Sunday, December 31, 2017

Cinéma Inhabituel for January 1-15

A Guide to the Interesting and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

The third annual TCM Big Screen Classics lineup has been announced and will feature 13 classic films spanning six decades – from the 1930s to the 1990s – playing over two days each in select theaters nationwide.

"It's about bringing movies to people who love movies and allowing them to share the experience," says Ben Mankiewicz, host of TCM Primetime. "These movies are hugely resonant with people.”

We could print the entire list, but we feel that it’s better just to remind readers of the film playing each month. We will mention that film in the first month’s edition of Cinema Inhabituel

Many critics consider The Treasure of the Sierra Madre as director John Huston's finest cinematic achievement, a tale of obsession and greed during a gold mining expedition in Mexico that features outstanding performances from Humphrey Bogart, Tim Holt (in a role originally intended for John Garfield) and Huston's father, Walter, who won the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his troubles – one time the bozos in the Academy got it right. 

January will mark the 70th anniversary of this classic and it will be screened on Jan. 14 and 16. We’ve said this before and we’ll say it again: nothing quite compares to seeing a classic such as this on the big screen at a theater, the way it was meant to be seen. If anyone who goes to see this classic would like to write of the experience, send it to us and we’ll print your observations.


January 2: An evening with the great comedian begins at 8 pm with the rarely seen classic Million Dollar Legs, from 1932. Fields is the president of Klopstokia, a small country in Eastern Europe whose citizens are all blessed with incredible athletic prowess. In fact, the presidency itself is determined by an arm wrestling contest. Given the country’s athletic gifts, it’s decided to enter a team in the 1932 Olympic Games, where there’s sure to be all sorts of political intrigue and wild hijinks. Checking in at only 62 minutes, the movie's plot is little more than an excuse for sight gags, physical comedy and sharp dialogue. Look for lovely Susan Fleming as Fields’s daughter, Angela. She was on-track for stardom when she decided to take a different path in life and married Harpo Marx in 1936. Their marriage was a very happy one, lasting until the great comic’s death in 1964.

Following Million Dollar Legs are It’s a Gift (1934), probably Fields’s greatest comedy, at 9:15 pm (read our review of it here); The Bank Dick (1940), at 10:45 pm; and his last starring role in the aptly named Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (1941) at 12:15 am. Afterward, at 1:45 am, we are treated to two classic shorts Fields made for Mack Sennett: The Dentist, from 1932, and The Fatal Glass of Beer, from 1933. To close out the evening at 2:45 am, take in Fields’s classic portrayal of Mr. Micawber in MGM’s 1935 production of Dickens’s David Copperfield, ably directed by George Cukor.


January 14: Family life in Japan is viewed in two comedies from directors Kon Ichikawa and the incomparable Yasujiro Ozu. First up at 2:00 am is Ichikawa’s Being Two Isn’t Easy (Watashi wa nisai), from 1962. Long before the Look Who’s Talking movies came into vogue, Ichikawa made comedy featuring an infant narrator who expresses frustrations with his parents' child-rearing and loves that of his doting grandmother. It’s a look into Japanese culture and family structure. Conflict within the family comes from the father’s rather half-hearted efforts at helping with housework or child-rearing, while his mother, whom they move in with when their son is born, is firm in her belief that a man should do nothing more at home than simply relax. The household is the domain of the woman. And, keeping with another tradition, she spoils her grandson as grandparents are prone to, and to the consternation of her daughter-in-law. By the way, the meaning of the title comes from the Japanese view that children are considered to be one year old when they are born. The film ends with his first birthday, turning two in Japanese culture while only one year in Western eyes. This is a gentle and humorous look at the trials and tribulations, along with the joys, of parenthood.

It’s followed at 3:45 am by Ozu’s 1959 classic, Good Morning (Ohayo). A very loose remake of his 1932 I Was Born But . . . this film has more comic elements than its predecessor, though the two share the basic plot elements about both are about two young brothers who go on strike against their parents, and the relationships within their suburban community. The Japan of 1959 is vastly different than that of 1932 and the film reflects those changes. This new, postwar Japan Japan was in the midst of a pro wrestling craze, which greatly spurred the sales of television sets. It’s all part of the Western-style consumerism that Ozu sees sweeping Japan. Housewives want washing machines and vacuum cleaners while children want television. The trouble starts when one couple, apparently childless, welcomes the neighborhood boys in to watch TV in their home, although the parents disapprove of both television and the couple. Ozu shows them coming home in the early morning scatting a jazz tune – a hint at both their bohemian lifestyle and the degree to which Western culture has spread throughout Japan. The other adults in the film engage in the sort of mindless conversation about trivial matters that passes for good manners, instead of saying what they’re really thinking, with the result being that even a single man and single woman can’t even find the means to express their attraction to one another. At any rate, the children are adamant about their parents getting a television set. Their father considers television a box that makes its viewers into idiots, telling the boys that they talk too much nonsense. The boys counter that adults also talk too much nonsense and go on a silence strike to drive their point – and demand – home. Good Morning is a genial and insightful satire at the social mores of the modern Japan Ozu saw as rejecting traditional values for consumer values that only stress the importance of the moment. It’s a gem well worth recording.


January 1: Holiday Inn (1942) with Bing Crosby, Fred Astaire, Marjorie Reynolds and Virginia Dale, is airing today at 8:30 am. After song-and-dance man Crosby loses his amour Dale to partner Astaire, he retired to run a country inn, where he meets Reynolds, a performer sent there by Astaire’s agent to stop her from pestering him. Best known for Irving Berlin’s classic song, “White Christmas,” the film also features some snappy numbers from Astaire and Crosby along with a watchable plot. Reynolds gained much of her early experience on Poverty Row, most notably with Boris Karloff in Monogram’s Mr. Wong series as reporter Bobby Logan.

January 15: On a day honoring Martin Luther King Jr., tune in at 9:30 am and catch Lena Horne in her film debut in The Duke is Tops. This 1938 all-Black production is fascinating not only for Horne, who one can see had stardom written all over her, but for the perseverance of talented African-American performers and technicians denied the chance to ply their wares in Hollywood proper. If life hands you lemons, make lemonade.


January 2: Garbo sizzles in Mata Hari (1932) at 6:15 am. She’s followed by the great George Arliss in a pair of biopics: Disraeli (1929) at 8:00 am, and Alexander Hamilton (1931) at Noon.

January 4: Three Pre-Code classics are on tap, beginning at 7:45 am with Bill (Hopalong Cassidy) Boyd and Pat O’Brien in Flaming Gold (1933) at 7:45 am. At 9:30 am it’s Dolores Costello (Mrs. John Barrymore) and Warren William in Expensive Women (1931), followed at 10:45 am by Norma Shearer, Frederic March and Leslie Howard in Smilin’ Through (1932).

January 5: Charles Boyer has a bit part in MGM’s Red-Headed Woman (1932), with Jean Harlow and Chester Morris at 8:15 am.

January 9: At 6:30 am, Claudia Dell stars with Ernest Torrence, Perry Askam and Walter Pidgeon in Sweet Kitty Bellairs, from 1930. Directed by Alfred E. Green for Warner Bros., it’s the story of an English flirt (Dell) on her way to see her sister when her carriage is held up by a highwayman. He falls in love with Kitty, and therein hangs the plot. Will he win the lady, who is also being pursued by Lord Verney (Pidgeon)? 


January 5: A Laurel and Hardy gem is on today’s bill. The Flying Deuces (1939), airing at 10:45 am, is one of the boys’ better films, with Stan and Ollie as a couple of workers from an Iowa fish market vacationing in France. After Ollie’s marriage proposal to an innkeeper's pretty daughter (Jean Parker), is rejected, he is despondent. It’s suggested by a passing French Foreign Legion soldier that he join the Foreign Legion to forget. And that’s just what her and Stan do, but the Legion turns out to be far from what they expected. Though it’s heavily reliant on their usual slapstick, The Flying Deuces is an entertaining comedy with enough swerves to keep the viewer interested.

January 9: Victor McLaglen is a foreman in a munitions plant who must protect absent-minded scientist Edmond O’Brien from enemy agents as he creates a new explosive in 1942’s Powder Town, at 2:15 am.


January 7: Beginning at Midnight see Rudolph Valentino in the films that made him a cult icon with women, The Sheik (1921) and The Son of the Sheik (1926). The first was based on Edith M. Hull’s 1919 “Roughly He Grabbed Me” best-seller about the independent-minded Lady Diana Mayo. When she makes an ill-advised trip on her own through the Algerian desert, she is abducted by Sheik Ahmed Ben Hassan. Though she yearns to be free and recoils from any attempt by the Sheik at romance, when she is later kidnapped by desert bandits she realizes how much she loves him. Lest there be any insinuations of interethnic romance, it’s revealed near the film’s end that Ahmed is of English and Spanish nobility. 

The Son of the Sheik was made five years later, when Valentino’s career was in serious decline and was an attempt to win back his audience. Screenwriter Frances Marion based her script on Hull’s own sexual, Sons of the Sheik, but combined the twin sons into one character. This time around, Ahmed falls in love with dancing girl Vilma Banky, who is the daughter of a bandit. Later, when Ahmed thinks she's betrayed him, he prepares to have his way with her, but is stopped in the nick of time by his father. This leads to much swashbuckling, with father and son teaming up to take on the thieves. Valentino had high hopes that the film might jump start his career, but one month after a smash opening, there actor died at the age of 31from peritonitis. Truth told, Rudy wasn’t much of an actor, unless you consider nostril-flaring to be a talent. But he was good at posing, and he did a lot of this in both films.


January 3: It’s a day with a lot of psychotronic films. We especially recommend The Giant Behemoth (9:30 am), Godzilla (11:00 am), The Boy With Green Hair (8:00 pm), and Eraserhead(1;45 am).

January 5: Secrets of the French Police (9:45 am) is a forgotten gem released by RKO in 1932. Inspector St. Cyr (Frank Morgan) is, charged with locating a beautiful Paris flower peddler (Gwili Andre) whose Russian heritage has madman General Hans Moloff (Gregory Ratoff) passing her off as “the last of the Romanovs” so he can grab a fortune secured in trust for the lost Anastasia in a London bank. It’s directed with an eye for the freakish by A. Edward Sutherland, who also directed the grotesque Murders in the Zoo that same year.

The TCM Spotlight on Survival Movies is running The Naked PreyDeliveranceThe Most Dangerous Game,  and Run for the Sun in that order, beginning at 8:00 pm.

January 6: A double feature of gymnastic fighting films begins at 2:00 am with the “spoof,” Never Too Young to Die.  The film stars John Stamos as Lance Stargrove, a high school gymnast whose James Bond-ish secret agent father (George Lazenby) is killed. What’s a boy to do? Team up with dad’s gorgeous female partner, Danja (Vanity), and go after the bad guys, that’s what. The bad guys are led by Velvet Von Ragner (Gene Simmons), a hermaphrodite terrorist who wants to poison L.A.’s water supply. When not busy being a terrorist, Ragnar performs a punk-burlesque act in a nightclub called the Incinerator, whose audience consists mainly of androgynous glam metal bikers. When Ragner captures Danja, it’s up to Stamos to rescue her. 

While Never Too Young to Die is ridiculous, it’s much better than the film that follows at 4:15 am. For sheer ineptness of plot, direction and acting, you can’t beat 1985’s Gymkata, starring Olympic gymnast Kurt Thomas as a champion gymnast (What Else?) who must travel to the mythical country of Parmistan to compete in a traditional and brutal game called Game. He must also win if America is to be granted a Star Wars type early detection base there. Yes, it’s as bad as it sounds: with a ridiculous plot, terribly bad acting, and fight scenes that combine martial arts with Kurt's talents as a gymnast. By a strange coincidence, this new fighting method is called Gymkata. By the way, TCM seems to have this on a constant play list, cropping up every few months. Give it a rest, people; there must be something else worthwhile out there in the celluloid wilderness. 

January 8: A night devoted to movies based on true crime begins at 8:00 pm with In Cold Blood, followed by 10 Rillington PlaceThe Honeymoon Killers, and Dog Day Afternoon, with the classic The Phenix City Story closing out the night at 4:45 am.

January 12: The TCM Spotlight on Survival movies continues. We recommend Inferno (1953), with Robert Ryan and Rhonda Fleming, at 10:00 pm, and Luis Bunuel’s magnificent 1954 Adventures of Robinson Crusoe at 11:45 pm. 

January 13: Blaxploitation is on the menu tonight beginning at 2:00 am with Max Julien as a pimp up against two corrupt cops out to take him down in The Mack, from 1973. Following at 4:00 am is Ron O’Neal in Superfly, from 1972.

January 15: Another blaxploitation double feature begins at Midnight with Robert Hooks, Paul Winfield and Ralph Waite in Trouble Man, from 1972. Known among his peers as Mr. T, Hooks is a private eye who will take any case if you meet his price and are on the level. He’s up against two miscreants named Chalky Price (Winfield) and his partners, Pete Cockerel (Waite), who want to frame him for murder. It’s a typical action flick, nothing more, but it’s good entertainment for late night.    

At 2:00 am comes the one that popularized the genre, the venerable Shaft (1971) from director Gordon Parks and starring Richard Roundtree as the private eye hired by Harlem underworld boss Moses Gunn to find and retrieve his kidnapped daughter. Along the way he finds time to beat up tough guys and impress the women, who serve only as props to Shaft’s masculinity. It’s all performed to the driving beat of Isaac Hayes’s memorable score. 


January 2: Sit back and laugh as you try to take Clark Gable seriously in Parnell (1937) at 9:45 am.

Friday, December 29, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for January 1-7

January 1–January 7


A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (January 3, 9:30 pm): The first of the brilliant "Spaghetti Westerns" trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood as "The Man With No Name" (an undertaker calls him Joe, but his real name is never revealed) and directed by Sergio Leone, is a rip-off of Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo (also a great movie). What a great rip-off! Eastwood is a stranger who also happens to be an excellent gunslinger who comes to a small Mexican town that's in the middle of a long and bloody feud between the Rojo brothers and the Baxter family. Eastwood's character sees an opportunity for money – as he does in the two other Leone's Westerns in which he stars – by "working" as a gun-for-hire for both. The 1964 film is funny, clever, action-packed and tells a great story. Eastwood's character shows his soft side, a rarity in the trilogy, when he reunites a family forced to separate by the Rojos. Every gunfight scene is outstanding, but the final shoot-out in which Eastwood taunts Ramon Rojo to aim for his heart, he's wearing a steel-plated chest-protector, is legendary. This film changed the face of Westerns, proving a blood-and-guts hard-hitting style could be great.

THE MOST DANGEROUS GAME (January 5, 12:00 am): This is a fast-moving 63-minute movie that has famous big-game hunter and writer Bob Rainsford (Joel McCrea) on the other end of the hunt. He is the lone survivor of a yacht that wrecks – we later find out it's not the first and it's no accident – and blows up in a pretty good bit of special effects for a 1932 film. Rainsford swims ashore to a small island owned by Russian expatriate Count Zaroff (played deliciously evil by Leslie Banks), who lives there with a few henchmen and a pack of hunting dogs. Zaroff recognizes Rainsford and it turns out the latter is also a big game hunter hunting the biggest game of all – man. He wants Rainsford to join him, but Rainsford is outraged and refuses. So the would-be hunter becomes the hunted. He and Fay Wray are sent to the jungle to see if they can survive what Zaroff calls "outdoor chess." The action during the hunting part of the movie, filmed at night on the King Kong set, is nonstop and a lot of fun to watch.


THE BANK DICK (Jan. 2, 10:45 pm): W.C. Fields was never funnier than in this film about a no-account who is given a job as a bank guard after he unwittingly foils a robbery. His daughter’s nitwit fiancé works there and Fields soon gets him involved in using the bank’s money to finance a stock scheme that looks as if it will go bust, so they must distract the bank examiner (a wonderfully fussy Franklin Pangborn) until the money can be returned. It all results is a crazy and hilarious car chase when the bank is robbed again.

GOJIRA (Jan. 3, 11:00 am): This is not your father’s Godzilla, with Raymond Burr inserted for American audiences. No, this the original, inspired by a tragic accident that took place when America exploded the first H-Bomb in the Marshall Islands, which used to belong to Japan until World War II. A nearby fishing boat, thought to be out of range of the fallout, got caught and the crew died horribly. That was eight months before this film went into production. Godzilla is a metaphor not only for The Bomb, but for America. In other words, Godzilla R Us. Forget about the American version of the film, which at times didn’t appear to make sense amid all the cuts. This version makes perfect sense and it’s meaning is clear. It’s also a very frightening and serious film, in contrast to the ever increasing silliness of its sequels (except for the first, Gigantis the Fire Monster). It’s a picture that deserves to be seen.

WE DISAGREE ON ... LOGAN'S RUN (January 3, 3:30 am)

ED: C. As with most movies set in the future, Logan’s Run is a child of its times. Made in 1976, we see that the year 2274 pretty much resembles 1976, except everyone lives in a shopping mall and dresses as if going to the disco. Survivors of some sort of holocaust live in a domed city. To control the population the computers that run the city have mandated that anyone over 30 is to be liquidated. The policy is enforced by policemen called “Sandmen.” Of course, Michael York, one of the “Sandmen,” begins to question the policy and becomes a rebel himself. Please, this is a hackneyed plot to begin with, and the “special affects” do nothing to enhance the goings-on. For one, the domed city looks as if it were made for a bad Japanese monster movie – note the miniatures. On the other hand, the cheesy fire-guns used by the sandmen look like something out of a bad Italian sci-fi movie. Speaking of, the special effects in this film are, to put it mildly, atrocious. You can see the strings, for God’s sake. And check out Box the robot. Does it get any worse – or sillier? Truly cringe inducing. As for the acting, Michael York, normally a good actor, is difficult to differentiate from the tress he walks among. Jenny Agutter looks great in those short-short negligees, but she seems to be reading her lines from cue cards. Peter Ustinov has nothing better to do than ham it up and mumble his way through. And Farrah Fawcett-Majors? Well, the less said the better. The duel to the death between York and fellow Sandman Richard Jordan only serves to remind Darth and Obi-Wan that they had nothing to worry about as per competition. And speaking of, can you believe that Star Wars was only a year away? It seems as if it were light years away. I think that in giving this mess a “C” I was being far too generous.

DAVID: B+. I'm a huge fan of early and mid-1970s futuristic dystopian films such as this, Soylent GreenOmega Man and Rollerball. As an aside, the three films I named were subjects of previous We Disagrees with me liking them and Ed not being much of a fan of any. In Logan's Run, it's the year 2274 and some sort of apocalypse has occurred leaving people to live in a domed society with everything they do handled by a super-computer. That leaves them a lot of time for wine, women (or men, though futuristic sex is a little strange) and song. Most everyone is very happy leading a hedonistic life. Among those not thrilled are people approaching and then reaching the age of 30. That's because there's one catch to this society: once you get to be 30, you go through a ritualistic death in a place called "Carousel." It is there where the birthday boys and girls are incinerated and supposedly renewed elsewhere while spectators cheer with each death. Logan 5 (Michael York) is a "Sandman," a cop who hunts down "Runners," those who want to live past 30 and attempt to run for their lives. After killing a Runner, Logan discovers a curious-looking pendant worn by him. Logan takes it to society's computer, which tells him what it is and that he must find a supposed "Sanctuary," where the successful Runners are and destroy it. To make sure Logan does what he's told, the computer adds four years to his life, thus making him 30 and someone with a vested interest in keeping society in order because he's now a Runner. The plot is compelling, and while some of the special effects look straight out of 1976, they were good enough to receive a "Special Achievement" Academy Award for visual effects. It was also nominated for two Oscars – Best Cinematography and Best Art Direction-Set Decoration, and six Saturn Awards (given by the Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror films – you know, people who love sci-fi), including one for Best Science Fiction Film. The acting is fine though certainly not great. However, Peter Ustinov is exceptional as an old man living outside the dome. He is the first person anyone from inside the dome sees who is old. The scene in which the dome is destroyed by the computer, after it essentially self-destructs, and those who escape that society see, touch and marvel at Ustinov's character as he is old with wrinkles has a beauty to it. There's a morality tale in this film, but I'm not going to argue it's a classic or even a highly-sophisticated film. What is it? It's an enjoyable and fun science-fiction film with a lot of action and women in very mini miniskirts. 

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

Thursday, December 28, 2017


Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Ferdinand (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Carlos Saldanha. Writers: Robert L. Baird, Brad Copeland & Tim Federle (s/p). Ron Burch, David Kidd & Don Rhymer (story). Robert Lawson & Munro Leaf (book). Stars: John Cena, Kate McKinnon, Bobby Cannavale, Raúl Esparza, Jeremy Sisto, Colin H. Murphy, Jerrod Carmichael, Julia Scarpa Saldanha, Rafael Scarpa Saldanha, David Tennant, Carlos Saldanha, Lily Day, Jack Gore, Jet Jurgensmeyer, Nile Diaz, Miguel Angel Silvestre, Gina Rodriguez, Gabriel Iglesias, Daveed Diggs, Luis Carlos de La Lombana & Juanes. Color, Animated, Rated PG, 106 minutes.

The bull never wins!” 

So says Ferdinand (Cena) after his inadvertent tour of the Casa del Toro becomes a slogan for escape to freedom for his fellow bulls in this elaboration of a classic tale told by Disney in an Academy Award-winning short back in 1938.

A simple child’s story becomes an allegory on the futility of war as four bull calves – Valiente (Gore), Bones (Diaz), Guapo (Jurgensmeyer), and Ferdinand (Murphy) –interact at a farm in Spain breeding bulls for the matadors in Madrid. Their fathers have taught them that to bring down a matador is a glorious battle and to be chosen for the ring is the greatest thing for which a bull could hope. But Ferdinand cares more for the single flower growing in their pen than butting heads with the others.

One day, Ferdinand’s father, Raf (Sisto) is chosen over Valiente’s father (Cannavale) for the big fight. When he doesn’t come back Ferdinand realizes there is something’s wrong and manages to escape. After a chase and a desperate leap onto a freight train, the exhausted young calf awakes to find himself in a remote barn in as florist farm owned by Juan (Juanes) and his daughter Nina (Saldanha), along with their faithful sheepdog Paco (Carmichael). Nina and Ferdinand become fast friends and, even though he grows to enormous size, he’s a family member.

The family always goes to the annual Flower Fiesta until Ferdinand grows so huge that Juan decides he must stay home because “others will not see him as we do.” But Ferdinand goes anyway. When he’s stung by a bee he trashes the town square in his frenzy and is grabbed by Animal Control workers who take him to the Casa del Toro. There he meets a goofy “calming goat” named Lupe (McKinnon) and all of the bulls he knew before, now adults. Also in the pen are a Scottish bull, Angus (Tennant), whose long forelocks completely hamper his sight and Maquina, a silent, almost robotic bull.

All of his mates are eager to be in the ring, which beats being sent to the slaughter house up the hill. Ferdinand still does not want to fight and decides that escape once again is the only choice. However, he’s not a calf anymore, plus there are three Austrian Lipizzaner stallions in adjoining pen who not only look down on the “smelly bulls,” but will loudly announce any attempt at escape.

Enter three hedgehogs who try to steal food from Ferdinand and Lupe’s stall. Una (Rodriguez), Dos (Diggs), and Cuatro (Iglesias). When Ferdinand asked what happened to Tres, the others tell him, “We do not speak of Tres,” while crossing themselves. Ferdinand befriends the trio and together they work out an escape plan.

Meanwhile, Moreno (Raul Esparza), owner of Casa del Toro is being visited by matador El Primero (Miguel Angel Silvestre), who is planning his last bullfight. He wants “The best bull to fight, the best!” 

The escape plan works for all but Ferdinand and after a hilarious chase which is televised and seen by Nina and Juan, Ferdinand winds up in the bull ring.

The last time I saw a story stretched out this far was Where the Wild Things Are (2009), an extremely short book that became a one hour and 41 minute movie. In this case, an eight-minute short has evolved into a one hour and 46 minute movie. But I was entertained from start to finish. The animation was excellent, and however bizarre it got, it was fun. The humor was mixed for kids and adults, a lot of sight gags, some satire and puns and plays on words, e.g., “Where do you think the word ‘Bully’ comes from?”

But the big thing is that the film is as near to an anti-war fable as can be. The matador wants the battle so that he can retire in “glory” and the bulls want to fight the matador for the same reason. One last word: be sure to stay through the credits to see the shock on Una, Dos and Cuatro’s faces when Tres appears.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.
5 West 21st Street, New York

I had the pleasure of dining here before, when it was Kat and Theo’s. Only two months ago it was reincarnated as Merakia, a Greek word that expresses the joy of living. I discovered that the recipes of the past are still being served, along with new ones (some new just for Americans, traditional for Greeks).

Lit up like a Broadway marquee, one can’t miss Merakia, even though the name is in simple script in white letters on a gray awning. Once seated, I was greeted by my server, Eirini. I ordered a Rolls Royce Cocktail to start – gin, dry vermouth, orange bitters and Benedictine. It was an appealing apple red with a four inch slice of orange peel straddling the lip of the glass. It had a martini-meets-Manhattan sort of flavor; a great start to a meal with many flavors.

Eirini suggested a special dish that Greeks usually make for the Easter season. She described it as using the lamb offal as well as the meat. It sounded great, though I wondered why they were making it for Christmas, and I agreed to try it. She smiled and went to put in the order. but returned shortly to tell me they were temporarily out of the dish. Figuring it must have been popular (or they didn’t make too many because it was so unusual), I adjusted my order.

The wine choice was easy, as I always accompany a Greek meal with a Greek wine. In this case it was the 2010 Lagara Red “V” from Vourvoukelis Vineyards, Thrace. It’s woody, oak-like nose, deep ruby color and tannic, fruity flavor was a joy with all my courses.

I ordered two appetizers. First up was Katerina’s Keftedes – pan-seared Angus meatballs on a bed of ouzo-infused tzatziki (yoghurt and cucumber sauce). It’s a recipe belonging to the famous “Kat” of Kat and Theo. The juicy, tender meatballs were lined up on a narrow plate with a stewed plum tomato. The flavors of yoghurt, olive oil and vinegar added a Greek tang to the beef and the touch of Ouzo made it ambrosia.

One of my favorite Greek appetizers is Saganaki – fried feta cheese flamed in ouzo. Think of it as pasta, al dente and sweet, only a little salty and with that licorice flavor of Ouzo. Delightful.

Eirini brought out my main course, Mountainthief Kleftiko — slow-cooked lamb stew with two cheeses presented in Karveli (a sourdough bread) — with the restaurant owner right behind her to tell me it was gratis. Wonderful. If you’ve ever had Beef Wellington or Head Cheese and liked them, then you’re ready for this dish. It combined the lean dark meat of the lamb with the liver and other organs to create a decadent diet-killer that tasted both sweet and tart, savory and rich. My own little loaf of a sour-dough-like bread, crusty on the outside, soft on the inside was filled with juicy, tender lamb pieces, peppers and onions and cheese. I wanted to finish it all and did manage to finish the stew, but only the top piece of the bread. I loved it but told the owner that most Americans are not ready for it.

My side dish was Horta, a Greek word meaning greens. It consisted of steamed rustic dandelion greens, Swiss chard, olive oil and lemon. Eirini told me that the dandelion greens were imported from Greece when I wondered where they got them in a New York winter. I rated it as better than spinach: a little tangier, more “green.”

Knowing how well they made the Saganaki I couldn’t resist having my favorite Greek dessert, Galaktoboureko, custard wrapped in crispy phyllo dough with chocolate bits. Chocolate bits aren’t usually contained in a traditional Galaktoboureko, (usually just honey and maybe a touch of rose water) and were a nice addition. Though they didn’t have Greek coffee, I was happy as it was. On my way out I had a spirited conversation with the owner and the manager and was dubbed an official Greek for the evening. I paid the bill and thanked Eirini for her wonderful service and started home feeling very content.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, December 26, 2017

The Giant Behemoth

The Psychotronic Zone

By Ed Garea

The Giant Behemoth (Allied Artists, 1959) – Directors: Eugene Lourie & Douglas Hickox. Writers: Eugene Lourie & Daniel James (s/p). Robert Abel & Allen Adler (story). Stars: Gene Evans, Andre Morrell, John Turner, Leigh Madison, Jack MacGowran, Maurice Kaufmann, Henri Vidon, Leonard Sachs, Lloyd Lamble & Alastair Hunter. Black & White,  80 minutes.

And the Lord said: ‘Behold, now, the behemoth!’”

This monster on the loose in this London tale is an entertaining slice of sci-fi. Directed by Eugene Lourie, who co-wrote the script with Daniel James, it is intelligently plotted and well-written, avoiding the corn of lesser productions, with excellent performances from the cast. The only problem lies with the special effects, as there wasn’t enough money in the budget to cover them. This lack of funds affects both the way we see the monster and how it operates.

We open in London at a scientific symposium on atomic weaponry where American marine biologist Steve Karnes (Evans) is warning his colleagues that particles from the many atomic tests have contaminated the oceans and the consequence of this contains the potential for disaster.

The film now cuts to Cornwall, where fisherman Tom Trevethan (Vidon) and his daughter Jean (Madison) are unloading the day’s catch in a nearby cove. When Tom does not come home for dinner Jean goes to the local pub, thinking that was his destination. Fellow fisherman John (Turner) offers to help Jean search for her father, and they return to the cove, where they find Tom lying on the beach covered with burns. His last words to the couple are “From the sea … burning like fire.” When they ask what, he answers, “Behemoth!” before expiring.     

After the funeral, John seeks to comfort Jean and as the couple walk by the cove, they are startled to come upon thousands of dead fish strewn along the beach. Spotting a strange white pulsating mound wedged behind a rock, John reaches to touch it, but when he does he is severely burned.

Back in London a few days later, Steve has made plans to fly back to the States when he catches a news report that has ceased in Cornwall after the discovery of the mound of dead fish. Alarmed, Steve cancels his return trip home and contacts physicist Professor James Bickford (Morrell). Bickford confirms the story and gives Steve the details of Tom's death as well as an additional reported sighting of a sea monster. He invites Steve to accompany him to Cornwall to investigate, where they speak to the local fishermen who are now out of work.

After one fisherman tells them of witnessing a glowing light over the water, John takes them to the local doctor who examined Tom's body. The doctor describes Tom’s unusual burns and admits he did not feel it necessary to conduct a post mortem. Changing the dressing on Tom’s hand, Bickford and Karnes note that the burns are like those caused by radiation. 

Later, John takes the men down to the cove, where the men discover most of the dead fish have been washed out to sea, or burned by the townspeople. Karnes is further puzzled by the absence of radiation readings in the area, but requests samples of fish from all along the British coast. Back in London, he conducts tests on the fish and is surprised when one particular specimen contains a glowing, white object inside it. He also discovers that the fish is thoroughly contaminated by radiation.

Bickford is skeptical, noting that the fish was picked up off the Essex coast, miles away from Cornwall, and doubts that it is related to Tom's death. Karnes insists on investigating further, and with Bickford's assistance, he hires a boat to patrol the waters off Essex. A thorough search finds no indication of radiation, but as Karnes and the boat’s captain begin to return to port, the Geiger detector suddenly reacts and through the fog Steve sees the monster rise up and go back into the water. They try pursuing it, but it moves with astonishing speed and soon loses the pursuing boat.     

Karnes is summoned to port by Bickford, who accompanies him to the remains of an ocean liner on an Essex beach. Examining the wreck, Karnes concurs the ship has suffered extreme radiation damage, but he and Bickford are puzzled by the complete absence of survivors.     

In London, Bickford and Karnes meet with Royal Navy Admiral Summers (Lamble) to discuss the destruction of the ocean liner. Karnes reveals that the white mass found on the contaminated fish has been identified as the stomach lining of an unidentified sea creature and suggests it could be this creature that is responsible for the ship's destruction. When Bickford agrees, the admiral orders that all international navies be placed on alert.

While resting at Bickford’s house, they are interrupted by a constable who hands them a report about the destruction of an entire farming village on the coast. Included with the report is a photo of a giant footprint. To determine what sort of creature would leave a footprint like that, they take the photo to Dr. Sampson (MacGowran), Britain’s most esteemed paleontologist. At first Sampson thinks the footprint is a recent fossil find, but after Karnes and Bickford inform that the creature is very much alive, he identifies it as belonging to a type of prehistoric palaeosaurus. “Of course, you know it's electric,” he adds, informing them that the creature had electrical properties similar to that of the electric eel. When Sampson learns that the creature was seen on the Essex coast, he concludes it is heading toward the fresh water of the Thames River: “They always made for the freshwater rivers to die. That's where their skeletons have been found – some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows that gave them birth.” 

Excited by the possibility of coming in contact with an oversized, long-extinct creature, Sampson insists on joining the investigation. Karnes and Bickford return to Summers to explain how the creature's natural electrical capacities allow it to project the radiation that has contaminated it. With the assistance of the military, Sampson tracks the creature by helicopter, but is attacked and destroyed by the beast.     

The beast surfaces in the Thames to destroy a ferry, killing several passengers. As the army oversees the evacuation of families along the Thames, Karnes and Bickford meet with Summers to discuss the best plan of destroying the creature. They warn the admiral that should it be blown up, its radiated body parts could be strewn across the city, contaminating it. Karnes suggests that the solution could lie in speeding up the creature's own radiation poisoning. To do this they would need a torpedo armed with a warhead of pure radium. This would allow them to bury the carcass safely. 

As they discuss this plan the creature comes ashore and rampages through the city. After a couple of trips ashore, the creature stomps on the London docks, which collapse and plunge the beast back into the river.

The torpedo is loaded aboard a midget submarine, and Karnes and a crewman venture out to eliminate the creature. After a tense chase, the torpedo is successfully launched and the creature is dispatched (similar to the ending of 1955’s It Came From Beneath the Sea, although handled with far more tension and suspense). After returning to port, Karnes joins a relieved Bickford in time for the men to hear a report of several hundred dead fish washing up on the shores of America.   


The film’s initial working title was simply "The Behemoth,” and it was released in Britain as Behemoth the Sea Monster. In America it was released as The Giant Behemoth, which is a sort of misnomer, as “Giant” and “Behemoth” basically mean the same thing.     

As originally conceived it was meant to be a story about a huge amorphous blob of radiation, which was consistent with the many sci-fi films of the period that played on fears of nuclear power.

Director Eugene Lourie agreed to helm the film after the producers changed the concept of the monster from a radioactive mass to a physical creature. His previous sci-fi film, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms (1953), about a prehistoric monster turned loose from the Arctic by a nuclear blast, inspired a plethora of similar films from a giant prehistoric dinosaur (Godzilla, 1954, which itself was an attempt to cash in on the success of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms in Japan.) to giant ants (Them!, 1954) to living vampiric brains created by atomically assisted thought patterns (Fiend Without a Face, 1959). 

Unimpressed by the drafts given to him, he brought Daniel James, the writer of The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms, to work with him on writing a new script. The result was a virtual remake of The Beast, only in this case being about a prehistoric creature disturbed by the dumping of radioactive waste in the ocean. Like Godzilla, the creature is irradiated and made even more lethal.      

In later interviews Lourie said he intended the script to be simply "a pro forma document to be used only to sign the producers' contract." His expectation was that it would be changed drastically once work began in England, but there were never any rewrites. In truth he was not happy with this copy of his earlier work, although he did concede that a physical beast was much better visually than a mere radioactive mass would have been.

However, what really bothered the director Lourie was that the stop-motion animated monster model effects were poorly executed. The effects, created in a Los Angeles studio and later integrated with the British live-action footage shot in England (including London). The animation was under the supervision of master technician Willis O'Brien, most famous for perfecting the technique on King Kong (1933). O'Brien's assistant Pete Peterson did most of the hands-on task, a remarkable feat considering he was suffering from multiple sclerosis at the time.

To Lourie’s dismay, O'Brien wasn't allowed to oversee all the effects work. Instead, the producers contracted out much of the effects work, leaving O'Brien and Lourie with little or no control over the result. Because of these budget shortcuts, the monster is left without facial expressions; becoming sort of a puppet. In the scene where the monster tips over the ferry, the board on which the head of the monster has been screwed can be briefly glimpsed, and a scene of the creature stomping on a car is repeated twice. In addition, sound bites from King Kong were placed in the film. The creature’s roar is lifted from a brontosaurus’ roar in Kong, and screams from the movie are transplanted to scenes where the creature attacks the ferry and when it invades London. 

However, it must be noted that the appearance of the monster in this science fiction film is disappointing, for we have built the creature up in our imagination and it always falls far short of what we anticipate.

As mentioned earlier, the strength of The Giant Behemoth is its script and its characterizations. Right from the beginning the script builds a strong element of tension and danger, with the first half of the film devoted to the science behind the monster as Karnes and Bickford investigate the tragedies in Cornwall and search for further evidence.

I must admit that it’s very nice – and surprising – to see a ‘50s science fiction movie where the scientists actually practice science. Most other films of the era feature their scientists as either background figures or as a combination of scientist and adventurer. When Karnes and Bickford begin their investigation in Cornwall, they proceed in exactly the manner one would expect of a real marine biologist. They collect witness testimony from witnesses, examine the scene of the event, take water samples and arrange to have specimens from the area sent to their laboratory.     

The tests that Karnes and his associates conduct on the specimens stand out for their authenticity in detecting what sort of phenomena they are seeking. When the hunt takes Karnes and Bickford outside their areas of expertise, they turn to experts in the relevant fields, such as when they bring the photo of the footprint to Dr. Sampson, and when Sampson first sees the photograph of the monster’s footprint, his first reaction is that these are newly discovered fossils. He is stunned when Karnes and Bickford inform him that the prints come from a living animal. This is something we can easily visualize happening in real life. This is not something I would expect from a low-budget science fiction film. The only other ‘50s science fiction film that comes close is Them!, but the details of the science here goes beyond that film.

The movie’s attitude toward science is even extended to the monster. Palaeosaurus was a real animal, and further, its fossils were first found near Bristol, England, which makes it a very British monster. The notion of making it electric is something from the imagination of the writers, for there is no evidence that palaeosaurus possessed this feature. However, the use of its electric discharge for either defense or as a navigational aid in the water, is exactly what happens with real animals.     

Besides the emphasis on science, another element of this movie that I especially like is the complete absence of any sort of romance. Watching the scenes in Cornwall, it might seem that Jean Trevethan and her boyfriend John are going to be the movie’s love interest (or that Jean might fall in love with Steve Karnes later in the movie), especially in the scene where the burns on John’s hand are examined by Karnes and Bickford and Bickford tells the doctor to send John to London for further examination. Instead, both Jean and John disappear from the film right after the scenes in Cornwall. In other low-budget films of this genre the love interest is usually another scientist or a character the hero scientist meets early on in the film. But looking at the narrative objectively, there is no reason for a fisherman’s daughter and her boyfriend to become a part of the quest to find the creature, even if she did lose her father to the beast. The decision to forgo any romance only strengthens the film, as it takes away much of the corn that accompanies such a romance.

The film has a marvelous score, written by Edwin Astley, whose daughter Karen was married to musician Pete Townshend of The Who from 1968 to 2000. His most memorable score is the distinctive theme music for the British TV series The Saint.

In the final analysis, The Giant Behemoth is an entertaining film handicapped by the cheapness of its special effects. Its recycles elements of plot from earlier films, most notably Lourie’s own The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms. (For instance, the dispatch of the monster from a radioactive torpedo, is virtually lifted from Lourie’s earlier film.) But the movie gets most of what it recycles far more right than a great many of its contemporaries, and his emphasis on the science of chasing the creature sets it apart from a many of its contemporaries. And this is not only what makes it an interesting 80 minutes, but also a movie to catch, a great popcorn movie. 


Due of the blacklist, James was credited as Daniel Hyatt, which was a pseudonym he used when he was not foregoing credit altogether. He wrote only one more screenplay after this for yet another Lourie monster picture, Gorgo (1961). The Writers Guild of America restored James’ credit on The Giant Behemoth in 1998.     

Although U.S. prints did not list him in the credits, Douglas Hickox was credited as co-director with Lourie in the UK release. Hickox made his directorial debut with this film after several years of second-unit work. He went on to direct Theater of Blood (1973), the John Wayne London-based police drama Brannigan (1975), and Zulu Dawn (1979), among others.

For Willis O’Brien, this was the end off the road. Except for short bits in the climax of It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, this was the last time that his designs and animation would be seen by the public. He worked on one more monster movie, Irwin Allen’s remake of The Lost World. Creating and working on stop-motion dinosaurs in a remake of the 1925 silent film that shot him to fame and lead to his most famous creation, King Kong, was the project he was hoping would be the capper to his distinguished career. However, in an effort to compensate for the bloated and over-budgeted Cleopatra, 20th Century Fox slashed the budget of numerous other films, including The Lost World, which led Allen to substitute lizards with fins for the work O’Brien had sketched for the production.


There are a few Beatles connections in this movie. Jessie Robbins, who played Aunt Jessie in Magical Mystery Tour, is in a queue at a tea and coffee truck while the radio reports about the monster are airing. Norm Rossington, who played Norm in A Hard Day's Night, is one of the men killed trying to steal a car when the Beast picks it up and tosses it into the Thames. And in the scenes showing a deserted London, on one of the streets is the block of flats the Beatles live in at the start of Help.

Quotable Quotes

Dr. Sampson: Oh, it's heading for the Thames. They always made for the freshwater rivers to die. That's where their skeletons have been found – some irresistible instinct to die in the shallows that gave them birth. You know, all my life I hoped this would happen. Ever since childhood I expected it. I knew these creatures were alive somewhere, but I had no proof, scientific proof, and I had to keep it to myself, or my colleagues would have all laughed at me. See, no form of life ceases abruptly, and all those reports of sea serpents – well, what can they be?...The tall, graceful neck of palaeosaurus. He can stay underneath the surface for an age, and now he comes to the top.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Shape of Water

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Shape of Water (20th Century Fox, 2017) – Director: Guillermo del Toro. Writers: Guillermo del Toro, Vanessa Taylor (s/p). Guillermo del Toro (story). Stars: Sally Hawkins, Michael Shannon, Octavia Spencer, Richard Jenkins, Michael Stuhlbarg, Doug Jones, David Hewlett, Nick Searcy, Stewart Arnott, Nigel Bennett, Lauren Lee Smith, Martin Roach, Allegra Fulton, John Kapalos & Morgan Kelly. Color, Rated R, 123 minutes.

It’s difficult to say if Guillermo del Toro is preaching to us or trying to make us laugh but his new fantasy does both in this retelling of Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954) with echoes of Beauty and the Beast and a hearty guffaw at La La Land (2016).

It’s 1962 and we meet Elisa Esposito (Hawkins), a rather plain-looking, mute girl who works at government nautical research center as a cleaning lady with her best friend Zelda Fuller (Spencer), who is her intermediary with the speaking world. Zelda more than makes up for the vocalizations Elisa cannot manage.

Elisa lives in an apartment over the Orpheum movie theater with her next door neighbor Giles (Jenkins), an accomplished artist who is being phased out by photography. Aside from Giles and Zelda, Elisa’s life is lonely and her job thankless.

Then one day, Fleming (Hewlett), the director of the research facility, announces a new and exciting addition to the center’s assets, and a huge tubular tank is rolled in similar to an iron lung filled with water and equipped with windows. Elisa is instantly drawn to the container and the loud banging and growling sounds of whatever is inside.

Enter Richard Strickland (Shannon), who captured the Amphibian Man (Jones) in the Amazon (same locale as the 1954 movie) and who is not on the best terms with it. His attitude is militarily insensitive toward it and carries a cattle prod to “keep it tame.” His character may look like a Tommy Lee Jones type but he spouts religious epithets and gives equal time to racial slurs like an Archie Bunker.

Strickland is under orders from General Hoyt (Searcy) to capture, kill, dissect and learn from the creature how it can breathe both in water and in air. The goal is to adapt a man to space travel. The space race has already begun; Yuri Gargarin has already accomplished his mission (1962).

Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Stuhlbarg) is horrified that the government wants to kill the beast and argues to keep it alive and study it. He’s overruled. But he’s also a mole for the Russians (his real name is Dmitri) who want the creature destroyed.

As you might surmise, the plot is bizarre and crazy to begin with and the characters exaggerated. But it get more outrageous. Elisa sneaks into the lab where the creature is kept and makes friends with it, using hard-boiled eggs. Eventually, she teaches it some American Sign Language and (surprise!) falls in love with it. She sees Strickland’s cruelty and the creature’s loneliness and learns of the plan to kill it, so she hatches her own plan. She and Giles, Zelda and Dr. Hoffstetler join up to free the creature from the facility and smuggle it to her apartment, where she has a bathtub ready filled with salt water. Also, my mind was hearkening back to the movie Splash (1984) where a man brought a mermaid into a similar living condition.

Definitely del Toro, and it get even more surreal. Elisa plans to release the creature to the ocean when the rains fill the nearest canal and the gates are opened. This is before she falls in love with it and floods her bathroom so that they can have an intimate moment and Giles loses one of his cats to a hungry Amphibian man.

You’ll Never Know” is sung by Vera Lynn on a television show Giles is watching with admiration and it soon becomes the theme for the oddly matched, interspecies couple. Elisa has a dream sequence where she can sing the song and dance with him in an elaborate Hollywood musical. Again, very del Toro.

The story is told with humor but is neither a tragedy nor a comedy. Elements of both exist. It’s entertaining and the underwater scenes are exquisitely done. Sally Hawkins does a superb acting job and Octavia Spencer proves that she can play God and a cleaning woman equally well. Michael Shannon plays a convincingly hateful villain, the kind you hope “gets it in the end.” The Shape of Water is an arty, sexy, adult fantasy that used today’s technology to improve on a classic horror film.

Rating: 4 out of 5 martini glasses.

Freud NYC
506 LaGuardia Place, New York

Named for Sigmund Freud, this contemporary Austrian restaurant surprised me with the quality of its food. Inside, it’s all bare-topped tables, open brick walls and a shiny burnished copper-colored ceiling reflecting the brick red tiled floor. Two autumnal floral displays were the most ostentatious part of the décor, otherwise it was quite simple.   

I was brought a single piece of dense, homemade bread on a slab of slate and a dish of green olive oil with pepperoncini sprinkled into it. After consulting with my server I learned that some of the “shared” dishes were too large, so I adjusted my selection accordingly. I started with a bowl of cauliflower soup. It was an appealing café-au-lait color and had the most amazing flavor. In contained pureed cauliflower with in bacon highlights and a herbal mixture blended into the cream. A startlingly lovely first course, with the slightly salty deep fried cauliflower bits garnishing it adding to the experience.

Next were six oysters on the half shell with apple balsamic mignonette. The oysters themselves were wonderful, not too briny and the mignonette accented the flavor nicely, but the green garnish however, added nothing positive to the dish. In fact, they detracted, were too assertive, and I removed them from the oysters following the first one.

Austrian cuisine is almost as noted for its richness as is French cuisine and the main course provided a perfect example. The roast duck was cooked perfectly, with a nice blush color to the slices. It was accompanied by pumpkin custard, green string beans, savory whipped cream and pecans. The pumpkin custard was outrageous – devilishly sweet and tempting. It had competition, though. A side dish of Brussels sprouts with curry mustard vinaigrette was like vegetable candy, though the sweet onion crisps sprinkled over the top gilded the lily.

The wine list was small and simple. I found a lovely 2014 Rufete, a Spanish/Portuguese wine from the Douro region. Its assertive nose and dark ruby color were as attractive as its tart tannic taste and fruity finish. It balanced the sweetness of my meal nicely.

For dessert, the Austrian Style Chocolate Soufflé, with apricots, candied grapes, and nuts was not like any soufflé I’ve had before. It was more of a light, fluffy cake surrounded by the sweet fruits and crunchy nuts. I followed my usual double espresso with an elegant thistle glass of Schladerer Williams Birne Pear Brandy from Austria. A very pleasant finish to an exciting meal.

When I was about to leave, I was presented with not one, but three business cards. The sister restaurants are Shilling (downtown near my office) and Edi and The Wolf in Alphabet City on Avenue C only presented a small challenge. I’ve already dined at Shilling. Now to try Edi and The Wolf.

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