/p). Rick Yancey (novel). Stars: Chloe Grace Moretz, Matthew Zuk, Gabriela Lopez, Bailey Anne Borders, Nick Robinson, Ron Livingston, Maggie Siff, Zackary Arthur, Liev Schreiber, Maria Bello, Dave Moldonado, Paul Ryden, E. Roger Mitchell, Charmin Lee, Parker Wierling, Alex Roe, Madison Staines, Nick Robinson, Maika Monroe, & Tony Revolori. Color, Rated PG-13, 112 minutes.

The words “low budget,” “too long,” “obvious models,” “stock dialogue,” and “disappointment” do not begin to describe this film. Based on a novel by Rick Yancey, this sad attempt at an alien invasion/world destruction flick can be seen in its entirety in the trailers.

And yet, the theater was half full on opening night to see Cassie Sullivan (Moretz) transform from a party-loving cheerleader into a Barbie version of Rambo. The film opens with a voice-over from a dirt-smudged Cassie as she cautiously crosses a litter-covered street toting a rifle. She’s heading to the Quickie-Mart of a gas station to get supplies. 

Inside, she grabs whatever is there she needs, and hears a man’s cry for help coming from the restroom. She opens the door carefully to reveal him (Zuk) sitting on the floor with his left hand on his chest and he’s obviously bleeding. She demands to see what he has in his left hand and as he slowly moves it, we see a shining glint of something and she shoots him. It’s a crucifix.

The scene reverts to the past and the events that led up to this moment. Cassie lives in Ohio with her dad, Oliver (Livingston), mom, Lisa (Siff), and little brother, Sam (Arthur). Everything’s normal with Cassie and her best friends Lizbeth (Lopez) and Julia (Bailey Anne Borders) at high school, texting during math class.

Meanwhile, on the news, a large metal object is detected in the sky and it’s slowly circling the world until it stops over Cassie’s street. Someone borrowed the spaceship from Independence Day and hung it like a chandelier over her town. Suddenly, the lights go out in the school and all the cell phones darken and are useless. Cassie and her friends run to the windows to see cars crashing into each other and an airliner dropping from the sky and bursting into flames on impact nearby. “That was the First Wave,” the narration goes.

While getting drinking water from a stream in the forest the next day, an enormous earthquake shakes the scene and Cassie and Sam are running for their lives, dodging falling trees left and right. When the ground stops shaking, a different roar comes from beyond the trees and Cassie and Sam are forced to climb a stout oak to avoid the tidal wave from Lake Erie. “We just had to deal with the lake. I can’t image what people had to deal with on the ocean” that narration continues. We see ridiculously large tidal waves wipe out a cheesy model of Miami, the Tower Bridge in London and a glass-fronted hotel in Thailand. The Empire State Building in New York still stands and so do many high-rise towers, but all the streets are flooded. “That was the second wave.”

Then she goes on to quote the statistics on how many birds there are in the world and how many per person. “We came to calling the invaders, ‘The Others.’” (How original! There was a movie by the same name in 2001, a TV series, and a term used in The Game of Thrones.) “They took the avian flu and genetically mutated it so that it was unstoppable. Some of us were immune to the virus.” (Not Cassie’s girlfriends or, eventually, her mother.) “That was the third wave.”

Oliver gathers up Cassie and Sam and takes them to a refugee camp. But not for long. A huge rumble is heard heading toward the camp. Army vehicles galore! (I thought the invaders turned off all the power, but no one questions this.) The Army takes over under the command of Colonel Vosch (Schrieber) and separates the children from the adults, shepherding the children onto school buses (how appropriate, they’re going to learn something) and corralling the adults into a hall “for a briefing.”

Sam forgets his teddy bear and Cassie goes to retrieve it. Looking in on the briefing, she sees one man rebel against being separated from his child. He pulls out a gun and there is a mass murder (including Oliver). Cassie has missed the bus, Sam is panic-stricken, and, totally traumatized, Cassie runs into the forest, toting the rifle we see her with in the beginning. “That was the fourth wave.”

The movie could conceivably have ended here, but it goes on for 52 minutes more. The children are recruited into a fighting force where they’re taught to shoot and fight. They get a “tracking device” injected into the back of their necks (Can you say Invasion of the Body Snatchers?) from Sergeant Reznik (Bello) and are told that they are the last defense against “the others.” They don’t even question where the U.S. Army got the technology to create a device that allows you to “see” the alien creature’s true form inside a human head.

Meanwhile, Cassie gets shot in the thigh while crossing a highway littered with cars and wakes up in a strange bed. It’s here she meets Evan Walker (Roe) and the movie jumps its second shark. Evan doesn’t tell her right away, but he’s a half-breed alien/human from the first invasion decades ago. But Evan rejects his alien heritage for his love for Cassie and agrees to help her save her brother.

At boot camp, the troops are ready for a foray into an “alien-infested” town. Hometown Ohio football captain Ben Parish, aka Zombie (Robinson), leads his squad (including, but not with, Sam, whom they dub “Nugget”). A Goth girl, Ringer (Monroe), has shown them the proper techniques of firing weapons, and they all receive helmets with a special “visor” that indicates “the others” (who glow green, of course). Ben is not your typical football jock, for he figures out that if the implant from the back of your neck is removed, you glow green too. The Army is really “the others,” and they are the “fifth wave.”

The only plus this movie has is its obvious allusion to recruitment of children by ISIS. Otherwise, I wish the audience who saw The Forest with me could have seen this one. They would have taken back their comment of the “stupidest movie ever” and rethought their opinion. It makes Norm of the North look like Academy Award material. The Fifth Wave had me groaning and rolling my eyes in amazement at how gullible the makers thought their audiences would be. It won’t even achieve the honor of being a classic B-movie. More than likely, it will be forgotten. That is until the Sixth Wave.

Rating: 1 out of 5 Martini glasses.

Houndstooth Pub
520 8th Ave. (at 37th Street)New York

Usually the word “pub” would not attract me as being a restaurant, but the photos posted on their website and the interesting menu items sealed the deal. The fact that it was also five blocks from the theater helped.

The bright streetlights of Eighth Avenue were dim compared to the row of hot incandescent bulbs outside this corner property. My camera almost couldn’t handle the glare. Above the glassed-in front on two sides was the name in classic white letters on a charcoal gray background. Inside, the horseshoe-shaped, marble bar stands on a traditionally English tiled floor and all the woodwork and paneling is mahogany. Two very attractive San Dimus chandeliers add to the old-fashioned, homey atmosphere and hang from 20-foot ceilings. The curtains in the windows and the placemats on the bare wood tables match in the same black and white houndstooth pattern.

The young lady at the Captain’s Station was doing double duty when I arrived and was attending to a take-out order. I waited until she noticed me and announced my reservation. It looked like every table was taken and I wondered where I would sit (hopefully not at the bar). She took a rather long time at the computer but eventually found me and led me to the perfect table (a little elevated) by the Eighth Avenue window.

My first server, Erin, (I had two) arrived with a glass of water and the menu and asked if I wanted a cocktail. Having looked at the specialty drinks and deeming them silly, I ordered my favorite martini and Erin went to fetch it.

The menu had the usual pub categories: Starters, Soups, Salads (there were an amazing eight of them, including a “Foghorn Leghorn” salad), Sides, Entrees, a Prix Fixe Lunch, Burgers and Sandwiches. When Erin brought my martini I was a little surprised that it was served in a “v” shaped tumbler rather than a proper, stemmed glass, but it was well mixed.

Erin helped me construct a three-course meal by ruling out two of the three appetizers (starters) that I wavered among. The stuffed artichoke hearts just missed being the first dish when she said that it was “a bit lighter” than the other two. I chose the English jackets – potato wedges smothered in Texas chili and sharp cheddar – because of the intriguing title. In actuality, they were potato skins I’m familiar with. But the chili was a good one and the cheddar was real, not American cheese.

The second course arrived with the first, even though I told Erin I had lots of time. Small matter. It was easy to see that the seafood bisque – smooth and creamy with shrimp, salmon and Maryland crab – would taste the worst cold and I worked at finishing it first. 

It was delightful (even though my least favorite fish, salmon, was a part of it) and was thicker than I expected bisque to be. But I liked the ceramic crock it was served in. The potato skins were accompanied by a small cup of sour cream which, when diligently applied, would not decrease their temperature. Pacing myself, I finished both dishes.

The next to arrive was the main course and the side dish. The shepherd’s pie – (made correctly) with seasoned ground lamb and sirloin (a surprise) in au jus and topped with a layer of whipped mashed potatoes – was great. The onion rings were enormous, deep-fried, and crisp but not greasy, just as they should be. I ordered a glass of their house Shiraz to go with this. It was a decent red with a medium body, good with the lamb.

It was then I noticed that my server had changed. The outfit was different, the skirt was shorter, the hair color had gone from red to black, even the accent changed. Lauren acknowledged the switch and asked if I needed anything else. “Not just now.” I was rapidly becoming full and wondered what happened to my appetite. But, choosing caution over not being able to have dessert, I had her bag up the delicious shepherd’s pie and onion rings to go.

Strangely enough, none of the desserts appealed to me. I had kept the wine and drinks menu on my table for future reference and it came in handy at dessert. I ordered the espresso martini – espresso-flavored vodka and Kahlua. I have to find out where they got espresso-flavored vodka. It was excellent.

When I was choosing my restaurant the words “gastro-pub” were used in reference to Houndstooth Pub, but “comfort food” more aptly describes what they serve there. The first term might apply to the stuffed artichoke hearts but not to most of the menu. It’s pub food to be sure, but served in a nicer way and with authentic ingredients, not American substitutes. I enjoyed my dinner and the people. I even complimented a woman on her fur coat as she was leaving. I’m still thinking of returning. If for no other reason than a salad named after my favorite Warner Brothers cartoon character: Foghorn Leghorn.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, January 25, 2016

Dracula A.D. 1972

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

Dracula A.D. 1972 (Hammer/WB, 1972) – Director: Alan Gibson. Screenplay: Don Houghton. Stars: Christopher Lee, Peter Cushing, Stephanie Beacham, Christopher Neame, Michael Coles, Marsha A. Hunt, Caroline Munro, Janet Key, William Ellis, Philip Miller, Michael Kitchen, David Andrews, Lolly Bowers, Constance Luttrell, & Michael Daly. Color, Rated PG, 96 minutes.

What are we to make of a film whose best part is the prologue? It’s a sign that Hammer’s Dracula series, which began in 1958 with Lee and Cushing in Horror of Dracula was almost out of steam. This was the next to last of the series. The Satanic Rites of Dracula in 1973, starring Lee and Cushing once again, was the end of the line. That was to the great relief of both stars, who had tired over the years of weaker and weaker scripts. In fact, the only reason Lee agreed to be in this film was that a couple of proposed film projects had fallen through and he needed a quick paycheck.

Dracula A.D. 1972 is a radical updating of the Dracula story. Hammer Studios was suffering financially, as the Gothic horrors that had served as its stock-in-trade for years no longer appealed to the contemporary audience. Hammer tried a number of things to keep the audiences, such as expanded bloodletting, violence, nudity, and lesbian themes, but nothing was working. In an effort to update their product while keeping costs down, Hammer decided to transfer the Gothic horror of the Dracula series to a contemporary setting. Screenwriter Don Houghton (Doctor Who) was brought in with instructions to retain the basic structure of the earlier entries while fast-forwarding it to the present. Alan Gibson, a television director who knew how to keeps costs under control and who two years earlier had directed Crescendo for the studio, was assigned the script. The results, to put it mildly, are unsatisfying. The movie becomes a promise unfulfilled, brought down by stereotyped characters, inane dialogue, all too predictable plot points, and worst of all, a noticeable lack of nudity and violence, as if Gibson were directing a television show for the BBC.

The film opens in September 1872, where we see vampire hunter Lawrence Van Helsing (Cushing) doing battle with Count Dracula (Lee) atop a runaway coach hurtling through London’s Hyde Park. The coach hits a tree, mortally injuring Van Helsing while Dracula becomes partially impaled on the spokes of a broken carriage wheel. With his last remaining strength, Van Helsing pushes the wheel’s spokes deep into Dracula’s chest, killing the vampire and reducing him to dust before Van Helsing himself succumbs to his injuries. At Van Helsing’s funeral in the grounds of nearby St. Bartolph’s Church, one of Dracula’s minions (Neame) buries his ashes just outside the hallowed grounds while marking the spot with a stake for future discovery. He also copped Drac’s signet ring for later – much later – use.

Cut to the present. A group of out-of-control teenagers has crashed a private concert by the rock band Stoneground for a rich twit and his stuffy out-of-it parents. The teens cavort, gyrate and vandalize while the older folks look on in horror and the band manages to play two full-length songs, which makes the scene seem as if it was much longer. Finally, the police arrive to chase the kids off, much to the relief of us in the audience who are waiting for something to happen.

A quick cut and we see the gang in their favorite hangout, the cavern coffee bar, where they hang out, doing Coke (the drink), smoking cigarettes, and spouting inane dialog, made even more ridiculous by the fact that these are 30-somethings trying to pass themselves off as teenagers. The leader of the group, Johnny Alucard (Neame again), tells them that if they really want some wild kicks they should join him in a black mass at this old church slated for demolition, which just happens to be St. Bartolph’s. The group reacts with a mixture of fear and sarcasm, but what the hell? Why not? So they agree to meet him at midnight at the church.

One member of the group is Jessica Van Helsing (Beacham), who lives with her grandfather, Lorrimer Van Helsing (Cushing again), himself the grandson of Lawrence Van Helsing. Jessica is not so sure about this black mass business, as she’s not too crazy about Johnny. When she arrives home she searchers granddaddy’s library, grabbing a book on the black mass to read. Van Helsing enters and asks what this is all about. Jess replies she’s just curious and goes on to tell granddad what a good girl she is. She doesn’t even do LSD. She’s pure as the driven snow, a requirement to be a Hammer heroine. And she’s debating to herself if it’s worth it to even go to this black mass. Unfortunately for her, boyfriend Bob (Miller) tells her it will be a kick, and they show up at the church, where Jess is distressed to find her great-great-grandfather’s tomb. Inside the church, the ceremony begins. Johnny wants Jess to be the centerpiece, but Jess declines and Laura (Munro) volunteers. While the others sit in a satanic circle, Johnny, wearing Drac’s signet ring, dumps some of the ashes into a goblet, slits his wrist, mixes the blood with the ashes, and dumps it onto Laura. 

Meanwhile, the dry ice machine is going full blast at the site where Dracula’s ashes are buried. The gang flees in a combination of terror and disgust. Jess wants to go back for Laura, who is transfixed, but Bob pushes her out. Johnny removes the stake from Drac’s grave, and voila, instant vampire. The first thing Drac does is reclaim his ring. The second thing he does is head into the church for a meal with Laura, who is the meal, as he drains her of blood.

The next day, Jessica is worried because Laura does not show up at the Cavern the next day and she’s not buying Johnny’s explanation that Laura has gone home to visit her parents. Soon afterward, Laura’s body is discovered. The police, mystified about the mutilation of her neck, decide to consult Van Helsing, who helped with a case involving a cult and blackmail some time before. While Johnny is entertaining Gaynor (Hunt), another member of the gang, at his apartment, Van Helsing is conferring with Inspector Murray (Coles) and Sgt. Pearson (Andrews) of New Scotland Yard, convincing them that vampires are real. Despite their skepticism, they believe him. He gives them two bits of advice: vampires fear silver and can be killed by running water. Right away we assume these two plot points will soon come into play.

When Jessica arrives home that evening, the police tell her about Laura’s murder. Distraught, Jess spills all about the black mass and about Johnny. Van Helsing is surprised to find out that Johnny’s surname is Alucard and puzzles out that it is really Dracula spelled backward. Hell, we knew that; we saw Son of Dracula (1943) on Chiller Theater years ago. Where was the professor when all this was going on? Meanwhile, Johnny takes the drugged Gaynor to the church, where Drac is waiting for dinner. After Drac has feasted, Johnny begs him for immortality, to be a vampire. Drac responds that Johnny has not yet brought that which he needs to avenge himself on the Van Helsing family – Jessica. Johnny, however, argues that if he was given the power, it would be a lot easier to get her here. Drac, seeing the logic of Johnny’s argument, admits him to the club, and Johnny gets his vampire membership card, personally autographed photo, and badge.

The next morning, after arming himself with a vial of holy water, Van Helsing learns about the latest murders. Theorizing that the killings are not random, and that Jessica is the ultimate target, Van Helsing convinces Scotland Yard to remove the guards from St. Bartolph's so that Drac can hide there comfortably and thus be more susceptible to Van Helsing's plans. We also learn that the Cavern, the group’s hangout, has been closed in a drug raid. That night, Bob sneaks into the locked Cavern (so much for being closed) to meet Johnny, who reciprocates by turning him into a vampire. The thus transformed Bob goes to the Van Helsing home and persuades Jessica, who does not noticed that he’s not the same Bob, to accompany him to the Cavern. Once there, Bob attacks her and Jessica faints. Before Bob can take a bite, Johnny tells him that she is "for the master."

When Van Helsing arrives home and learns that Jessica is gone, he races to the Cavern, but it is empty by the time he arrives. (We thought it was boarded up.) As he is running through the streets, he is almost run over by Anna Bryant, another friend of Jessica, who dimes out Johnny and drives him to Johnny's flat. There, Van Helsing and Johnny have a confrontation, with Van Helsing, noting that dawn is breaking, throwing a Bible and silver crucifix into Johnny’s coffin, denying him the pleasure of sleep. Van Helsing wants to know where Jessica is while Johnny is only interested in getting his coffin cleared out. Van Helsing then uses a mirror as a weapon by reflecting sunlight off it onto Johnny. He drives Johnny into the bathroom, where he falls into the tub as – you guessed it – Van Helsing turns on the shower, drowning Johnny in the running water.

Unable to do anything else because the vampires are inactive during the day, Van Helsing waits until late afternoon. He goes to St. Bartolph's, where he finds Bob's dead body and digs a pit that he fills with sharpened stakes. Equipped with a silver-bladed knife and the holy water, Van Helsing enters the church, where he finds Jessica lying on the altar in a trance induced by Dracula. When night falls, Dracula enters and the men begin a fierce battle, which seems ended when Van Helsing stabs the vampire, knocking him from the balcony to the floor below. But Jessica, still hypnotized, removes the knife, and Dracula chases Van Helsing outside. Van Helsing falls to the ground, but before Drac can kill him, he throws holy water in the vampire’s face. Blinded by smoke and screaming in pain, Dracula falls backward into the pit of spikes, and Van Helsing finishes him off by pushing him through the stakes. Now finally released from her trance, Jessica runs to granddad, who comforts her as the words “Rest in final peace” appear on the screen.

One of the many problems with the film is that, after the prologue, we don’t see Dracula again until nearly an hour had passed. And even then he has little to do. (To make sure the audience realizes the film is indeed in Swinging London, we are treated to the obligatory shot of a double-decker bus.) Instead it seems like an endless set-up of the return of Dracula with little action afterwards. To say that Lee is underused is putting it mildly. It’s Cushing who dominates the second half of the film. Not that we’re complaining about that, but it’s Cushing versus Lee that we came to see and all we get is a little tussle at the end.

Speaking of being underused, the producers go to the trouble of surrounding Ms. Van Helsing with a good-sized group of friends that, we would expect, will meet their end in various grisly ways at the hands and fangs of Dracula. But it seems that the filmmakers are in a rush or simply ran out of money. For instance, the beautiful Caroline Munro has a paltry death scene and ends up as a lifeless corpse. I was looking forward to Drac making her one of his brides and seeing her parade around in a skimpy negligee. Instead I get nada. It’s so lame and tame that one of the gang, Greg (Kitchen) doesn’t meet an end, instead simply fading out of the movie, doing the equivalent of a 0.1 on the movie’s Richter scale. What seems like a disappointment to the viewer was probably a saving grace to the actor playing Greg, Michael Kitchen, who went on to great popularity as Inspector Foyle. Imagine in interviews being asked about appearing in this turkey. 

As for the others, the only one that stands out is Christopher Neame, who is just enough over-the-top to sustain our interest. The real “hero” of the film is Cushing, who all but takes over the second half and manages to keep it interesting, playing Van Helsing as the occult version of Sherlock Holmes. As his granddaughter Jessica, Beacham’s main function seems to be to show how spectacular her cleavage is, and that’s only in the final sequence. When actually called upon to act, she does a credible job, even though she and her friends recite some of the dopiest dialogue I’ve ever heard. If anything, this shows how clueless the writers were if they thought young folks actually spoke that way.

The problem with Dracula A.D. 1972 is that it doesn’t know which century it wants to be in. The idea of the prologue is good in order to bring the audience up to speed, but once we’re in London, the film goes out of its way not to exploit that fact. I was expecting Dracula to traipse around London in his inimitable vampiric style, adding disciples and discarding victims as he goes. Instead, he seems to have developed a case of agoraphobia, as he never leaves the churchyard, hardly appearing until the showdown at the end.

As mentioned prior, Cushing has a lot more screen time, but he’s saddled with a script that woefully misuses his talents. When he’s not lecturing his granddaughter on how to properly behave, he’s locked into dumb discussions with the Scotland Yard Inspector (Coles, who is billed only as “Inspector.”) over the rash of murders, making silly references to “cult murders a few years back in the States,” i.e., the Manson Family, as if we didn’t know. And while we in the audience get the Alucard-Dracula connection right off the bat, we’re treated to the sight of the great vampire authority sitting in a chair and clumsily diagramming the connection on paper as if he was a freshman doing homework in an “Introduction to Linguistics” course. Add to this, the scene where, realizing what danger his beloved granddaughter is in, he still chooses to run across London on foot rather than using sense and driving or catching a cab.

Speaking of Alucard, was there ever a more incompetent vampire than Johnny Alucard? His death scene, in which he exposes himself multiple times to sunlight, switches on the shower and falls into the bath at the same time, is more worthy of a scene in Top Secret or The Naked Gun than a horror film.

The final battle between Van Helsing and Dracula is so short it almost seems like an afterthought on the part of the writers. To begin, Van Helsing convinces the Inspector to give him one hour alone in the church after sundown. Wouldn’t it be more sensible to call in the Flying Squad and ambush Dracula? Even in their battle at the end, Dracula is doing more to destroy himself than Van Helsing is doing to do him in. The cheesy score by Michael Vickers actually works against the film, ruining scenes intended to provoke fright.

At the end the words “Rest in Final Peace” are posted on the screen. Yeah, right. After each time we were led to believe Drac was no more he somehow managed to revive himself to the next film. All that needed to be done in order to revive the vampire was to splash blood on his ashes, as if he came in a jar labeled “Instant Vampire: Just Add Blood.” What finally did kill off Dracula was the bad box office of the next, and final, film, The Satanic Rites of Dracula.


During shooting, Christopher Lee brought a box of earth he had acquired from Transylvania to the set, hoping it would help him get into character. Given his lack of screen time, he needn’t have bothered.

Stephanie Beacham later became a regular on the soap opera Dynasty and it’s sibling, The Colbys (1985-89) playing Sable Colby. In 2009, she became a regular on Coronation Street, England’s longest running soap opera.

Memorable Dialogue

Inspector: “Sergeant, I’ll bet you a pound to a piece of shit there’s hash at that party.”

Saturday, January 23, 2016

Norm of the North

Dinner and a Movie

Artic Ice and Mexican Spice

By Steve Herte

I suppose you might have already guessed that I’m an animation maven. And with technology improving rapidly, the movies are becoming more realistic and less cartoon-y. But I love them anyway. Only two I saw last year are nominated for Academy Awards this year, Inside Out and Shaun the Sheep. I guess I have different tastes than the Academy.

The first animated feature of the New Year was an obvious choice, but a Mexican restaurant cradled in Chinatown? Definitely a must-do! Enjoy!

Norm of the North (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Trevor Wall. Writers: Daniel Altiere, Steven Altiere, & Malcolm T. Goldman. Voices: Rob Schneider, Heather Gragham, Ken Jeong, Bill Nighy, Colm Meaney, Loretta Devine, Michael McElhatton, Maya Kay, Gabrial Iglesdias, Salome Jens, Charles Adler, G.K. Bowes, Eric Price, Debi Derryberry, Kate Higgins, Ben Diskin, & Keith Ferguson. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 90 minutes.

Norm (Schneider) is a polar bear living in the Arctic with his father and mother, his grandfather (Meaney), his girlfriend Elizabeth (Higgins), his best friend Stan (Iglesdias) his mentor Socrates (Nighy), an intellectual seagull, and a card-playing caribou (Price). Norm is different. He’s one of two polar bears who can speak to and be understood by humans (the other is his grandfather). He’s next in line to be “King of the North” after his father but he can’t even hunt. When he catches a potential seal dinner, instead of eating it, he makes friends with it. Frankly, it’s a wonder how he got so big and fat.

Vera (Graham) is a promotional advertiser for the evil Mr. Greene (Jeong). She’s desperately trying to organize a film crew making a commercial to sell futuristic condos in the Arctic. Her success in this campaign could mean funding for her daughter Olympia (Kay) to attend the right school for her advanced learning capabilities. She’s not sure she believes in Mr. Greene’s wacky scheme but she needs the money. When Norm and his troop of “indestructible” lemmings (one challenges him to stomp on it and pops back up after a “Wait for it” cue from Socrates) sabotage the film crew's set-up, she’s left to do the filming herself.

Norm sees Vera as the ice sheet beneath her feet is cracking and he charges to help her. Vera thinks it’s just a polar bear charging her and films it. When she’s safe due to Norm’s efforts she sends the footage to Mr. Greene, who is delighted. He needs a polar bear to promote his scheme. As the condo is being lifted off the ice and onto the boat going back to New York, Norm and three lemmings leap aboard, following Socrates’ advice that he’s the only one who can stop this project.

New York is a terrifying place for the bear and his lemmings but he soon realizes that a talking bear is not out of place. He meets Laurence, the actor (McElhatton), who is on his way to Mr. Greene’s building to audition for the polar bear part. Mr. Greene’s secretary is unimpressed with both characters and directs them to sit with the other bear wannabes. She’s only mildly shocked when the lemmings use the fish tank as a toilet. But, obviously, Norm gets the part, especially when he roars and then dances his way into Mr. Greene’s greedy heart.

Norm makes friends with Olympia and she agrees to help him win his home back. Using her advice, he ingratiates himself with the New York populace and raises Greene Homes’ approval rating from 5 percent to 85 percent. At this point he plans to make a public announcement about Mr. Greene’s true motives, but Greene uses voiceprint matching to turn his words into an approval for condos in the Arctic. At this point, Greene no longer needs Norm and has figured out that he’s a real polar bear by his smell (Grandfather bear has already tried to stop the condo scheme and is locked up in a cage down in Greene’s sub-basement). He’s convinced Councilwoman Klubeck (Jens) that his plan is feasible and Pablo (also Iglesdias), a rich investor, to fund the building of four condos.

It’s up to Norm and a hilarious trio of rodents to free Grandfather and stop the condos from reaching the Arctic while exposing Greene’s plot to the public through the media.

Lionsgate Productions has proved that Pixar is not the only studio that can create great animation with this entertaining film. It only fails at one point when Grandfather’s mouth shapes do not match what he’s saying. Other than that, the animation is excellent. The plot is silly while trying to be relevant. When the huge piece of glacier calves off from under Vera’s feet and causes her to exclaim “waterfront property” the audience may get a hint of a climate change message. But that’s the extent of it.

Rob Schneider’s voice is a natural for Norm’s character but Bill Nighy’s talents are underused for the lines given to Socrates. It was good to hear Colm Meany for the first time since Star Trek: Next Generation and Deep Space Nine. But all the major characters pale when compared to the comic lemmings that move the film. They’re cute, ferocious, funny, crude, and sing like angels. They even play musical instruments a la Titanic when the barge holding the four condos is swamped by an enormous wave.

Norm of the North, though close in plot to The Lion King and other disinherited themes, is clean fun for all ages if you don’t pay attention to its inaccuracies. The six other people in the theater might have enjoyed it if they understood the funny parts. One father and child left before the film was three-quarters finished. It lacks the element of pathos and doesn’t try to endear any of the characters to the audience. I don’t seriously think there will be a sequel.

Rating: 3½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

11 Doyers St. (between Bowery and Pell streets)Chinatown, NY

Having worked in downtown Manhattan and visiting Chinatown many times, I know Doyers Street. It is the only el-shaped street in Chinatown and opens onto the Bowery and Pell Street. The Chinatown Post Office is the largest building on the Bowery side and the Nam Wah Tea Parlor is the largest (and oldest in New York) Chinese restaurant on the Pell Street leg.

How then could I have passed Pulqueria by twice without finding it? Simple, it’s tucked away in the crook of the el formed by Doyers Street and lies in the dark shadows cast by the lights of Nam Wah right next door. An undistinguished overhang painted in dull blue and white zig-zags and a dark stairway leading down is all you see until you notice the mustard-colored sign reading “Pulqueria – Tequila Bar Restaurant.” As I descended the stairs into the dingy bowels of Chinatown and encountered the blue door, a song line ran through my head: “I know a dark secluded place, where no one even knows your face,” from Hernando’s Hideaway. I expected trap door to open and swarthy figure inside asking me for the password. I opened the door.

Inside, it’s dark, but not too dark to see the Aztec dragons deeply engraved on the terra cotta wall. To the left is the bar, already almost full of young professionals drinking and chattering. To the right, the dining area and the Captain’s Station where a young lady acknowledged my reservation and led me to my table in one corner of a very strangely shaped room. It was like a truncated wedge with a handle at the far end occupied by a semi-private booth. Candlelight on the tables is the main lighting for the room, but a soft glow emanates from the “beams” supporting the woven palm frond ceiling.

Just as I thought I recognized a tune playing from the speakers (it was “Light My Fire,” only in Spanish), Jonathan, my served appeared from around the corner, poured me a glass of tap water from an antique bottle and presented me with the menu card (food on one side, beverages on the other).

Jonathan was very busy with a table of four behind me. When he returned and asked if I wanted a drink, I was ready. “I’m in a pulqueria. I’ll start with pulque! I’ll have the Tijuana Flashback – Pulque, Vida Mescal, Tomatillo, Cilantro, Habanero bitters, and lime.” Pulque goes back in time over 2,000 years to be the preferred drink of Aztec elders, priests and warriors. With it they made libations to the lightning gods. It is the fermented juice of the agave plant. Pulqueria is the first and only Mexican restaurant in New York not only to serve it, but also to batch it in-house.

The food menu features Platos Primeros (first dishes in two categories, for the table and appetizers), Tacos, Platos Fuertes (literally “strong dishes”) and Acompañamintos (sides). When Jonathan took my drink order, I nearly accidentally ordered a bowl of chips and guacamole (almost an assumption at Pulqueria), but I corrected that. I explained to him that I wanted to construct a unique three-course meal without going over the top and ordering too much food.

From their website, I learned that Executive Chef Steven Menter selects his ingredients from New York farms to “create vibrant dishes that change with the season.” I was very interested to see what would come to my table. The first course was the Ensalata De La Casa – baby greens, avocado, Queso Oaxaca (a lovely crumbled cheese), and spiced (and sliced) almonds, in smoked tomato jalapeño vinaigrette. The bowl placed before me was mounded high with salad and I wondered how big the remaining dishes would be. But it was wonderful. The greens were fresh, it was not too spicy, not too sweet (yes, there were sweet accents in it as well) and the avocado pieces were accents, not the main attraction. The cheese was scattered throughout and made it an excellent dish. I haven’t enjoyed a salad like that in a long time.

The second course was something I would usually not order in Mexican restaurants because of how messy it is to eat. But here, I was intrigued. The Tacos Costilla – short ribs (Costillas) braised in red wine, with caramelized onion, chipotle salsa and jalapeño – served with a side of black beans and rice. It was not like any tacos I’ve had before. Two homemade soft corn tortillas sat on a plate mounded with short rib cubes and greens and were accompanied by a steel ramekin of the salsa. OK, this is going to be messier than I thought. Tacos are usually in a crisp tortilla “shell” and are easy to pick up but not to eat. This dish was a challenge both ways. I gingerly sought the edges of one tortilla and folded it carefully around the other ingredients. Then, holding it in one hand, I poured a little of the salsa over it and took a bite. It was amazing.

The meat almost melted in the mouth and the salsa was only lightly spicy. The corn tortilla proved to be more durable than the fragile shells I know. Yes, it was messy, but I loved it. And surprise, the dish was smaller than I thought it would be.

By now a Margarita Clasica – Milagro Tequila, Cointreau, and fresh lime – had replaced my pulque and it was on to the main course. I have loved mixing chocolate with spices since my first taste of a classic Mole sauce and this dish was the most interesting of the four Platos Fuertes. 

The Mole Poblano (or Negro, depending on which menu you’re reading) was a roasted chicken leg and breast in house-made traditional mole sauce with dark chocolate and poblano chilies in a special blend, served with rice and market vegetables (potatoes, carrots, green peppers, and string beans), all served in a charming terra cotta crock. The rice was in a matching bowl on the side. When I unfolded the napkin perched on the dish under the crock, I discovered more fresh-made corn tortillas! I cut up the chicken, took a tortilla, spooned in a little rice, added a piece of chicken well-coated in sauce, folded it over and had a great time. The mole was perfect.

Everything was planned just right and all the dishes were the right size for my appetite. That means dessert was a must. The most unusual dessert was the Tres Leches Cake, a sponge cake soaked in rum, with evaporated milk as well as condensed milk and coated in heavy cream. It was a galaxy of sweet dairy products and gone in an instant. Jonathan was back. “Do you have coffee?” “No sir.” “What?” “Sorry.” “Well then, I’ll just have to have more tequila.” The woman who sat me heard this and agreed heartily. They have 112 tequilas, 30 Mescals and their own pulque, but no coffee. Go figure. I ordered a drink called the Paloma (dove): Milagro Tequila, lime, and Mexican Squirt soda; sort of a sweet Margarita.

I learned from Jonathan that Pulqueria has been open (and effectively hidden) for five years, but not anymore. I just have to get them a coffee maker. Then they’ll be a force to be reckoned with.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.