Thursday, August 31, 2017

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Nut Job 2: Nutty By Nature (Open Road Films, 2017) – Director: Cal Brunker. Writers: Bob Barlen, Scott Bindley (s/p), Cal Brunker (s/p & story), Daniel Woo (story), Peter Lepeniotis (story & characters). Stars: Will Arnett, Katherine Heigl, Maya Rudolph, Jackie Chan, Isabela Moner, Peter Stormare, Bobby Cannavale, Bobby Moynihan, Jeff Dunham, Gabriel Iglesias, Sebastian Maniscalco, Tom Kenny, Karl Wahlgren, Rob Tinkler & Julie Lemieux. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 91 minutes.

When I saw The Nut Job back in 2014 I was totally drawn in by the animation, the characters and the writing. This sequel was a must-see for me from the first trailer viewing. I still love the characters, I laughed often and I think I learned something from the animators.

Look closely at this film, and you’ll notice that the animals are all soft and furry (even the mole) and close-ups show every detail, every hair on the squirrels’ tails. That’s superior computer graphics and it makes them more lovable as the victims in the story. The people, on the other hand are hard, less detailed and stiffer drawn. They’re the aggressors.

This sequel starts where the first movie left off. Surly Squirrel (Arnett) and his woodland friends: Mole (Dunham), groundhogs Jimmy (Iglesias), Johnny (Maniscalco) and Jamie (Wahlgren); his best friend Buddy (Kenny) a blue rat, fatalistic mouse Redline (Tinkler), Daredevil Chipmunk and pug Precious (Rudolph) are all living high on the hog in the abandoned Nut Shop on the immense stock of nuts in the basement.

Andie Squirrel (Heigl) is busy trying to teach the remaining chipmunks how to forage naturally. She wants Surly to come back to the park and use his instincts and even turns down a huge Brazil nut when he proffers one to her. But Andie can get no followers. They all prefer the bounty to having to scrounge for a living. That is, until Mole forgets to shut off the boiler and the Nut Shop blows up (much like the Overlook Hotel in The Shining)Now they have to return to Oakton City’s Liberty Park, clueless about finding food. Redline now cries his repeated line, “We’re all gonna die!” This line becomes a running gag throughout the movie.

Meanwhile, Mayor Muldoon (Moynihan), who owns most of Oakton City and is making money from every sector, has his eyes on the only plot of ground not making him a profit, Liberty Park. His war with Surly and friends begins when he breaks ground for an ill-conceived, shoddily-built amusement park called Libertyland. One of the swings on the revolving ride is an office chair held up by ropes. An omen happens on opening day when the Mayor gives the cue to light the park’s name and all the bulbs fail except for the ones spelling “Lie Land.”

Surly and Andie separate to find an alternate food source and a place to live. Surly and Buddy meet Mr. Feng (Chan), an adorable white mouse and kung-fu master, in a dark alley in Chinatown. (Don’t call him “cute”!) He and his army of white mice chase Surly and Buddy out of their part of the city on the bumper of the next cab.

Andie and the groundhogs find a beautiful park across town. But the audience already knows it's a golf course owned by Mayor Muldoon. Jimmy learns this when he tries to eat a golf ball and it gets stuck in his teeth. Two crazed golfers try to “play it where it lies” from a speeding golf cart. We later learn that the park was the one the white mice inhabited before being ousted by the Mayor’s construction crews.

The park animals fight the construction any way they can, but Mayor Muldoon hires a two-faced Animal Control Officer named Gunther (Stormare). He’s all about non-cruelty to animals to the public, but in the Mayor’s presence he’s an evil sadist. He captures all but Surly and Buddy. On the other hand, the mayor’s daughter, the evil and severely spoiled Heather Muldoon (Moner) – this darling makes Veruca Salt in the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971) look like and angel – sends her Boston bull terrier Frankie (Cannavale) after them, but he falls in love with Precious. She takes them both home

What to do? Surly decides to put himself at the mercy of Mr. Feng and manages to recruit the whole army of white mice into the battle for Liberty Park.

I loved every minute and actually wish it were longer. It’s great for both children and adults. There are “gifts” sprinkled in every scene. My favorite was Mayor Muldoon’s license plate, MBEZLR (embezzler). The only mistake I noticed was that the arched entrance to Liberty Park read correctly from both sides when it should have been backwards from the inside. This isn’t Disney or Pixar, but the animation is superb. The writing is clever and the voices match the characters. It’s believable even though Surly is a purple squirrel and Buddy is a blue mouse. I’m looking for another sequel. After all, Surly finally says “I love you” to Andie and kisses her on the cheek, and they’re the only two squirrels in the park.

Rating: 4½ out of 5 Martini glasses.

District Social
252 West 37th Street, New York

From the street it looks like any other chic New York bar, open to the sidewalk, noisy with chatty drinkers at the bar and all decked out in New York black with the name in big gothic capitals in white.

Inside, there are cherry wood bar and banquettes, the black leather cushions, the dark but her-block tables set with white chargers and black cloth napkins. And then there’s the wallpaper. Two walls have dark green paper with a bird feather pattern in muted colors and a third wall has a nightmare black wallpaper festooned with pink vines and huge cabbage roses. The party room in back has an original tin ceiling polished to an almost mirror-like shine that gives the impression of dining in an icebox.

Sitting in the “feather” room, I learned from my server, Felipe, that this restaurant shares no relation with either The District (94th Street) or the restaurants of Le District (Battery Park City). There two signature cocktails and I chose the “District Chili Margarita” – Herradura Silver tequila, lime juice, grapefruit juice, agave syrup, hot red chilies and cilantro garnished with a slice of jalapeῆo. Served in a medium-sized mason jar, the fruit juices cut the spice from the chilies so much that I kept stabbing the jalapeῆo to keep it going.

Since Felipe seemed eager to take an order and, having a big cocktail, I decided the appropriate first course after a movie about nuts was the “Sweet and Salty Cashews” (listed as an “Amuse” on the food menu). The tumbler filled with crunchy, sticky nuts made me wonder if I could finish that many and still have dinner. Between sips of my drink and a couple of cashews I chose the rest of my meal.

The diverse dishes on the menu didn’t seem to go with the general “look” of the restaurant. I thought to myself, “How can all of these be good?” I decided on the “Cauliflower and Pistachio Croquettes,” with parsley emulsion as my second dish, and ordered the 2014 Pinot Noir “Seven Devils” from Carlton Cellars, Willamette Valley, Oregon as my wine.

The croquettes were amazing. There were only three on a shiny black plate, but what flavor. Usually cauliflower doesn’t have that much to say for itself, but mixed with the pistachios and the crispy outer coating it was delicious. The Pinot Noir was the color of good Burmese rubies and had an oaky, cherry fruit flavor. (Another point gained by screw-top bottling.) It was a great match with the nuts, the croquettes and my main dish.

There were three main dishes I was attracted to. When I mentioned the “Moroccan Lamb Tagine" with root vegetables and lebne (yoghurt that has been strained to form a kind of soft cheese), Felipe recommended that dish. Up until that moment I couldn’t hone in on any particular ethnic leaning for the cuisine, so I chose it.

It was a wonderful dish. The lamb was a juicy, dark brown and sweet, and the lebne floated on top of it like a cloud decked with green shallot rings. To add to the mélange of cultures I ordered the “Sautéed Yuca” with red onion and Basque peppers as my side dish. Yuca (in English, Yucca) is similar to the taste of a dry potato with the texture of celery. It needed the herbal mayonnaise dip supplied with it. A piece of pita bread sliced in quarters was served with the meal.

Several of the desserts were extremely inviting, but Felipe came to the rescue. He recommended the beignets – fluffy sweet orbs stuffed with white chocolate yuzu coulis. They were served with a dish of vanilla pastry cream but that would have been way too much. The double espresso I ordered cut the sweetness so that I could indulge freely.

Who would have known that a place with such an unassuming name as District Social would have such an array of fabulous food? 

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for September 1-7

September 1–September 7


2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (September 2, 8:00 pm): It's one of the most visually-stunning and fascinating films every made. 2001: A Space Odyssey is the story of man from pre-evolution to a trip to Jupiter, and how superior beings on that mysterious planet made it all possible. The storyline is fascinating and the ending is very much open to interpretation, which makes the film even more compelling. The interaction between astronaut David Bowman (Keir Dullea) and the HAL 9000 computer that controls the spaceship and has a mind of its own reflects how mankind has experienced gains and losses through the use of advanced technology. The cinematography, special effects and music take this film to a special level. 

ROPE (September 3, 6:15 pm): While it's not Alfred Hitchcock's best film, that's a pretty high bar and would likely be the finest of many directors. The film is a testament to Hitchcock's talent with compelling performances from James Stewart and Farley Granger. It's also innovative and creative with Hitch creating the illusion of a continuous movie through the use of long takes. It's an interesting filmmaking exercise and one worth watching for its innovative style and how getting away with the "perfect crime" isn't so easy.  


BEACH PARTY (September 1, 8:00 pm): It’s the original, with Frankie and Annette, and set the tone for the sequels that followed: Frankie and Annette arrive, they fight, they separate, they try to make each other jealous, and at the end get back together. Bob Cummings steals the picture (not there’s that much to steal) as a nerdy anthropologist studying teenage mating rituals. With Harvey Lembeck as Eric Von Zipper, inept motorcycle gang leader, and Morey Amsterdam. Dick Dale and the Deltones prove why they are the kings of surf music. Sit back, put the brain on hold, and just enjoy. 

THEM! (September 2, 4:15 pm): Not only is this the best of the “big bug” films that came out in the 1950’s, but it also has elements of a noir mystery. And if that wasn’t enough, it’s also one of the best “Red Scare” films of the period. The cast is terrific: James Whitmore, pre-Gunsmoke James Arness, veteran supporting actor Onslow Stevens, promising actress Joan Weldon, a young Fess Parker, and the great Edmund Gwenn. And look sharp for a very young Leonard Nimoy in a small role. It’s proof that when a sci-fi film is made intelligently, it’s a legitimate classic.

WE DISAGREE ON ... BABY DOLL (September 7, 6:00 am)

ED: B+. When I was a teenager I remember taking out a book on movies from the library and running across a photo of Carroll Baker from this film, curled up in a crib and sucking her thumb. Reading the description of the movie described as racy, lewd, suggestive, and morally repellent by The Legion of Decency, I knew right then and there that someday I would have to find this film and watch it. Hot stuff! And directed by Elia Kazan with a screenplay by Tennessee Williams – Wow! After years of forgetting, I finally rented it in the ‘80s. I was disappointed by how tame it was, but thinking back to when it was made, I realized just why it had outraged so many. It boasts a good cast, with Karl Malden as Baker’s witless husband, who has to wait until his child reaches the age of 20 before he can deflower her. Into the mix comes swarthy Eli Wallach at his slimiest best as Malden’s business rival, and guess who he’s after? The fireworks between Malden and Wallach still retain their punch; Tennessee Williams had few peers when it came to the underbelly of Southern life.

DAVID: C-. I admit that the subject matter of Baby Doll makes me somewhat uncomfortable. But if the film was better, I'd deal with it. Carroll Baker's Baby Doll character is 19 and about to turn 20, but she acts like a little girl, sleeping in a crib sucking her thumb. She's the virgin bride of Karl Malden, an older redneck who. after two years of marriage, is about to have sex for the first time with his wife. Along comes Eli Wallach, Malden's cotton gin rival. He tries to seduce Baby Doll to have sex with her and to exact revenge against Malden, who burned down Wallach's new gin. The film is dull, poorly written (just because the screenplay is by Tennessee Williams doesn't mean it's automatically good), highly overrated and way too long at nearly two hours in length. While Baker's performance is good, the role is ridiculous. Malden is fine, but Wallach is bad. The plot was racy for its time, 1956, with a script designed to shock. Yes, it's shocking, but that seems to be the film's only goal. It's not that entertaining or interesting. I watch movies to either be entertained or interested. That's why I rate this film as only a C-. 

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

Sunday, August 27, 2017

All is Lost

Film In Focus

By Jonathon Saia

All Is Lost (Lionsgate, 2013) – Director: J.C. Chandor. Writer: J.C. Chandor. Stars: Robert Redford. Color, Rated PG-13, 106 minutes.

Some films are easy to embrace: an intricate plot or some witty dialogue or a familiar milieu, and our participation is almost automatic. But other films, like All is Lost, seem to creep up on us from a distance like a tidal wave, enveloping us in its simple beauty before it destroys us.

The plot is incredibly simple: Man at sea. Boat is damaged. Will he survive? Think of it as a sister film to Gravity (2013). Both films' inciting incidents are the destruction of the vessel and both films boast wonderful (almost) solo performances. But in Gravity, we are put on alert, thrust to the edge of our seats in danger for 90 minutes of adrenaline; in All is Lost, our hero goes about his business patching the holes without panic. We get the feeling he has been through all of this before. In Gravity, Sandra Bullock talks through her crises; in All is Lost, Robert Redford remains stoic and silent (the film contains roughly two minutes of dialogue without even a washed up volleyball to absorb his fears). Bullock, named Ryan Stone, is given a back story with the memory of a dead daughter haunting our heroine and prompting her suicide attempt when all is (presumably) lost; Redford, named simply Our Man, is given no history at all, which makes his suicide attempt near the final moments of the film less dramatic, yet more poignant. We are not concerned for his well-being for his own sake or even for those who may grieve back on land; we are concerned for his safety because we have grown to love him and don't want him to leave us.

But the biggest difference comes in the execution of the material. Where Alfonso Cuaron wows you with Gravity's effects, its IMAX wonder, and breathtaking cinematography (including that stellar unbroken 13 minute opening shot), and yes, Bullock's performance, All is Lost has but one trick up its sleeve: Robert Redford's weathered face. 

To anchor a 100-minute silent film in a world usually populated by jet skis, speedboats, pirates, or an endless variety of explosions, a major star is not only preferable, but necessary. We need to be invested in his safety and able to project our own ideas of his history (especially when Chandor gives us nothing to go on). And Redford is the perfect choice. Of the other actors of his generation, stature, and athleticism that could have been cast, Warren Beatty would have been too sophisticated and Clint Eastwood would have been too untouchable.

We would never buy Warren as the rugged type, able to harangue a boat during two storms; and Clint would be too much of a desperado, able to stop the seas with his cock-eyed glare. But Redford, equally at home on a ranch in Utah or the Governor's Ball, projects the requisite amount of knowledge and confidence without the swag and devil-may-care pomposity that Jack Nicholson or Al Pacino would have brought to the role. We buy him as a competent sailor, but not one who sails for a living. One of the film's best touches is when Our Man needs to send up a flair to passing ships, he doesn't just rip open the package and wave them to glory; Chandor takes the time to show Redford reading the instructions on how to use them. In a film void of histrionics or swelling music, this serves as the highest of stakes.

The glory of Redford's performance is his grace under pressure. Nothing seems to phase this guy. The boat is damaged. He will fix it. The boat is sinking. He will grab the necessary things and abandon ship. In fact, the first 30 minutes of the film before the storm drag so much and if watched at home may even prompt you – beg you – to turn it off. When I saw this in the theatre, I found myself longing to walk out like the two people in the row next to me. But in retrospect, these scenes, this embracing of ennui, this pull-your-hair-out back and forth from the life raft to the sail boat captures, as films rarely do, real life – those moments that other films cut out because they are dubbed "unnecessary". But in All is Lost they are vital. We are watching the maintenance of a ship, the preparation of a departure, the desperate attempts at saving, perhaps, his home. The inflation of a life raft. The process of making seawater drinkable. The reading of a manual to properly use a navigation device. The survival of a man by doing everything in his power. These are the cruxes of the drama.

And Redford is so seasoned, so comfortable in front of the camera that it is not so much a "performance," as much as it is just "being". He is so wonderfully understated that when he finally yells, "Fuck" after the passing of the first potential chance he has at survival, we lean forward on the edge of our seats in heartbreak. In a year that was jam packed with brilliant performances and masterpieces (such as Allen’s Blue Jasmine, Russell’s American Hustle, Jonze’s Her, Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, the aforementioned Gravity, and Best Picture 12 Years a Slave), Redford and All is Lost were unfortunately left out to sea when Oscar nominations rolled around.

With a title as fatalistic as All is Lost, as well as an opening voice-over narration presumably sealing his fate, you go into the film waiting for him to die. Even with the prerequisite American Happy Ending buoying in the back of your brain, you expect that he will succumb to the elements – and embrace this possibility; anything less would be contrived. But as Redford begins to sink into the possibly shark-infested waters (reminding us of the beautiful shot of Shelley Winters floating in the lake in The Night of the Hunter, 1955), we hold out hope that somehow, someway, someone will save Our Man – ourselves – from a watery death. I won't tell you how it ends, but I dare you not to be moved by the final ethereal shot, invoking The Creation of Adam. It is one of the most moving last shots in recent memory and left my mouth agape, stuck to my chair in pure awe. See All is Lost. And see it alone.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Bureau of Missing Persons

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

Bureau of Missing Persons (WB, 1933) – Director: Roy Del Ruth. Writers: Robert Presnell Sr. (s/p). John H. Ayers & Carol Bird. John H. Ayers (book, Missing Men). Stars: Bette Davis, Pat O’Brien, Lewis Stone, Glenda Farrell, Allen Jenkins, Ruth Donnelly, Hugh Herbert, Alan Dinehart, Marjorie Gateson, Tad Alexander, Noel Francis, Wallis Clark, Adrian Morris, Clay Clement, Hobart Cavanaugh & Henry Kolker. B&W, 73 minutes.

All around the world thousands of persons disappear every day. New York City alone reported over 27,000 missing every year. Why people drop from sight, where they go, and how they are found is the problem of a special and little known department of the police. THE BUREAU OF MISSING PERSONS.

Many incidents in this picture are taken from the actual case in police records.

With an opening scroll like that we think we’re in for a thrilling ride. But alas, though its entertaining, thanks mainly to an energetic cast, Bureau of Missing Persons is another run-of-the-mill programmer churned out in the Warner Brothers assembly line.

And lest we think we’re in for some heavy melodrama, director Del Ruth cures us of that assumption almost right off the bat, mixing the dramatic elements with bits of slapstick farce to make us take a more relaxed view of the goings-on.

The film is episodic, based on Ayers’ book detailing the comings and goings of citizens filing reports with New York City's Bureau of Missing Persons with several cases under investigation simultaneously. For the movie, the department, headed by Captain Webb (Stone) has the main story centered around the character of Det. Butch Saunders (O’Brien), who has been transferred from Robbery Division because of his strong-arm tactics. Although Butch thinks this is a kindergarten cops division where he can blend in right away, Webb cautions him to sit and learn from the others. Butch is something of a missing person himself, but ex-wife Belle (Farrell) is always able to track him down for money.

After watching his co-workers and settling in to the routine, Webb gives Saunders the case of a missing musical prodigy. Observing the area where the young prodigy was last seen, Saunders notices something dodgy going on and eventually tracks his quarry down to a shed on top of a roof adjacent to the concert hall. Instead of bursting in and strong-arming the kid back to the station, Saunders develops a rapport with the youngster, sharing experiences. He learns that the young man’s name is Caesar Paul (Alexander) and that he ran away from his stage parents to live a normal life, surrounded by the young friends he’s made in the neighborhood. Saunders proceeds slowly, building trust to the point where young Paul allows him to bring him back to his parents, who are waiting at the station. 

We also see other cases handled by detectives Joe Musik (Jenkins) and Hank Slade (Herbert), aided by their secretary/receptionist “Pete” (Donnelly). They range from a missing banker (Clement) from Pennsylvania who has run away from his wife and kids and is found shacked up with a floozy in a cheap apartment, to a woman who comes to see Captain Webb, telling him her husband has run away with the cook. Webb promises to find the husband as soon as possible, but the woman retorts that it’s the cook she wants found. The police also deal with an old woman looking for her missing daughter. In reality her daughter has turned to a life of crime, and they lie to spare the old woman’s feelings. Also along the way, we learn that some disappearances arise from domestic disputes, while others are publicity stunts.

In one case, Detective Conlin (Morris) is told to follow carrier pigeons to locate a kidnapping victim, while a case that has Slade climbing the walls concerns the search for the missing Gwendolyn Harris, reported missing by her husband long ago.

Right after Butch makes another weekly payment to Belle, a winsome blonde approaches the desk. Her name is Norma Roberts (Davis) and she’s looking for her husband, Therme (Dinehart). Butch is entranced by Norma and seeks permission from Webb to work her case. But her description of her husband is more than a little vague (she gives Butch a picture of her husband in costume). Webb calls Butch into his office and tells him that Norma is actually wanted for the murder of a banker named Therme Roberts. Butch tracks Norma down, and accompanied by policemen, enters her apartment. He finds her hiding in the closest. She tells him all is not as it appears and as he doesn’t believe the official story, it’s easy for Norma to talk him out of taking her in. He tells her to stay there and he’ll return later. But when he does, she’s nowhere to be found. 

Butch is later informed that her handbag and some of her clothes were found on the dock, but Butch doesn’t figure her for a suicide. He has an idea how to smoke her out, he tells Webb. He’ll stage a fake funeral. Just as he planned, Norma can’t resist the bait, and attends. But Therme also shows up. Norma chases after him, followed by Butch.

Norma tells Butch she was Roberts' private secretary. She discovered that he had an mentally disturbed twin brother. Therme killed his brother, making it look like he himself was dead in order to escape embezzlement charges. Roberts denies her accusations, but Butch takes both down to the Bureau. Brought into Webb’s office, Therme continues to deny everything, but Webb makes clever use of a photo to trick him into admitting the truth and Norma is cleared. 

Hank Slade finally solves his cold case when Mr. Harris (Cavanaugh) arrives at the station house to ask if there’s been any progress in finding his wife. When he spots Pete the receptionist, he thanks Pete for finding her. Slade becomes so angry he breaks a wooden chair into pieces and chases his receptionist with a leg of the chair in his hand.

As Norma stands by chatting with Butch, another man comes in looking for his missing wife. It’s at just that moment that Belle comes in looking for her payoff. The man points to Belle and says that the woman who ran out on him over a year ago. Butch drags Belle into the file room and gives her a good spanking. Now that he discovers that Belle was never divorced from her first husband, he and Norma are free to be with each other. 


According to John M. Miller in his essay on the movie for TCM, the film was reissued in 1936 by Warner Bros. with a slight change in the credits: as featured player Bette Davis was now the studio's major female draw, the film's opening titles were reconfigured to place her in the lead. In reality, Davis does not appear until 30 minutes into the film.

Neither Pat O’Brien nor Bette Davis regarded this as one of their better efforts. Davis thought it a comedown after her starring role in Ex-Lady, and O’Brien saw it as just another quickly filmed programmer. The chemistry between them, however, was pretty good, especially in their scene in a diner, where they are discussing Norma’s situation (watch them passing condiments to other diners at the counter). Bette Davis was happy to work again with Pat O’Brien, with whom she acted in Hell's House (1932). She had become good friends with O'Brien and his wife Eloise, but she had no use for this picture. Author Lawrence J. Quirk quotes O’Brien in an interview stating that her lack of star billing “galled her no end.” Several times during the shoot she told her co-star that,”This picture is lousy as hell.” Another thing that O’Brien remembered galling Davis was when “some stupid fan magazine published an item that said she and I were 'that way' about each other and we were both married, and moreover, thought of each other only as friends!” 

Quirk also wrote that Davis was not happy with the way cinematographer Barney McGill photographed the film, making her look like two different people in mismatched shots.

Director Del Ruth does an excellent job, including the use of some interesting swish-pans to keep the movie speeding along; even with all the economy imposed on him. It moves so fast that its 73 minute running time goes by almost before we notice it. The performances are uniformly excellent, with Stone, borrowed from MGM, authoritative as Captain Webb. Alan Jenkins shines in a chance at a serious role, as does Hugh Herbert, who leaves his annoying “Hoo, hoo, hoo” act behind. But it’s Glenda Farrell who leaves her mark on us as greedy ex-wife Belle, who announces her entry into the office with a loud, “OH, BUTCHY WUTCHY! Once we hear that she has our rapt attention. Also look for Charles Sellon as the funeral parlor director. He was later the hysterically funny blind Mr. Muckle in W.C. Fields’ classic It’s a Gift.

The ending, however, makes us rather doubt the claims of the opening crawl, which state that “Many incidents in this picture are taken from actual cases in police records.”

To sum up, Bureau of Missing Persons, it's a run-of-the-mill programmer, but has enough going for it to keep viewers watching, though its scenes of violence towards women are enough to make one cringe. At times, it almost plays like a Pre-Code Police Squad.

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Jerry Lewis: In Memoriam

By Ed Garea

I’ve never known anyone who was neutral when it came to Jerry Lewis. One either loved him or hated him; there was no middle ground for a man who, over the years, had become a household name. 

Lewis died at his home in Las Vegas August 20 at the age of 91.

Born Jerome Levitch on March 16, 1926, into a family of entertainers, he began performing at the age of 5 with his parents. Father Daniel was a song-and-dance man and mother Rae (nee Rachel Brodsky) played piano for a radio station when not accompanying her husband. They played in vaudeville and at various resorts under the names of Danny and Rae Lewis. Because they were often on the road, young Jerry was often left in the care of Rae’s mother. In his autobiography, Jerry Lewis: In Person, he attributed his aspiration and need to be on stage to the loneliness brought on by his parents’ frequent and long absences. 

When it came to school he was indifferent, more interested in performing in school shows than in his classes. When his parents landed a gig at the Hotel Arthur in Lakewood, N.J., in the winter of 1938-39, they took their son along. Left to his own devices when his parents were rehearsing or performing, formed a comedy act with the daughter of the hotel’s owners in which they exaggeratedly mimed the lyrics to popular songs.   

Now that he was making a living in the world of entertainment, he took the professional name of Joey Lewis. In his autobiography he said he changed his first name to Jerry in order to avoid any confusion with the established stand-up comedian Joe E. Lewis and boxer Joe Louis. Whatever interest he had left in school vanished and at the age of 16 he dropped out of the 10th grade. He began performing his lip-synching act as a solo, first at movie theaters between shows and later in vaudeville and the lower echelon of burlesque clubs. He took notice of his fellow comics and began to add bits of physical comedy to the exaggerations he already employed in his act, including mimicking various musical instruments in addition to lip-synching.  

Classified 4-F by the army due to a heart murmur, he continued touring with his act. While performing at Detroit’s Downtown Theater in 1944 he met Patti Palmer (nee Esther Grace Calonico), a 23-year-old singer with Ted Fio Rito. They began dating and on October 3, 1944, they married. 

In 1945, Lewis was performing at the Glass Hat nightclub in Manhattan when he made the acquaintance of Dean Martin, a young crooner from Steubenville, Ohio. As they began talking they agreed their individual prospects were less than promising. At the time Jerry was dressing as Carmen Miranda, lip-synching her songs in his act and Martin was a singer moving farther and farther down the bill. Lewis admired Martin’s persona of the handsome and self-assured cool cat, while Martin admired Jerry’s talent for physical comedy.

In March 1946, they found themselves once again on the same bill, this time at the Havana-Madrid nightclub in Manhattan. Agreeing that nothing had changed since they last met they decided that they could at least have a little fun and began holding impromptu sessions after the evening’s last show, during the course of which Jerry would cavort around as an inept busboy, dropping tray, throwing food and desperately trying to break the cool demeanor of Martin, who ignored the disruptions as he sang. A reviewer for Billboard magazine. gave them a rave writeup, noting that the act had the makings of a big success.

Later that summer, while performing at Atlantic City’s 500 Club, Lewis was informed that the singer on the program had quit. He quickly recommended Martin to the club’s owner, and they put together a routine based on their antics at the Havana-Madrid. It became so successful that, before the week was over, they were drawing sellout audiences and even receiving mentions in Broadway columns. They returned to the Havana-Madrid in September with an act that was wildly popular.  

Bookings at bigger and better clubs soon followed, and by the summer of 1948, not only were they were headlining at the Copacabana in Manhattan, they were also performing at Times Square’s 6,000-seat Roxy Theater.  

They spent the next two years refining their act with NBC signing them for their own radio show on its Red Network. On June 20, 1948, they made their first television appearance on CBS’s Toast of the Town variety show (later re-christened The Ed Sullivan Show). They were a unique tonic for an America worn down by four years of war that were now replaced by the tension of the Cold War. Whereas other comic teams relied on planned skits, Martin and Lewis fed off an improvised interaction. Audiences could just sit back and relax with an act whose unique chemistry felt new every time it appeared.  

One member of that audience was producer Hal Wallis, who signed them to a five-year contract with Paramount. Looking for a suitable vehicle for their first movie, Wallis decided on a low-budget project based on the popular radio show, My Friend Irma. The film starred Marie Wilson, who reprised her radio role as the scatterbrained Irma Peterson, with Diana Lynn steeping into the role of Irma’s level-headed roommate, Jane Stacey. Martin and Lewis were cast in supporting roles as Steve Laird and his partner Seymour, who befriend Irma and Jane. The film did so well it spawned a sequel, My Friend Irma Goes West (1950). That same year saw them in a stint as the first of a series of hosts of NBC’s popular show, The Colgate Comedy Hour.

Using a loophole in their Paramount contract that allowed them to make one film a year “outside” the studio, the duo starred in the military spoof, At War With the Army (1951). The film created the formula for the relationship that would continue through all 13 subsequent Martin and Lewis films: Dean, the smooth-operating ladies’ man, forms an unlikely friendship with the hapless Lewis. The friendship is tested over the course of the movie, but in the end they would prevail with the friendship stronger than ever. 

At War With the Army was another box office hit and was followed by That’s My Boy (1951), The Stooge (1953), Sailor Beware (1952), Jumping Jacks (1952) and The Caddy (1953), original productions with such writers as John Grant, Robert Lees, Frederic I. Rinaldo (who wrote for Abbott & Costello) and Elwood Ullmann (who wrote for the Three Stooges and the Bowery Boys) supplying the plots and jokes. In 1953, they starred in Scared Stiff, a remake of Paramount’s earlier The Ghost Breakers (1940), starring Bob Hope. Living It Up (1954) was a remake of the 1937 Carole Lombard screwball comedy, Nothing Sacred, and You’re Never Too Young (1955) was a remake of The Major and the Minor (1942). It didn’t matter – they were all hits.   

Frank Tashlin took over the director’s chair for Artists and Models (1955) and Hollywood or Bust (1956). A writer-director who first made a name for himself at Warner Bros. directing Bugs Bunny, Daffy Duck and Porky Pig cartoons, he viewed Lewis as a perfect compliment for his style. Together they created sight gags that stretched the limits of absurdity, but ultimately failed in their quest to create a live-action alternative to animation. Tashlin also became a mentor to Lewis, who was becoming more interested with filmmaking. Although their partnership was successful for both, it came at the expense of Martin, who found himself shuttled off into a corner as his roles in their films diminished.

Martin resented this treatment voicing his dissatisfaction in interviews where he spoke of reviving his solo singing career. This in turn angered Lewis, who felt Martin was betraying him. Rumors of a split surfaced during the filming of Pardners (1956), a remake of director Norman Taurog’s 1936 production, Rhythm on the Range, starring Bing Crosby and Frances Farmer. Though the pair denied the rumors, by the time filming began on Hollywood or Bust they were barely on speaking terms. They made a final appearance at the Copacabana on July 25, 1956, and then went their separate ways.   

Lewis benefitted immediately, with his recording of “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby With a Dixie Melody” becoming a Top 10 hit and its accompanying album, Jerry Lewis Just Sings, reaching the No. 3 slot on Billboard’s charts, outselling anything Martin had released.

He returned to movies with The Delicate Delinquent (1957), signed for a series of personal appearances along with a contract for a series of specials with NBC in addition to renewing his relationship with the Muscular Dystrophy Association by hosting a 19-hour telethon.

Tashlin directed three more comediesRock-a-Bye Baby (1958), The Geisha Boy (1958) and Cinderfella (1960), before Lewis felt ready to both produce and direct. His first film in that new role was The Bellboy (1960), a homage to silent-film comedy with Lewis as a luckless bellboy working at Miami Beach’s Fontainebleau Hotel. 

Lewis cranked out five more hit films during the next five years, including The Ladies Man (1961), The Errand Boy (1961) and one that became his personal favorite, The Nutty Professor (1963), a wild variation on Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. As painfully shy chemistry professor Julius Kelp, Lewis creates a formula that turns him into Buddy Love, a swaggering egotistical nightclub singer based spitefully on Dean Martin. But although it was a hit, by 1967 Lewis’ momentum had begun to fade. An attempt to switch to a more mature style with Three on a Couch (1966), failed and caused him to revert more to form with  The Big Mouth (1967) and the World War II farce Which Way to the Front? (1970), but neither set the box office on fire.

In looking for the reason for his declining popularity, Lewis failed to search himself. Over the course of the ‘60s he has come to take himself too seriously, projecting an image as an intellectual during various appearances on television. A large part of this was due to the fact that the French has come to embrace him as a serious auteur whose films questioned and challenged the cultural status quo of America and Hollywood. To quote film historian  David Thomson in The New Biographical Dictionary of  Film (6th edition), “Few things are held against the whole of France more fiercely than French love of Lewis.” He had now become a relic, his style of comedy being seen as passe in a Hollywood now dominated by the likes of The GraduateEasy Rider and MASH. He hit both a personal and professional nadir when The Day the Clown Cried, a presumptuous comedy-drama set in a Nazi concentration camp that he wrote, directed and starred in, collapsed under the weight of litigation in 1972. Combined with an addiction to the pain killer Percodan, Lewis took an eight-year hiatus from the world of filmmaking.   

But it’s hard to keep an auteur down. Lewis returned to films with Hardly Working  as an unemployed circus clown who finds fulfillment in an unexciting job with the post office. Released in Europe in 1980 and in the United States in 1981, Roger Ebert noted it was “one of the worst movies ever to achieve commercial release in this country.”    

His 1983 follow-up, Smorgasbord (aka Cracking Up), also misfired. It was the last time Lewis directed a feature film. However, his decline as a filmmaker was matched by a revival of popularity as an actor, mostly thanks to his performance in Martin Scorsese’s 1982 The King of Comedy as a talk-show host kidnapped by an aspiring comedian (Robert De Niro) desperate to become a celebrity. He also had a celebrated guest role as a garment manufacturer threatened by the mob in the television series Wiseguy (1988-89) in addition to working in independent productions. He later expanded his acting ambition to the stage, played Mr. Applegate (a.k.a. the Devil) in a Broadway revival of the musical Damn Yankees. He later took the show on an international tour.

Despite a series of serious ailments, including bouts with prostate cancer, pulmonary fibrosis and two heart attacks, Lewis continued his charity work with the Muscular Dystrophy Association, continuing a tradition he began in 1966 of hosting the association’s annual Labor Day weekend telethon. Over his 40-plus years as host he raised more than $2 billion for the charity. 

Lewis also learned the meaning of the old adage that charity begins at home by reconciling with estranged partner Dean Martin. The two had not spoken since their 1956 break-up,. Even Frank Sinatra failed to break the ice when, in one of the more memorable moments of the MD telethon in 1976 he staged an on-air reunion between Lewis and Martin. Although they tried to joke with one another, the visible discomfort of both men was obvious to all who watched at home.

The hatchet was finally buried when Lewis attended the funeral of Martin’s oldest son, Dean Paul Martin Jr., who had been killed in a crash while serving as a pilot in the California Air National Guard. They began speaking again, and would do so occasionally until Martin’s death in 1995. In 2005, Mr. Lewis collaborated with James Kaplan on the memoir Dean and Me (A Love Story), in which he placed most of the blame for the breakup with Martin on himself.

Although Lewis was never honored for his film work by never honored, he was awarded the Jean Hersholt Humanitarian Award for his charitable activity in 2009. Other honors include two stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame – one for his movie work, the other for television – and a 2006 induction by the French government into the Légion d’Honneur.

In 2013, Lewis was honored at the Cannes Film Festival. A preliminary cut of Max Rose, his first movie in nearly 20 years, was screened there, in which he starred as a recently widowed jazz pianist in search of answers about his past. In 2015, Lewis donated his personal archives to the Library of Congress, and was quoted as saying that “Knowing that the Library of Congress was interested in acquiring my life’s work was one of the biggest thrills of my life.”

On the personal side, Lewis had six children with wife Patti. They divorced in 1980. In 1983, Mr. Lewis married SanDee Pitnick, and in 1992 their daughter, Danielle Sara, was born.     

His oldest son, Gary, had a series of hit records in the ‘60s with his band Gary Lewis and the Playboys.


While most sources, including Lewis’ 1982 autobiography Jerry Lewis: In Person, give his birth name as Joseph Levitch, Shawn Levy, who wrote the definitive biography of Lewis, King of Comedy: The Life and Art of Jerry Lewis, located a birth record that listed his first name as Jerome.

In 1952, with Martin and Lewis at the height of their fame, a Lewis look-a-like comic named Sammy Petrillo teamed with a Dean Martin sound-a-like singer named Duke Mitchell. They played various clubs and even starred in a movie, an atrocious low-budget effort titled Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952). When Lewis was informed of the duo he successfully sued to stop their act, after which they broke up. Petrillo continued as a comic, working such dives as strip joints and burlesque theaters. He later successfully ran a comedy nightclub in Pittsburgh called The Nut House, where he gave both Richard Pryor and Dennis Miller their starts. Petrillo succumbed to cancer on August 15, 2009. Duke Mitchell died from lung cancer at the age of 55 on December 2, 1981.

Monday, August 21, 2017

TCM TiVo Alert for August 23-31

August 23–August 31


YANKEE DOODLE DANDY (August 26, 2:00 pm): I'm not a fan of musicals nor am I a fan of sentimental films that play with your emotions, particularly a largely fictitious biopic. Yet I'm a huge fan of Yankee Doodle Dandy, which obviously falls into all of the above categories. The sheer joy that James Cagney brings to the role of George M. Cohan is infectious. It's completely Cagney's movie. He is so spectacular, so engaging, so entertaining, that I find myself humming along to some of the corniest songs ever written and watching with a big smile on my face.

VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED (August 30, 10:00 am): This is a well-done and compelling sci-fi film. One day all the people and animals in a quaint English town become unconscious, wake up and two months later, all the women capable of having children are pregnant. In all, 12 very white-looking kids are born. The children are geniuses, are able to read minds and control others to do whatever they want, including murder and suicide. As time passes, a professor from the village (George Sanders) decides he's going to teach the mutant kids, who want to take over the world, to use their powers for good. While a noble idea, it's poorly thought out as these children mean business when it comes to world domination. Films like this can easily become cliche and embarrassingly bad, but this one is special. Sanders gives his usual fantastic performance and the kids are great.


DIABOLIQUE (August 25, 10:15 pm): Frankly, I cannot recommend this picture enough. Think of a perfect Hitchcock film without Hitchcock. That’s Diabolique, which is directed by Henri-Georges Cluzot. To no one’s surprise, he’s known as “the French Hitchcock,’ and Hitchcock himself was influenced by this film. This is a masterful psychological horror film that builds slowly to a final 15 minutes that will keep you on the edge of your seat. Although the twist ending murder plot has been done many times since, it’s never been done better. Diabolique takes place at a school where Simone Signoret helps her friend Vera Clouzot (real life wife of the director) drown her ogre of a husband (Paul Meurisse), who “returns to life” in a really terrifying scene. It’s a taut, beautifully woven thriller with a climax that will truly shock you. Fans of Hitchcock will love this, as will anyone that loves a well-written thriller with the emphasis on character rather than going for the cheap thrill.

THE GAY FALCON (August 30, 12:45 pm): There is nothing like the joy of a well-acted B-movie. When Leslie Charteris, creator ofThe Saint, pulled back his rights from RKO, it left the studio without a viable B-series. Not for long, however, for RKO reached out and bought the rights to Michael Arlen’s short story, “The Gay Falcon,” published in 1940. Although Arlen’s sleuth was named Gay Falcon, the studio rechristened him “Gay Laurence,” although they kept “the Falcon” as his crime-solving name. This gave them a catchy name to match that of the Saint. This is the first of the series, as the Falcon is trying to leave his crime-solving days behind, taking a job as a stockbroker. But this doesn’t last long, as he ends up chasing jewel thieves. It’s a short and entertaining movie. With Allen Jenkins as Laurence’s sidekick, “Goldie Locke,” who steals every scene he’s in.

WE DISAGREE ON ... SHIP OF FOOLS (August 25, 3:30 pm)

ED: F. For the most part, whenever I watch a Stanley Kramer picture, I feel I’m not being entertained so much as lectured to, as if I were an elementary school student. This film is one of his most egregious examples of the lecturing variety; an annoying Grand Hotel set at sea. Kramer and his smarmy screenwriter, Abby Mann, take Katherine Anne Porter’s delightful novel, set in 1931 in the pre-Nazi world, and move the scene ahead to 1933. Porter explained the title as a reference to the “simple almost universal image of the ship in world on the voyage to eternity.” She adds that she is a passenger on that ship. Critic Pauline Kael notes that Kramer and Mann have turned the novel into “a pompous cartoon.” I couldn’t agree more. Now the fools are those who don’t see what’s coming. I find it ludicrous that dinner party snubs are somehow harbingers of the Holocaust. In the novel, the central relationship is that of Jenny, who wants to be free, and David, who tries to own her. In the movie David (George Segal) is a proletarian artist of great talent and promise and Jenny (Elizabeth Ashley) has degenerated into in a neurotic rich bitch who keeps him and at the same time is jealous of his talent. Mann’s idea of dialogue is to have David tell her that she’s full of competition. “You’re so full of God knows what kind of sickness.” If you think that’s giggle inducing, it’s nothing compared to the relationship between the ship’s doctor (Oskar Werner) and Le Condesa (Simone Signoret), who – alas – has met him too late. (A sad waste of these two great talents). They’re given some of the worst dialogue in the movie. “You’re so strange – sometimes you’re so bitter,” the Doctor says, “then you’re like a child, soft and warm.” “I’m just a woman,” replies La Condesa. Oh brother. It’s also Vivien Leigh’s last film, and she couldn’t have chosen a worse way to end her career, with what may be her worst performance. (Katharine Hepburn was offered the role before Leigh, but had the good sense to turn it down.) It was released to great critical fanfare but has not worn well over the years.

DAVID: B+. Incredible acting performances highlight this compelling drama about a ship of all kinds of people heading for Nazi Germany in the early 1930s. The cinematography is wonderful and whoever cast this 1965 film did a brilliant job. The interaction between Oskar Werner as the ship's dying doctor and Simone Signoret as a drug-addicted Spanish countess on her way to a German prison, is touching and tragic. They were nominated for Best Lead Actor and Actress Oscars and the movie received a Best Picture nomination. It won two Oscars (including for Best Cinematography, Black and White) and was nominated for three more. Oscars certainly aren't the be-all and end-all when it comes to quality films, but the Academy got it right with this movie. In her last film, Vivien Leigh plays an aging divorced woman trying unsuccessfully to relive her youth. Also, great work by Michael Dunn for his "Greek chorus" performance as a philosophical dwarf (he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor). We know that when the ship docks in Germany that life for everyone aboard will change forever and almost certainly not for the better. The film captures that feeling of helplessness and/or ignorance that will follow the characters long after the movie fades to black. As for Ed's grade of F, it's obviously far too harsh. It's got an 81 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes. Bosley Crowther, the legendary film critic for The New York Times in his original review, wrote: "It is a perpetually engrossing and thought-provoking film that [director Stanley Kramer] has aptly put down at this moment, and it eminently deserves to be seen." While Ed does an excellent job dressing down the film, F grades should be reserved for those so terrible that even Mystery Science Theater 3000 wouldn't touch them - or later Bowery Boys films or the worst of director Ed Wood.

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