Sunday, February 28, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert For March 1-7

March 1–March 7


CAGED (March 2, 7:00 am): The mother of all women-in-prison films, but this one is unique to the genre as it features excellent acting. Eleanor Parker was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar as the young innocent Marie Allen, Agnes Moorehead is great as warden Ruth Benton, and Hope Emerson was nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar as the deliciously evil matron Evelyn Harper. Almost anything bad you can imagine happens to Marie – her new husband is killed in a robbery, she ends up in prison because she is waiting in the getaway car, she's pregnant while serving her sentence, she's victimized by other inmates and Harper, she has to give up her baby for adoption, and finally becomes bitter and hardened from all of her bad experiences. It also features powerful dialogue and an actual plot, it was nominated for a Best Writing Oscar, making this stark, realistic film stand out among others in the genre.

THE PUBLIC ENEMY (May 3, 8:30 am): This Pre-Code classic is one of the greatest gangster movie ever made. Tom Powers (James Cagney) and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) grow up committing petty crimes before finally making it big thanks to bootlegging during Prohibition. It's a Warner Brothers gangster film from 1931 so obviously it's gritty. Thanks to a brilliant performance by Cagney and an incredible directing job by William A. Wellman, this goes far beyond any other gangster film of its time and even to this day. Gangster films have become more violent and bloody, but The Public Enemy is so authentic and brutal, you can't turn away from it, It includes two of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history: Tom shoving a grapefruit in the face of Mae Clarke and the end when a rival gang shoots him up, wraps his body almost like a mummy and delivers it to his family's house.


SPARTACUS (March 2, 8:00 pm): As much a film of ideas as of action, directed with style by Stanley Kubrick and boasting great performances from a cast including Kirk Douglas, Peter Ustinov, Laurence Olivier, Jean Simmons, Charles Laughton, Woody Strode and Tony Curtis. Adapted by blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo from Howard Fast’s best-seller, it covers the traditional ground of Roman-era epics while breaking with established censorship in showing a greater scope of Roman decadence, especially in matters of sex. Its greatest strength, perhaps, is in closing without the obligatory happy ending, which keeps it true to its intentions, and makes it essential viewing.

RED-HEADED WOMAN (March 3, 1:00 pm): Jean Harlow’s breakthrough role and one of the best and most provocative films to come from the Pre-Code era. Written by Anita Loos, it’s a perverse comedy of manners with Harlow as Lil, a woman who’ll stop at nothing to win boss Chester Morris, even if it means breaking up his marriage. However, she finds that having is not nearly as good as wanting, especially when the crowd he socializes with wants nothing to do with her. Look for Charles Boyer in the small role as Lil’s chauffeur.


ED: B. No studio pushed the envelope harder during the Depression than Warner Bros. And no director at the studio pushed the envelope harder than William A. “Wild Bill” Wellman. Wild Boys of the Road is typical of his oeuvre during this time, based on the headlines of the time and substituting shock for style. The story of two boys who feel useless at home as their families can’t find work, they decide to hit the road in search of a better life. Along the way they meet others, both youths and those who would prey on youths, along with hostile populaces in the cities and towns along the way who tell them they cannot support their own citizenry, let alone a seeming army of jobless kids. Anyone who thought riding the rails was a romantic experience will get the shock of their lives after seeing this. Wellman makes it clear there is no romance on the rails, only hunger and terror. However, after building a rather radical and pessimistic picture, Wellman cops out with a happy ending straight out of Andy Hardy (said to be tacked on at the insistence of the studio). It essentially takes the sting out of what we’d just been watching, For those who would like their Wellman undiluted, try Heroes for Sale.

DAVID: A. This is the best Depression-era film of the Depression era. Wild Boys of the Road paints a stark, dark and tragic picture of two boys – Tommy (Edwin Phillips) and Eddie (Frankie Darro) – who lead normal lives until the Depression destroys their families. The two decide to run away from home to take the burden of supporting them off of their parents and to hopefully make something of themselves. Nothing goes right for the two. As they ride the rails with other young hobos, things get progressively hopeless. Among the other kids they meet is Sally (Dorothy Coonan, who would later marry William Wellman, the film's director). She is going to Chicago to stay with her aunt. The police meet the train and send the most of the kids to a detention center. But Tommy and Eddie luck out by going with Sally to her aunt, but their luck runs out a few minutes later as the place is raided and they're on their own again. Everywhere they go, they encounter problems with the worst of it being Tommy getting knocked unconscious and ending up on a rail line with a train approaching. He tries to get out of the way, but loses his leg. Eddie steals a prosthetic leg, which only causes more problems for the lost kids living in a teenage shantytown. Unlike Ed, I like the ending. The kids finally get a break from the system that has caused them so much pain, but it's not the first time someone in authority felt sympathy for them. Also, the trio will never lead normal lives so there's only a hint of happiness at the film's conclusion. Wellman does a masterful job directing this 1933 film that takes viewers and slaps them in the face, pointing out the injustice facing these lost boys and girls. Kudos to the children actors who put in amazing performances.

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

Friday, February 26, 2016

The Cosmic Monster

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Cosmic Monster (Artistes Alliance, Ltd./DCA, 1957) – Director: Gilbert Gunn. Writers: Paul Ryder (s/p), Rene Ray (novel). Stars: Forrest Tucker, Gaby Andre, Martin Benson, Wyndham Goldie, Alec Mango, Hugh Latimer, Geoffrey Chater, Patricia Sinclair, Dandy Nichols, Richard Warner, Hilda Fenemore, & Susan Redway. B&W, 75 minutes.

Back in the 1950s, England came out with a number of science-fiction miniseries. They were well acted and tended to be more concerned with plot and dialogue than special effects, being that the latter wasn’t that advanced at the time, especially considering the financial limitations of a television production. English movie studios, always looking for product, would adapt some to feature length films. Like their American counterparts, many featured a good, scary monster to keep the audience intrigued. But while American studios set their films in populated areas, the English took a more parochial outlook, setting the drama in an out of the way village or area. Hammer Films, better known for their gothic horror entries, produced a few notable films, in particular the Quartermass films. However, other producers, looking for a low-budget hit, did not fare as well.

A case in point is The Strange World of Planet X, an intelligently written, thoughtful six-part miniseries. Written by English actress-turned-author Rene Ray, it was adapted as a six-part miniseries by Ray herself for ATV Television and revolved around the premise of inter-dimensional travel. But in the hands of producers John Bash and George Maynard and writer Paul Ryder, it loses much in the translation to feature film. For one thing, it’s too short, as important plot points that could be exploited instead are left unexplored by the wayside.

However, what really does the film in is it was made on the cheap, and that cheapness detracts from what is an intelligent plot. It's reduced to a tawdry sci-fi movie marked by awkward and clichéd dialogue, and cheats the audience from what could have been a spectacular second half.

The film begins in a small laboratory at the home of Dr. Laird (Mango) in rural Bryerly Woods, located in the south of England. There, Laird and his assistant, the Canadian Gil Graham (Tucker), are conducting experiments in magnetism for the military by creating huge ultra-intense magnetic fields. He uses a lot of power and the townsfolk suspect him as the source of the interference in their television and radio signals.

Following an injury to another assistant, project head Brigadier Cartwright (Goldie) is ready to pull the plug, but after Laird shows him how he can turn metal into powder, Cartwright sends Laird another assistant in the form of French scientist Michele Dupont (Andre). Following ‘50s science-fiction protocol, the fact that she is a woman is of major concern to both Laird and Graham, who aren’t sure she’s up to the job. For his part, Laird is indignant: "But a . . .woman? This is preposterous. This is highly skilled work!" But, of course, she proves them wrong and becomes a member of the team.

As the experiments continue, Laird becomes obsessed with pushing the boundaries even further. He tells Graham he never considers anything that might interfere with his work: “If I always stopped to calculate the risks there would be no research.” (The typical mad scientist comment.) During one experiment, he punches a hole in the ionosphere, allowing dangerous cosmic rays through and causing a freak storm that damages televisions and radios in the village. A harmless tramp living in the woods is burned by the influx of cosmic rays and turns into a psychotic killer. In addition, strange things are being reported, such as UFOs in the skies.

The next day, young Jane Hale (Redway), roaming the woods for insects, meets a strange man who introduces himself to her as Mr. Smith (Benson). She asks him where he comes from. He replies that he comes from a faraway place where people ride giant dragonflies. She’s not exactly buying that, but does comment on his “funny beard,” eliciting a response that maybe he should shave it off. “Smith” is most anxious to visit the town, and is particularly curious about the magnetism experiments.

He manages to track down Gil and Michele at the town pub, telling Gil that the experiments must be stopped because they have weakened the Earth’s ionosphere, which is allowing natural cosmic radiation to come through. When Gil questions him further as to how he knows this, “Smith” comes clean. He has come from “Planet X” to investigate Dr. Laird’s mad experiments. He goes on to explain that his advanced, space-traveling people have been watching Earth even since humans stepped out of the primordial ooze. But now it’s time to step in, for messing with the forces of magnetism can lead to all sorts of nasty consequences, from flipping the poles to cosmic ray bombardment, and his people have made it their business to stop it, though we’re never told the reason for this interplanetary kindness. In other words, he’s the Z-film version of Klaatu, though he doesn’t have a robot. (Thank God, considering the last robot we saw in an English film, Devil Girl From Mars, had one that looked like a refrigerator with a police car emergency light on top.)

As their conversation continues, our tramp is whipping all sorts of horror in the woods. He takes a young woman who just got off a bus. (Interesting how the bus stop is in the middle of the woods.) The woman turns out to be Helen Forsyth (Sinclair), the new teacher in the village. The quick action of a man driving by in his car saves her in the nick of time. Another young woman isn’t so fortunate, as she is attacked and killed along with the person coming to her aid. After these heinous crimes, the disfigured tramp now has the common decency to die of his wounds.

As they sit at the pub, Gil, Michele, and Smith begin discussing what else could be affected, when Smith mentioned insects, “the little breeders.” That’s it! And they all head out the door. They rescue the young schoolteacher, trapped by the insects in the schoolhouse. The army is called out and shoots every large bug they come across.

Smith tells Gil it is imperative that Dr. Laird stop his experiments, but when representatives of the government go to his house to tell him, he locks himself in and announces he’s going to go farther than ever before. Smith radios his mothership, which hovers above Laird’s house, and destroys it with a ray, thus ending the experiment. With the danger averted, Smith returns to his ship and Gil and Michele get on with their love lives.

Two things bring this film down. First, it’s the script that dominates. This is both good and bad, considering the short running time. Paul Ryder adapted the script from the miniseries, written by Rene Ray from her novel. Besides filling the movie with outworn clichés, Ryder goes to absurd lengths to include most of the characters from the series. There’s Dr. Laird, his boss and his boss’ liaison to the lab, all of whom are given screen time. In the local town, we meet the barkeeper, the cop, two middle-aged couples, the new schoolmarm, a local lady and her inquisitive daughter, and even a hobo who lives in a van down by the river. Each character gets screen time to relate their life history; maybe a line here and a short speech there. However, none of this really advances the plot and we find ourselves getting antsy for some action. It would have been better to condense all these faces into one or two people who have contact with the scientists in the lab and let’s them know what’s happening outside.

Secondly, and most damaging, the special effects literally ruin the picture. While director Gunn provides some capable framing shots, almost everything on the effects side is awful. Les Bowie, one of the better effects artists, handled the f/x. But in order to have good effects, one needs the money to do so. The insects were enlarged using the old B-movie standard of optical enlargement, a trick most famously used in America by Bert I. Gordon. However, compared to the insects in this film, Gordon looks as if he splurged with the budget. In Bowie’s case, the reason why the insects don’t look all that menacing is because high-speed photography wasn’t used. Had it been used the insects would have moved slower and looked more naturally oversized, making it easier to match them with the actors.

First stop with our monsters is the classroom where our new teacher is getting ready for the school day. In a truly eerie scene, in fact, the only such scene in the whole damn picture, the young teacher finds herself trapped by the insects. As Gil arrives to rescue the fair damsel, we see the giant insects for the first time. They’re actually optically enlarged, and tend to do what insects do, which is not paying attention to the humans supposedly nearby. As Gil walks ever so carefully by the enlarged insects right outside of the schoolhouse, they seem to be far more interested in each other than in Gil. The same happens with Michele as she becomes trapped in a giant spider web. The spider’s there all right, only he’s busy subduing a cockroach. When the spider finally turns its attention to Michele, Smith shows up in the nick of time and kills the beast with his handy-dandy ray gun.

When the army ventures into the woods, they begin shooting whatever insects they happen to come across, but we never actually see an insect shot. We see soldiers firing their rifles and a quick cut to an insect falling from a tree or rolling on the ground. A puppet grasshopper attacks one soldier, eating his face in a scene that looks as if director Gunn inserted it as a gross-out moment (to insure the censors hand out the X-Certificate that bars those under 16 years of age and alerts the public that something good is going on here), but it’s so obviously a dummy that the scene loses any terror it might have had. And at the end, when the UFO destroys Laird’s lab, we can clearly see the strings that hold it aloft.

The Cosmic Monster also looks as if it was slapped together with much haste. Besides the clumsy fitting of humans with the insect matte shots, the cutting of the film itself is very haphazard. Jump cuts that make no sense and the terrible day for night shots seem as if they were better thought out and executed in the films of Ed Wood.

Sometimes acting can make up for lapses in the script, but not this time. The actors are not bad, but director Gunn doesn’t give them a way to be noticed in the material. Aside from Martin Benson, who plays Smith, no one really stands out. Even Forrest Tucker, who can usually be counted upon to provide a good performance no matter what the picture, seems overwhelmed; at a loss as how to proceed. French actress Gaby Andre is also a strange choice, as her dialogue wound up being dubbed. Susan Redway, who plays the precocious young budding entomologist Jane Hale, gives the liveliest performance.

Gilbert Gunn, best known for making low-budget quickies, including a dull comedy about the Loch Ness monster, What a Whopper (1961), directs the film in a very pedestrian style, with only a few close-ups. Though he’s given the chance to make a good mystery, considering the strange laboratory experiments and Benson’s mysterious stranger, his lethargic pacing takes the life out of the film. He does manage to create a few good moments, such as when the insects attack the schoolhouse. The use of shadows surrounding the empty schoolhouse makes for an effective scene, one ruined later by the special effects when help arrives to free the trapped schoolteacher. The scene when Gaby Andre finds herself caught in the giant spider web has its moments until, again, we see clearly that she and the insects are not in the same frame, and the effect is ruined.

Although The Cosmic Monster is a film that fails to live up to its promise, it is watchable and will probably hold a nostalgic memory from those of us who saw it on television as kids, when it was run seven days a week on Million Dollar Movie, or surfaced on late-night Saturday television, introduced more often than not by a horror host.


Martin Benson is probably best remembered as Solo, the American gangster crushed with his car into a dense metal cube in Goldfinger.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Risen (Columbia, 2016) – Director: Kevin Reynolds. Writers: Kevin Reynolds (s/p) & Paul Aiello (s/p and story). Stars: Joseph Fiennes, Tom Felton, Peter Firth, Cliff Curtis, Maria Botto, Luis Vallejo, Antonio Gil, Richard Atwill, Stephen Greif, Stewart Scudamore, Andy Gathergood, Stephen Hagan, Mish Boyko, Jan Cornet, Frida Cauchi, Karim Saleh, Joe Manjon, & Pepe Lorente. Color, Rated PG-13, 107 minutes.

As the film opens, a lone figure in dusty, common garb is roaming the barren, rocky area in what we learn later is Galilee. He stops at the only dwelling place and the owner offers him food and rest. Noticing his signet ring, the proprietor recognizes him as a Roman tribune by the name of Clavius (Fiennes). With a haunted look, he sits down to tell his tale.

A brief scuffle between a troop of Roman soldiers and several rock-throwing Jewish zealots led by a zealot leader (Saleh) is easily extinguished and he is captured. After he babbles about the Messiah King rising up and crushing Rome, he is slain by Clavius.

Pontius Pilate (Firth) has put Clavius in charge of the three men crucified on Golgotha. Before riding there, the sky darkens and an earthquake rocks Jerusalem, cracking the thick stone gates of the palace he’s just left. When Clavius arrives at Golgotha, he notes that the two thieves are still alive and orders their legs to be broken. But when he looks up into the still-open eyes of the third victim of Roman justice, he realizes the man is dead and hears the anguished cries of Mary (Cauchi), Yeshua’s (Curtis) mother. He belays the command to break his legs, instead ordering the piercing of his side with a lance.

As the soldiers are brutally letting the crosses fall with their occupants still on them, Joseph of Arimathea (Gil), a member of the Sanhedrin, presents Clavius with a papyrus scroll signing the body of Yeshua over to his care. Clavius orders his men to allow the family to see to the burial of Yeshua.

Back at Pilate’s palace, there is concern expressed by Chief Priest Caiaphas (Greif) that Yeshua’s followers will steal the body from the tomb and claim the truth of his prediction that he will rise in three days. Pilate assigns Lucius (Felton) to be Clavius’ aide and orders him to seal the tomb and set a watch over it. Soon many thick ropes anchored to the walls of the tomb crisscross each other over a huge stone and are set in place by large wads of red wax imprinted with his seal. Clavius assigns two of his best men to guard the tomb overnight ignoring their protests that they haven’t slept in two days.

The two soldiers station themselves despondently by the tomb and while one builds a fire, the other pulls out a skin of wine. The next day, Pilate is notified by his aide that the tomb is open and the body is gone. Before he can cover up the news, however, Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin storm in and accuse the Roman soldiers of incompetence.

Pilate summons Clavius and orders him to find the body. Setting Lucius out to arrest anyone speaking about the risen Nazarene, he interviews them one by one. No one seems to know anything until Lucius brings in Joses (Vallejo), whose poverty overrules his sense of right and wrong, and he gives them the name of Mary Magdalene (Botto).

In one of the lighter moments of this movie, Clavius asks a gathering of his soldiers if they know of Mary Magdalene. First, one hand goes up, then another, then several others. But when brought for questioning, Mary speaks in ecstatic riddles and Clavius concludes that she’s mentally unstable. Returning to Joses, Clavius manages to buy the name of Bartholomew (Hagen) from him and the disciple is brought in for questioning.

As stolid as Mary Magdalene was, Bartholomew is bubbling over with joy. When threatened with crucifixion, he happily kneels down and welcomes it. Clavius tosses a nail at him and describes the agony of hanging from these and not being able to breathe. Clavius then asks where the disciples are and with a grin on his face, Bartholomew leaves with the word, “Everywhere.”

There’s nothing left for Clavius and Lucius but to take the soldiers and search every house in Jerusalem. Spotting Mary Magdalene ducking into a doorway, Clavius follows her. He opens the door to find the disciples sitting down to dinner. But the big surprise is who is with them: Yeshua himself, living, breathing, eating and drinking and showing the wounds in his hands and sides to Thomas.

Silently, and with utter disbelief, Clavius sits staring until Yeshua suddenly disappears. He learns from the disciples that they will see him again in Galilee. Calling off the enthusiastic Lucius and not telling him what he found, Clavius decides to follow the disciples to Galilee by himself. Being loyal, he leaves a note for Pilate, and, of course, Lucius takes a cohort to follow him. Clavius’ evasion tactics throw the cohort off their trail, but he has to convince Lucius as well, who was not fooled by his deceit.

Risen tells the New Testament story of Jesus’ resurrection believably from the Roman point of view. There are several “could have been” moments not defined in detail in the Gospels: There could have been a Roman tribune at supper with the disciples. He could have been in the fishing boat when the nets were lowered and the catch nearly swamped the boat. He could have witnessed the healing of a leper and the final ascension.

The portrayals of Clavius by Joseph Fiennes and Yeshua by Cliff Curtis were magnificent, with the hardened Roman soldier, believing and praying only to the god Mars, meeting the gentle, loving, all-forgiving son of Mary (who really didn’t have that big a part). Maria Botto’s performance as Mary Magdalene was also brilliant.

Without being evangelistic, Risen puts a novel slant on a well-known story and does so with minimum brutality (we don’t actually see the soldiers breaking legs), and maximum grace. The whole family could enjoy this movie. The 1 hour and 47 minutes pass before you know it. And even though we may know how events unfold, we still wonder where the film will go next, causing us later to say to ourselves, “Of course, that’s where it should have gone.” It a beautiful, powerful film, released timely, and one that will be remembered.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

Ed’s Chowder House
44 W. 63rd St. (in the Empire Hotel), New York

The name of this wonderful eatery brings to mind such images as what you think of when I say “sea shack cuisine,” “lobster rolls” and “north shore,” yet it’s located on the ritzy upper west side of Manhattan, directly across the street from Lincoln Center. 

Passing through a canvas airlock door and up two small flights of stairs wrapped around hanging glass “bubbles,” I arrived at the Captain’s Station and announced my reservation. The young lady led me through the airy, high-ceilinged space, decorated in stripes of sandy earth tones, and through a grand archway formed by a towering wine rack (with a rolling ladder, as one would see in venerable libraries) to my table by a window. 

I sat on the cream-colored banquette as she moved the table to give me room, wished me a bon appetite and pushed the table back into place. An enormous mirror dominated the wall opposite me and I could see a large ring-shaped chandelier in the next room.

My server, Daria arrived with the food and drink menus. After looking over the imaginative cocktail list, I was ready when Daria returned. They did serve Beefeater gin and I ordered my favorite martini. It was perfect – a rarity. Daria took this opportunity to cite the two specials of the day, both appetizers, a foie gràs torchon and a carpaccio, neither of which I could have on a Friday in Lent.

The food menu included Raw Bar, Shellfish Platters, Chowders, Appetizers, Simple Mains (this is where we see lobster rolls), Composed Mains (more elaborate dishes), and Sides. It took me a while to decide, as there were so many choices. The wine list was also very impressive and remarkably affordable for this area of town. However, remembering my experience from last week’s restaurant, it was easy to choose: the 2013 “Deusa Nai” Albariño from Rias Baixas, Spain. It is a glorious white, with a crisp flavor lighter than a chardonnay and with a refreshing aftertaste.

Daria was very patient as I listed my choices and she advised which dish should come out first. Since this was my first time at Ed’s Chowder House, it only stood to reason that my first course be the chowder sampler: a mushroom chowder with truffle oil and chives, a New England-style clam chowder, and a Manhattan-style blue crab chowder. 

The New England clam chowder was creamy and good and the clams tender but it couldn’t surpass the best I had in Boston. The Manhattan-style was delicious and spicier than anything on the cajun menu I had last week. But it was the unique flavor of the mushroom chowder that won the day. When I tasted it, the earthy, musky fullness of truffles and pureed mushrooms was pure Heaven.

I rarely have mussels, but this next dish promised something different. The spicy steamed Holland mussels with sourdough croutons was one of those dishes where the sauce is so good one might well ask ask for a spoon. I did, and quickly emptied the black and green shells of their delicate contents into that wonderful spicy, green and red pepper strewn soup. 

Holland mussels are about the size of the last joint of your pinky finger and have a light flavor of their own, but it was the liquid part of this dish that almost set me into a food frenzy. The “croutons” were long slices of sourdough bread, lightly toasted and great for spooning mussels and soaking up sauce.

My next dish was the blue crab lasagna with béchamel and marinara sauce: lasagna filled with delicate, shredded blue crab meat and the béchamel was topped (but not drowned) by the marinara and crowned with a sprig of fresh basil. I had to cut it carefully to get all the layers at once and found it amazing. The side dish was Ed’s version of mac & cheese and it was a hefty one, the only dish I couldn’t finish and had packed up to go.

When it came to dessert I followed Daria’s recommendation and chose the lemon meringue pie. It was lovely. The meringue was just a foamy, toasted wave on top of a brick of lemony goodness that eclipsed the thin crust at its base. A double espresso was de rigueur after this feast.

Ed’s is almost a year old. It’s co-owned by Jeffrey Chodorow of China Grill Restaurant fame (and one of my favorite return places) at 60 W. 53rd St. I was not surprised to learn this considering the quality of the food and service at Ed’s. It looks like I have another “return” place here.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, February 22, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert For February 23-29

February 23–February 29


ALL THE KING'S MEN (February 24, 6:00 pm): This is the best political film ever made and one of the 10 greatest movies of all-time. I could watch this 1949 classic over and over again – and have. Broderick Crawford is brilliant as Willie Stark, a do-gooder who fails as a politician until he learns to work the system, gets dirt on friends and foes, and becomes a beloved populist governor. There are other incredible performances, particularly John Ireland as Jack Burden, a journalist who "discovers" Stark and helps him climb the political ladder, stepping over anyone in the way; and Raymond Greenleaf as Judge Monte Stanton, Burden's mentor and role model. If you love politics, this is the best movie on the subject ever made. If you hate politics, you'll love this film as it gives you plenty of reasons to confirm your belief on the subject.

NETWORK (February 24, 12:15 am): This brilliant film is not only the best satire of television ever made, but it is about two decades ahead of its time showing how reality TV could and did capture the attention of the viewing audience. As the years pass, this 1976 film becomes more relevant as society's interest in the obsession of pseudo celebrities and our insatiable appetite for around-the-clock garbage news increase. At times, you can see yourself in the film watching some of the crap that litters the airwaves today. You know it's awful and/or outrageous, but you can't help but watch. The film shows the mental breakdown of anchorman Howard Beale (Peter Finch) and how it captures the attention of viewers whose voyeur tendencies only grow. Finch, Faye Dunaway (as an overly ambitious and sexy network executive), and Beatrice Straight (in a bit but important role as the wife of a TV executive played by William Holden) won Oscars in three of the four acting categories. Like Finch, Holden was nominated for Best Actor (two lead male actors?), but obviously didn't win. Finch's "Mad as Hell" speech is one of cinema's finest and one of its top five most iconic moments. It's drop-dead serious while also being outrageously funny.


DAY FOR NIGHT (February 26, 3:30 pm): This is one of Francois Truffaut’s wittiest and most subtle films – a film about the making of a film. While on the set of Je vous presente Pamela (Introducing Pamela), the story of an English wife running off with her French father-in-law, we also get to know the cast and crew shooting the film, each with his or her own set of problems. Hence the title: a technical cinematographic term for simulating a night scene while shooting during the day. Special filters and optical processors are employed to create the illusion. While Nathalie Baye and Jean-Pierre Leaud are wonderful in their roles, Valentia Cortese steals the picture as the fading actress Severine. For those new to Truffaut, this is the perfect introduction and one not to miss.

YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN (February 26, 8:00 pm): After Blazing Saddles became a big hit, people wondered how Mel Brooks could top himself. And then came Young Frankenstein, and that question was answered. This is a wonderfully hilarious spoof of the old Universal horror films, concentrating on Frankenstein (1931), Bride of Frankenstein (1935), and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Written by Brooks and Gene Wilder (who also stars as the descendent of Frankenstein), the film combines the zaniness of Brooks with the more restrained satire of Wilder. Peter Boyle is marvelous as The Monster, complete with a zipper in his neck, and Madeline Kahn hits all the right notes as Frankenstein’s prudish fiancée. With Cloris Leachman as Frau Brucker, Terri Garr as Inga, Frankenstein’s lab assistant, and Marty Feldman in a brilliant turn as Frankenstein’s gofer Igor. Watch for Gene Hackman spoofing the blind hermit from Bride of Frankenstein. He comes close to walking away with the film. They don’t make ‘em any better – or funnier – than this.

WE DISAGREE ON ... M*A*S*H (February 24, 10:00 pm):

ED: C+. Virtually everyone knows the story by now, thanks to the hugely popular television show. But not everyone knows it began as a series of comic novels by Richard Hooker and was made into a film directed by Robert Altman. The success of the film with both critics and audiences made the reputation of Altman. I went to this movie when it opened, looking forward to a good, cutting-edge comedy. However, what I got was a plot that careens back and forth and a disjointed script. It seems more like a series of episodes, and for an anti-war film, I never got the sense of the futility of war at all. Instead what I got was a bunch of characters who seemed to be having the time of their lives. The football game that takes up most of the second half seems to come from out of nowhere, and I had trouble with the change in the character of “Hotlips,” since there was no justification provided for her metamorphosis from by-the-book nurse to a wild and carefree woman. Also not in the film’s favor is a soundtrack where the overlapping dialogue blots out the plot points. The acting is an example of superb ensemble acting, and added to the occasional chuckle, is the reason I gave it the grade I did. But the film pales in comparison to the mediocre 1953 Battle Circus, with Humphrey Bogart as a MASH surgeon and June Allyson as the nurse in love with him. That film has actually aged better than this one.

DAVID: A-. This 1970 movie does an excellent job of combining the dark side of war – the gory "meatball" surgery conducted by doctors close to the front line during the Korean War on soldiers who either die, get sent home because of the severity of their wounds or are patched up to go back to the fighting to possibly get shot again or killed – with a comedic side. The doctors and nurses work long, brutal shifts that take their toll. To keep the violence from consuming them, they try to forget their situation by having fun. They pull pranks, have sex, drink a lot, play football and make jokes while operating on seriously wounded soldiers. One of the best quips comes from Trapper in response to Hot Lips pointing out that a Korean is "a prisoner of war." Trapper says, "So are you, sweetheart, but you don't know it." Ed is correct that the script is disjointed, but director Robert Altman makes it work. It significantly helps that the film boasts a cast of excellent actors including Donald Sutherland as Hawkeye, Elliott Gould as Trapper John, Robert Duvall as Frank Burns, and Sally Kellerman as Hot Lips. The first few seasons of the TV show, before Alan Alda gained way too much control and turned episode after episode into preachy sermons, are very similar to the movie. A final note: for Ed, whose opinion I greatly respect, to contend 1953's Battle Circus has aged better than M*A*S*H and the latter pales in comparison is wrong. Battle Circus is an unwatchable, boring film that even Humphrey Bogart couldn't save.

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

Saturday, February 20, 2016

The Last Waltz

Message In The Music

By David Skolnick

The Last Waltz (United Artists, 1978) – Director: Martin Scorsese. Stars: The Band (Rick Danko, Levon Helm, Garth Hudson, Richard Manuel and Robbie Robertson), Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Van Morrison, the Staple Singers, Dr. John, Neil Diamond, Muddy Waters, Joni Mitchell, Ronnie Hawkins, Emmylou Harris, & Eric Clapton. Color, Rated PG, 117 minutes.

While I’m a big fan of both The Band and this film, I knew next to nothing about the group when I first saw The Last Waltz. My father, who loves The Band and had already seen the movie, woke me up one night around 10 p.m. – I was 10 years old at the time – and said the film was being shown nearby at midnight. Would I like to see it? Of course, who wouldn't want to sneak out of the house late at night with their dad to watch a concert movie?

To say I was completely blown away would be an understatement. The first thing shown on the screen at the start is: “THIS FILM SHOULD BE PLAYED LOUD!” The film projector guy was just following orders.

My love of The Band began that night. To see them play several of their great songs, and bring out many of my favorite musicians including Neil Young, Van Morrison, Eric Clapton and Bob Dylan, to perform with them, was an incredible experience. (Shortly after seeing the movie, I got my hands on The Best of the Band on cassette, and “borrowed” – and never returned – the triple-album soundtrack of the movie from my stepmother.)

I've seen The Last Waltz about 30 to 40 times over the years, as it was practically played to death for a few years on VH1 and during PBS pledge drives. 

As with other rock documentaries, The Last Waltz, has a nasty habit of clashing reality with fantasy. However, it is entertainment and not facts that is important when making a movie. Distorting the truth at times doesn't stop The Last Waltz from being one of the greatest rock films of all-time.

The film, directed by Martin Scorsese, showcases The Band's final concert with the five original members on Nov. 25, 1976. Scorsese's inexperience directing a rock-and-roll concert is apparent right away as the film opens with the group singing “Don't Do It,” one of their two Top 40 songs. The Band closed the four-plus-hour concert with that song.

We then get our first interview with a member of The Band. It's Robbie Robertson, and he talks about the group's final concert being at the Winterland Ballroom in San Francisco, the first facility in which they performed as The Band. Robertson talks of the last concert in philosophical terms and if there was any doubt that he was the star of the movie, the opening interview eliminates it.

It's back to the concert and Levon Helm sings lead on “Up on Cripple Creek,” the group's only other Top 40 song and a great tune off their second album, The Band – also known as The Brown Album – released in 1969. I didn't catch it until recently, but Helm mixes up some of the verses. Music promoter Bill Graham, who owned the Winterland, filmed the entire show in black and white, which lasted more than four hours and can be seen here. It shows Helm getting most of the verses correct. I can only speculate that Scorsese must have edited the song for the movie. It's also interesting to note that after the concert was done, The Band went into the studio to made changes to a number of songs – to correct missed or sour notes or to fill in music not picked up by microphones.

Scorsese asks Robertson, Rick Danko and Richard Manuel about the history of the group with Robertson doing most of the talking. It's obvious Manuel was pretty high as he comes across as being out of it, and does at least one interview lying on a couch. Next up we see Manuel singing “The Shape I'm In,” which is ironic as he's not in great shape. A cameraman picked him up perfectly with a spotlight and then it's quickly to a wide shot and then to Danko and Robertson, before returning briefly to Manuel, who does a great rendition of the song.

The first guest on the stage is Ronnie Hawkins, who recruited all five members as his band during the early 1960s. He sings Bo Didley's “Who Do You Love?” and leaves the stage before the song ends.

The film flips back and forth between the concert and the interviews. Robertson, Danko and Manuel talk about stealing food from a supermarket when they first started, as they had no money. While the other two talk, Robertson jumps in to finish the story, and we head back to the stage to hear Danko sing “It Makes No Difference,” his first in the movie on lead vocals. We also get a Garth Hudson sighting as he does a great sax solo. But we can't forget Robbie. He gets the spotlight treatment for a guitar solo on the song.

Other guests come out to sing, including Dr. John doing “Such a Night,” and Neil Young singing “Helpless.” Young's performance is memorable for two things: the one we hear and the one we don't see. What we don't see is cocaine hanging out of Young's nose – digitally removed in post-production. You have to pay attention, but as Young gets on stage, he tells Robertson, “Thank you for letting me do this.” Robertson responds: “Oh, shit, are you kidding? Are you kidding?” 

Joni Mitchell does some impressive background vocals, but when the camera pans to her, she's largely in the dark. The reason? The thought was to not have her visible – though we can clearly hear her distinct voice and make out her distinct face – as she would perform later with The Band and if people saw her, it would ruin the surprise. It doesn't make much sense, but everyone was high so that probably played a part in the strange decision.

More Robertson on not being on the road anymore and a great version of “Stage Fright” by Danko follows. We are then treated to the best interview segment of the movie and it comes from Manuel. He talks about the name of the group, saying in the late 60s that band names were strange. He makes up a couple of great psychedelic band names: “Chocolate Subway” and “Marshmallow Overcoat.” The members wanted the group to be called “The Crackers” or “The Honkies,” but no one else liked it. They were working with Dylan in and near Woodstock, New York, at the time they were searching for a name. Everyone referred to them as “The Band,” and the name stuck, Manuel says.

The film suddenly cuts to an MGM sound studio in Los Angeles in what many people say is the best part – The Band joined by the Staple Singers doing “The Weight.” Simply put: it is spectacular, and the way it is filmed is remarkable. Helm sings the first verse with the Staple Singers not shown. We see Robertson and Danko up front and that Manuel and Hudson have switched places with Manuel on organ and Hudson on piano. We then see Mavis Staples (their last name is Staples, but the band name is singular) taking the second verse and about halfway through it, the camera goes wide to show her sisters and father. Pops Staples singing the third verse, Danko the fourth verse as he did on the original with everyone harmonizing on the final verse. (See it for yourself.) 

The song itself is often mistaken for having a religious subtext as it takes place in Nazareth with characters named Luke, who's waiting on the Judgment Day, as well as Moses and the Devil. But it's actually about a town in Pennsylvania where Martin Guitars are still made to this day, and the strange people The Band knew there. The group performed the song during the concert, but it was replaced in the movie by the version done with the Staple Singers.

We get a little bit of Danko, Manuel and Robertson informally singing “Old Time Religion” off stage and off key followed by “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down,” one of The Band's better-known songs. This version with great horns is one of the best concert songs in cinematic history. Here it is.

Two of the more controversial segments follow. The first is Neil Diamond singing “Dry Your Eyes.” He's great and I'm a longtime fan, but the only connection he has to The Band is that Robertson produced Diamond's album Beautiful Noise earlier in 1976. As Diamond finishes, Robertson says, “Great song,” which is funny because he co-wrote it with Diamond. 

The second one has Scorsese asking about groupies when The Band toured. Manuel says, “I love them. That's probably why we've been on the road … not that I don't like the music.” Helm, visibly upset at the question, says to Scorsese, “I thought you weren't supposed to talk about it too much.” He then tells the director to talk about something else.

Back on stage, we get a couple of blues numbers. The first is “Mystery Train” by Paul Butterfield, followed by a killer performance of “Mannish Boy” by Muddy Waters with Butterfield playing the harmonica. Helms later wrote in his autobiography about how angry he was that a Vegas-style Diamond performed while he had to fight to get a spot on the show for Waters, who was a major influence on the group's members.

This section of the film features guest performers, including Eric Clapton, who does “Further On Up The Road.” As Clapton is playing the start of the song, his guitar strap falls off. He calls out “Rob” and Robertson immediately plays the lead perfectly without missing a note until Clapton is ready to resume. (It took me about a dozen viewings to recognize what happened.) The film returns to the MGM sound stage for Emmylou Harris singing “Evangeline,” a fantastic song Robertson wrote shortly before filming of the movie began. He plays electric guitar with Danko on violin, Helm on mandolin, Hudson on accordion, and Manuel on drums.

Back at Winterland, we get snippets of Hudson's brilliant organ playing on “Genetic Method” and “Chest Fever,” the latter is one of my favorite songs by the group. Robertson talks about Hudson's talent and how he was a classically trained musician. When The Band started they each had to pay Hudson $10 a week for lessons. Hudson couldn't tell his family he was in a rock-and-roll band so he said he was a paid music instructor. The Band play another great song, “Ophelia.”

Van Morrison, wearing a ridiculously-tight jumpsuit showing his expanding belly, is the second to last guest performer and he does an inspired version of “Caravan.” To end the cavalcade of stars is the biggest one of them all: Bob Dylan. There were problems with Dylan who only wanted two songs filmed because of a concert movie he was making. (Details of that to come later.)

The film's Winterland concert finale is “I Shall Be Released,” a beautiful song written by Dylan during The Basement Tapes era when he and The Band were in upstate New York. The song, with Manuel singing lead, is the final track on the group's 1968 landmark debut album, Music From Big Pink. Dylan released a version with a different tempo in 1971 on the second volume of his “greatest hits” collection.

The filming of the song is a mess with Manuel singing the second verse, but he's not shown; perhaps Scorsese's cameramen were in poor positions. Hawkins is on stage, but nowhere near a microphone so he is just sitting there. It's weird to see Diamond sharing a stage with Young, Morrison and Dylan. It's the end of the movie at the Winterland, but as Graham documented and as shown on The Last Waltz DVD, there was plenty more to follow, including two jam sessions. The quality of music on the jams isn't spectacular, but it's fascinating to see The Band, without Manuel, play with Ringo Starr, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Dr. John, Paul Butterfield and Eric Clapton.

The film's final interview is with Robertson who talks about life on the road and how you don't want to “press your luck.” He adds: “The road has taken a lot of the great ones: Hank Williams, Buddy Holly, Otis Redding, Janis (Joplin), Jimi Hendrix, Elvis. It's a goddamn impossible way of life.” It would also take Manuel and to a certain extent Danko and Helm.

The film closes on the MGM sound stage with Hudson on organ, Danko on stand-up bass, Robertson on a 12-string, Helm on mandolin and Manuel on slide guitar playing a new instrumental, “Theme From The Last Waltz.”

When The Band played their last concert, beautifully captured by Scorsese, the group was not leaving on top despite what the movie leads you to believe. While the five-man group was extraordinarily talented, they had become a nostalgia band by 1976. Any success they had in 1974 and 1975 was largely due to Dylan, who used them as his backing band at various high points during his career. The Band released two albums in 1975: Northern Lights – Southern Cross with a few good songs, and The Basement Tapes, which consisted of music made with Dylan primarily in 1967. A year earlier, they toured with Dylan, and played on his Planet Waves record. Except for the modest success of Northern Lights, The Band had done little of note on their own since 1970, when their third album Stage Fright was released. They were never able to recapture that brilliance again. By the time of their breakup, The Band was largely irrelevant in an industry that focused on disco and punk, and shunned many 1960s performers.

By 1976, Robbie Robertson, their guitarist and main songwriter, wanted the group to stop touring, and work only in the studio. That worked for The Beatles for a few years, but The Band wasn't The Beatles, and while the Fab Four's concerts were about 30 to 45 minutes long, The Band typically played for a couple of hours. Robertson's idea was ill conceived and the rest of the group objected. 

First, the other four members made most of their money touring. After Music From Big Pink, songwriting credits for original compositions were largely attributed to Robertson, despite objections from some of the others, primarily Helm. That meant that the big residual checks and publishing bucks went to Robertson. For the other four, the real money was in touring. As talented as Robertson was as a songwriter, he had dry spells, most notably between 1971's Cahoots and 1975's Northern Lights. It was so bad that the only studio album they released between those two was Moondog Matinee, a mediocre 1973 album of all cover songs.

But Robertson was insistent about not touring, and he expressed that repeatedly during the interview segments with Scorsese in the film. Though the rest of the group balked at the idea of quitting the road, Robertson somehow convinced them to break up in an elaborate show, which became The Last Waltz

It turned out that Robertson was correct about the dangers of life on the road: The Band reformed in 1983 without him. Manuel, whose hard living as a member of The Band concerned Robertson, committed suicide in 1986 after a small show in Florida. He was 42 years old. Danko, who battled drug and alcohol addictions, died in 1999 after a tour at the age of 56. Helm, also a hard drinker and a chain smoker who battled addictions, made it to 71 before dying of throat cancer in 2012.

The Last Waltz, filmed on Thanksgiving 1976 didn't hit theaters until April 26, 1978. It sat around that long for two reasons: Scorsese was busy with other films, including New York, New York, and Dylan negotiated a delay in order to have Renaldo and Clara, a nearly four-hour concert/documentary/dramatic vignette film from his 1975 Rolling Thunder Revue tour, come out first. Renaldo premiered Jan. 25, 1978, and was a complete flop.

Scorsese was an unusual choice to direct, as he had never filmed a concert or documentary film before. He got the job because Jonathan Taplin, The Band's manager during their heyday, had produced Mean Streets, which Scorsese directed, and recommended him to The Band. Robertson and Scorsese, the latter had a cocaine abuse problem at the time, hit it off well, and developed a friendship and business relationship during and after filming. The other members, except for Danko, showed little interest in making any decision about the movie. It was the bond between Scorsese and Robertson that influenced the film's final product. The movie makes it look like the guitarist-songwriter was the leader despite the fact that Helm, Manuel and Danko sang 99 percent of the group's songs, and Helm had been the unofficial head dating back to when they were called Levon and the Hawks. Robertson doesn't sing lead on any song during the concert and did so on less than a handful of numbers during the group’s recording career. I don't object to top billing for Robertson (who ended up with a producer credit for the film). But Helm bitterly wrote in his autobiography that the movie makes it look like the four others are Robertson's sidemen.

While the film has some shortcomings such as choppy editing, too much of a focus on Robertson and not enough on the great music, it still makes for incredible viewing. At slightly less than two hours in length, it would have been even better had Scorsese added another hour. Woodstock is clearly the best rock film ever made, but The Last Waltz is right up there with Concert for Bangladesh for the second best. The Band’s performances showed why they were so widely respected for their talent and songs, particularly on their first three albums, and why people wanted to see them in concert. The guest performers don't disappoint, either, which is why this is an ideal film for the rock aficionado.