Monday, December 31, 2012

It's New Year's Eve - thoughts turn to cocktails

Champagne, of course is traditional and I will have some but if you are looking for something else to imbibe, here are some thoughts on cocktails you might enjoy.

Martini. This is my preferred drink. And it is with Gin. In the last few years the word martini has been applied to any cocktail served in a martini glass. But that is a perversion. A Martini is gin and vermouth. Yes, I am a snob about this.
If it has vodka, then it is a Vodka Martini or more properly a Kangaroo Cocktail. In the 1920s when people first began mixing vodka and vermouth, the drink was called a Kangaroo Cocktail. For some reason the name did not stick and it became, simply a Vodka Martini (that’s the way James Bond orders it).and should be ordered as such.
I prefer my Martini three to one, meaning three parts gin to one part vermouth. The trend today is to minimize or eliminate the vermouth altogether but not for me. If it is a Martini it has vermouth in it.

There is disagreement on where the drink and the name came from. Many contend that it was because the cocktail was made with Martini and Rossi vermouth, thus the name. I subscribe to the San Francisco story, that the drink was invented at the Occidental Hotel in San Francisco and served to people waiting to take the ferry across the bay to Martinez. The people of Martinez of course claim the drink was invented there.

There is a variation on the Martini. If you make a martini and garnish it with a pearl onion instead of an olive, it is a Gibson. Supposedly, Charles Dana Gibson – he of Gibson Girl fame - asked a bartender to improve on the Martini recipe. All the bartender did is substitute the onion for the olive.

There are two cocktails that use champagne (or sparkling wine).

French 75. Invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris – Ernest Hemingway’s favorite hang out in Paris. In a tall glass with ice, pour two jiggers of Gin, one jigger of lemon juice, powdered sugar to taste. Fill with champagne. The name is said to refer to a French WWI cannon called a French 75.

The classic Champagne Cocktail. Soak a sugar cube in Angostura Bitters, drop in the bottom of a champagne flute and fill with champagne. This has been around since the mid-19th century. I first tried one after seeing Victor Laslo order one in Casablanca.

For Bourbon there are two classics.

The Manhattan. This drink dates to the 19th Century as well. It is said to have been invented at the Manhattan club. I make mine with two parts bourbon, one part sweet vermouth, a dash of bitters and garnish with a maraschino cherry. When Rye whiskey was readily available and was the whiskey of choice the Manhattan was made with Rye. However after prohibition bourbon supplanted Rye as the whiskey of choice. Non- traditionalists – not me - will make a Manhattan using Canadian or American blended whiskey, such as Canadian Club or Seagrams 7 Crown.

You can make the same drink with Scotch Whiskey and then it is a Rob Roy.

The other bourbon or whiskey cocktail is the Old Fashioned. Muddle a cube of sugar with a dash of water and bitters in the bottom of a rocks glass (often called an Old Fashioned Glass) and add bourbon and ice. Garnish with a twist of orange or lemon peel.


A bit of the hair of the dog that bit you – a Bloody Mary. This too is said to have been invented at Harry’s Bar in Paris. I sometimes use Pepper Vodka, as it gives an even better bite. In a tall glass with ice, I pour three ounces of vodka; a couple of dashes of Worcestershire sauce; a couple of healthy dashes of hot sauce (many people use Tabasco but I prefer Cholula); fresh ground black pepper and celery salt, to taste; rim the glass with a large wedge of lime then squeeze the juice into the drink (drop the wedge into the drink); then fill V8 juice and stir. I prefer the V8 to regular tomato juice – okay, about this I am not a traditionalist.

Movies based on books - the best this year?

Okay, it’s New Year’s Eve and time for end of the year reflections and lists. Here’s one from me: There were a number of films released in 2012 based on books.

Two questions: What was the best film based on a book? Or, what was the best book that was the basis for a film? Over the years some great books have ended up being some not so good or only so-so films. And the reverse, some so-so books have been turned into wonderful films (not often but sometimes).

This year, the best film based on a book has to be Lincoln. Now some may quibble that the film is only partly based on Doris Kerns Goodwin’s Team of Rivals but who cares, the film qualifies.

It has received tremendous critical acclaim. It has also received numerous Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Award nominations and will likely be nominated for numerous Academy Award nominations, including Best Picture.

How about the best book that became a motion picture this year? Les Miserables by Victor Hugo is one of the great novels of western civilization. While the film is adapted from the musical, they are both adapted from the novel. It qualifies.

Of course this is not the first film based on the novel, Liam Neeson starred as Jean Valjean in the 1998 version and Fredric March was Valjean in the 1935 version. There were also versions in 1934, 1982, 1958 and 1995.

There were other films released this year that were based on a book. Maybe your pick for ‘best’is among these:

One for the Money, Janet Evanovich. Bounty hunter Stephanie Plum jumped from the Bestseller list to the big screen.

The Lorax, Dr. Seuss’ wonderful 1971 book and this year’s animated film are not just for children. We still need to save the trees and Danny DeVito as the Lorax is trying.

The Hunger Games. The film was highly anticipated by fans of Suzanne Collins’ book and generally received positive reviews though there was some negative criticism. The second novel in the series, The Hunger Games: Catching Fire is set to be released in 2013.

The Lucky One, Nicholas Sparks. This schmaltzy, escapist melodrama did not fare will with critics. It also only did so-so at the box office.

Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter, Seth Grahame-Smith. Fans of the genre and/or the novel saw this film but that is about it. It did not do well at the box office. I didn’t go either.

Cosmopolis, Don Dellilo. The David Cronenberg film received some positive reviews but only had limited release in the U.S.

Alex Cross, James Patterson. This film is based on Pattersons’ 2006 novel Cross. It received horrible reviews. Tyler Perry played Cross in this version. Morgan Freeman had played Cross in the two previous adaptations of Patterson novels.

Cloud Atlas, David Mitchell. The book that could not be made into a film, finally was. It has actually received some positive notices and a 10-minute standing ovation when it premiered at the Toronto Film Festival.

The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2, Stephanie Meyer. If you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all.

Life of Pi, Yann Martel. Ang Lee’s film version has been a box office and critical success. It has also been nominated for a Golden Globe Best Picture award.

The Hobbit, J.R. Tolkien. Much of the negative criticism of this film had to do with Peter Jackson’s decision to shoot it at 48 fps rather than the standard 24 fps. Those critics thought it made the characters look less real, rather than more real. It has done huge box office, though.

Jack Reacher from Lee Child’s novel One Shot. The film opened, awkwardly, just after the shootings in Newtown, Connecticut. However, just as the shootings at the Aurora movie theatre in July did not hurt the box office of Dark Knight Rises, Jack Reacher is also doing well at the box office.

Friday, December 28, 2012

Promised Land Redux - the controversy

We all knew that the subject of Matt Damon’s Promised Land, Hydraulic Fracturing or fracking, was controversial. But the film itself is generating controversy and is the subject of criticism in some circles. That criticism is not targeted at its artistic merit.

Perhaps not surprisingly, the domestic Oil and Gas Industry and its allies have drawn a bead on Damon and the film. They accuse it of presenting only one side of the issue; a negative view of fracking without pointing out the safety measures that the industry has put in place. Both the Heritage Foundation and Energy In Depth (EID), a creation in 2009 of the Independent Petroleum Association of America, have blasted the film. EID has even created ‘talking points’ to be used against the film and the Heritage Foundation in a blog post shares its own video promoting the value of fracking.

Hydraulic Fracturing or fracking is a method for extracting gas by injecting water mixed with other chemicals and liquids to fracture the rock and release the gas. It has been particularly controversial here in Colorado.

Much of the criticism about the bias of the film is rooted in the assumption that Hollywood and stars like Damon are always left-leaning. But the critics also point out that the film was in part financed by the royal family of the United Arab Emirates (UAE). The credits for the film (I am an inveterate credit reader), include a production credit for Image Media Abu Dhabi, which is owned by the UAE government. They suggest that because the UAE and other oil-rich middle-eastern countries don’t want to see the U.S. become less dependent on their energy supplies, they will do anything to thwart increased gas production here.

Damon refutes the criticism saying that he does not believe the film is biased (he also says the film is really about relationships, small towns, the people in them and how economic changes impact them) and that it asks more questions than it answers; questions that need to be asked.

Whatever the criticism, it does not take away from a good story with great direction, cinematography and performances. It is also interesting that the script didn’t originally intend to deal with fracking – Damon and Krasinski intended it to be about citizens scamming the government out of wind-power credits. However, they discovered that the situation was too rare and as Damon says, “too esoteric” to explore.

As I said in my review, you should see this film – whatever your idealogy.

Promised Land - Fracking in a Fictional Film and More

The Promised Land in the bible is described as a paradise, a land flowing with milk and honey; the land that holds wonderful promise.

It is in this context that the title of Gus Van Sant’s film, Promised Land is rooted. The rural piece of America where the film takes place appears bucolic, pastoral and the title seems to aptly describe the land. But the title is also ironic.

Steve (Matt Damon) and Sue (Frances McDormand) work for a giant oil and gas firm, Global Oil which is buying up the drilling rights to farmland in rural America. They are sent to McKinley – a town somewhere in the great American heartland - to secure those rights.

Steve and Sue are not ‘oil and gas’ people they are sales people. Their job is to ‘sell’ farmers on the idea of signing away their drilling rights at the cheapest possible price.

Steve is the ace. He is a hot shot, brought in because he is the best at what he does and there is likely a corporate vice presidency in his future. Sue is no slouch either, she is a work a day mom, for whom this is just a job but one she is good at.

McKinley should be a slam dunk. The pair should be in and out in no time, with the deals done. But things get complicated.

Frank Yates, a local high school teacher, played by the wonderful Hal Holbrook, raises the fracking issue at a town hall meeting. He persuades people that they should take some more time to investigate what dangers might be involved with fracking; is this really a good idea? Suddenly it is not a slam dunk.

Matt Damon co-wrote the screen play with John Krasinski who also plays Dustin Noble in the film. Noble is a slick environmental activist who arrives on the scene to also try to disrupt Steve and Sue’s efforts.

Dave Eggers (Where the Wild Things Are) did the original draft/story and Damon was originally slated to direct. The decision to have Van Sant direct instead, however, was a good one. It is a good story, with fine performances (particularly, McDormand) and Van Sant’s deft hand weaves it all together.

Van Sant uses aerial shots throughout the film. He shows us this bucolic landscape . Everything is lush and green – indeed it does look like the Promised Land. It’s a subtle contrast to what we don’t see, what is not there yet but is likely to come: industrial well heads populating the pastures and fields; heavy truck traffic on the peaceful back roads; farm ponds polluted or depleted of water because of the fracking; dying livestock.

The issue of fracking (hydraulic fracturing ‘fracking’ is a method being used to drill for natural gas and other petroleum products) is very controversial. It involves pumping liquids, including chemicals, into the earth, fracturing the rock and allowing the gas to flow to the surface. It is particularly controversial in Colorado because it is becoming very widespread both on the western slope and the northern Front Range. In fact Steve even mentions Rifle, Colorado at one point in the film.

Fracking is central to the story but the film is much more than an ‘anti-fracking movie’. The film works because it doesn’t feel like a diatribe. It deals with a serious subject but with humor and a light touch (thank you, Van Sant, Damon and Krasinski). It works because the characters are real people, people we know; people with wants and needs and desires and complications; people just like us. It also works because the performances are so good.

There is an underlying theme as well: The loss of the American dream; the loss of jobs and the declining state of the middle class; the fear and vulnerability that they feel and how that fear and vulnerability can be exploited by a big corporation.

Part of the reason that Steve and Sue expect to be so successful in McKinley is because the town has been so hard hit by the economic decline of the last few years. The people are desperate and they will likely jump at any offer – indeed some do. It is tough to stand on principle or some family-farm tradition when you are in danger of losing that farm or not being able to feed your kids.

Steve is an ‘Ace’ – he could sell the proverbial ice cubes to Eskimos –he gets the deal done and at a lower cost than anyone else – “How do you do that?” He is asked. And that is why Global wants him to go to McKinley, because it is all about the deal and the money, not the people or the land, just the money.

Symbolically, in the opening scene, Steve is having dinner with one of the Global Oil corporate executives to discuss the McKinley project. It is a very nice dinner, an expensive dinner. Toward the end of the discussion the executive insists on ordering another bottle of wine, another bottle of Chateau Margaux. The message is clear, Global has lots of money and expects to make more and Steve can be a part of that at the top, not just out on the road. Money will make anything happen. The deal and the money are the only things that count.

Damon brings a wonderful likability to the character. You can’t help but like Steve even if you don’t like what he is doing. That likability and charm are at the heart of Steve’s success as a salesman. They also attract an elementary school teacher, Alice (Rosemarie DeWitt) who in turn attracts Steve. Romance seems ready to bloom and it also helps complicate Steve and Sue’s stay in McKinley.

Steve and Sue compete with Dustin Noble for the hearts and minds of the citizenry and then an unexpected turn of events has serious fallout for Steve that raise emotional questions for him.

As actor and co-writer Krasinski says: “It’s an emotional story about what happens when real people and real money collide, and the surprising ways people respond when momentous decisions come their way,”

It is a very satisfying film.

Promised Land opens today, Friday December 28th at Denver Pavilions.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

The Best Foreign Language Film Oscar Short List

We now know the short-list from which the five nominees for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar will be drawn. The Academy announced the short list – nine films – last Friday. It is a strong list.

Of course it is always anyone’s guess as to the actual nominees, but I will be very surprised if The Intouchables, from France, is not one of them. I also think it has a very good chance of winning the Oscar. It is an international hit doing huge box office - $414 Million worldwide. It is a comedy-drama with wonderful performances and a very mainstream feel that will make it easy to vote for. France has not won a Foreign Language Film Oscar in twenty years.

Another likely nominee is Amour from Austria. It too has been getting a lot of buzz and very positive reviews. It also has an impressive cast: Jean-Louis Trintignant, Isabelle Huppert and Immanuelle Riva. It deals with the family strains on an elderly couple and their daughter when the mother becomes partially paralyzed and then suffers a stroke and is in terrible pain.

A Royal Affair is my third pick to be nominated. It is a historical drama from Denmark (it played in Denver earlier this month). The story is set in the 18th century. It is about a love triangle among a German doctor, a young queen and her husband, who may be insane, the Danish King. The film is stylish with sympathetic portrayals and has already been nominated for a Golden Globe.

Sister, from Switzerland, is a film I like very much and I am hopeful that it will receive a nomination. It played this past November during the Starz Denver Film Festival. It is a very disturbing but absorbing film.

I am undecided about a fifth possible nomination but I think it will be from among these three films:

No, from Chile, depicts the 1988 referendum to decide whether dictator Augusto Pinochet would continue in office or not. It centers on a young advertising executive who returns to the country to lead the campaign against Pinochet. The film won at the latest Director’s Fortnight in Cannes. It has been picked up by Sony Pictures Classics for US distribution.

Beyond the Hills, from Romania. It touches on dark, depressing, difficult subject matter, telling the story of 25-year-old woman, who reunites and is clearly in love with her childhood friend now a fledgling nun in a sparse Orthodox convent in Romania. The film won best screenplay and best actress awards at Cannes this year.

War Witch, a Canadian film tells the story of a young girl whose life is anything but normal. Kidnapped by African rebels at the age of 12, she was forced at gunpoint to slaughter her own parents and fight as a child soldier against the government in the jungles. It is a viscerally and emotionally powerful film.

Two other films are on the short list: Kon Tiki from Norway about Thor Heyerdahl’s journey across the Pacific on a Balsa raft; The Deep, from Iceland, is based on actual events. A fisherman tries to survive in the freezing ocean after his boat capsizes off the south coast of Iceland.

Seventy-one countries submitted films for consideration this year. The shortlist was determined by a committee of several hundred Academy members which chose six titles. The Academy's Foreign Language Film Award Executive Committee then chose three more titles to create the shortlist of nine films. Specially-invited committees in New York and Los Angeles will now view the nine films, from which the five nominees will be selected.

All the Oscar nominations will be announced January 10, 2013. The Oscar ceremonies are February 24.

Monday, December 24, 2012

Tamales in Denver for the Holidays (or any time).

It’s Christmas Eve and there will be another long line today, as there has been for days, at Tamales by La Casita.

The reason?

Some of the best tamales you will find anywhere.

Tamales by La Casita is a small restaurant in northwest Denver (old timers simply call it North Denver as in describing a place not just a geographic locale) which serves New Mexican style food. All of their dishes are good but tamales, as the name implies, are their specialty. In addition to table service at the restaurant there is a take-out window. It is to that window that the line leads.

Tamales and Green Chile along with Posole are enjoyed year round but they are the traditional New Mexican holiday foods for Christmas and New Years. This time of year, multiple thousands of tamales will be sold through that window.

Tamales are corn husks filled with masa (a corn flour dough) and other fillings. The husks are folded and the tamales steamed.

La Casita, which is family-owned and operated, has two tamale versions: Red which has a red chile and pork filling and Green which has a green chile and cheese filling (ther green is vegetarian and gluten free). The tamales, from a secret family recipe, are all handmade fresh each morning (this is a labor-intensive process which is why many home-cooks don’t make tamales). That means 12,000 tamales each morning, six days a week.

But of course, you don’t have to do take-out to enjoy the tamales. Whether you are visiting or local, stop by the restaurant at 36th and Tejon, sit down at a table and order a tamale plate with green chile, my favorite.

Tamales by La Casita was started by Paul Sandoval in 1974 in a tiny building (La Casita) at the corner of 44th and Tejon, in Denver. The business that he and his wife Paula operated over the years became so successful that they needed a bigger space and so they built the new restaurant at 36th and Tejon. Sadly Paul passed away this past year but Paula continues to operate the business.

Tamales by La Casita is open from 7:00 AM to 7:00 PM Monday through Friday and 9:00 AM to 7:00 PM on Saturdays. If you are visiting from out of town, don’t miss enjoying some great tamales or other New Mexican dishes; if you are local, stop by, have some lunch and take home tamales for later.

You can also enjoy the same menu at Tamales by La Casita at Denver International Airport on concourse C.


Green Chile is a pork stew made with green chiles.

Posole is Green Chile and Hominy.

New Mexican food is a melding of Native American, Spanish and Mexican influences. though it shares many commonalities with Tex-Mex, Arizonan and northern Mexican foods, it is its own cuisine. It is marked by the heavy use of corn (especially blue corn, green chiles and pork. Popular dishes are tamales, breakfast burritos and the distinctive Navajo Taco.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Sandy Hook and the Movies

The Aurora Theatre shootings last July at the opening of The Dark Knight Rises put Warner Brothers in a difficult position. The Sandy Hook killings have, likewise, had a couple of studios making some adjustments with upcoming films.

Django Unchained, the highly anticipated, ultra-violent western from Quentin Tarantino and the Weinstein Company, cancelled a red-carpet premiere, Monday in Los Angeles. A private screening was held for the film’s cast and other industry insiders. It is still scheduled to open nationwide on Christmas day.

Jack Reacher,also had a red-carpet premiere cancelled. This film based on a Lee Child novel with Tom Cruise is set to open this Friday. However the premiere, Saturday in Pittsburgh, was cancelled. Paramount has also altered the marketing trailers and other materials to minimize thee gunfire and violence. The film opens with a sniper shooting five people. The parallel was too close.

It will be interesting to see how these films fare in terms of attendance with their openings coming so close to the tragedy in Newtown.

The argument is already out there regarding violence on film and television (and video games) and any real impact on tragedies like Newtown and Aurora.

TV themes and Theme songs - who wrote them?

I've been watching reruns of Remington Steele. The popular 1980s series about a detective agency (Remington Steele) starred Stephanie Zimbalist and launched the career of Pierce Brosnan. In watching, I am reminded how ‘a cut above’ the theme music is. No surprise it was written by Henry Mancini.

That got me to thinking about other Television Series Themes and/or Theme songs: some memorable, some less memorable and some truly iconic.

Most of the time, unless the theme was written by the likes of a Mancini, we pay no attention to the composer, if we even know who it is.

You may remember the theme - if you hear it, you know the show - you can even whistle, hum or sing it but you probably have no idea who wrote it. Many composers of TV themes work anonymously though lucratively.

Let’s start with some of the ones and composers you may know.

In addition to Remington Steele, Mancini also wrote the jazzy theme to Peter Gunn. That theme was so popular that it was often used by modern dance performers. He also did Mr. Lucky, Newhart and The Thorn Birds.

Nelson Riddle the great bandleader and composer, who often backed Frank Sinatra, wrote the very memorable theme to the TV Series Route 66. There are lyrics but they were never used as part of the TV theme music, only in recorded versions by the likes of Nat King Cole, etc. Riddle also wrote the themes for: The Man from U.N.C.L.E; the gritty Naked City; The Rogues and The Untouchables.

Neil Hefti, most famous for the Batman theme but he also did the theme for The Odd Couple (he had done the score for the film).

Sanford and Son, the great Quincy Jones. He also did the theme for Ironside and The Bill Cosby Show.

Mission Impossible and Mannix, Lalo Schifrin. He also did Starsky & Hutch, Glitter, Petrocelli, Dr. Kildare (Richard Chamberlain’s first series) and Medical Center.

Then there are the Theme Songs.

Gilligan’s Island was written by the show’s creator, Sherwood Schwartz who also created The Brady Bunch and wrote it’s theme song.

My favorite is Monk, with the theme song written and sung by Randy Newman. It came along in the second year of the series. The first year there was no song just a jazz instrumental by Jeff Beal, who also scored HBO’s Carnivale and Rome as well as Ugly Betty and In Plain Sight.

And who can forget Rawhide. The series that launched Clint Eastwood. The music was written by the great composer, Dimitri Tiomkin with lyrics by Ned Washington. Frankie Laine sang the song. Though this was Tiomkin and Washington’s only TV series work, they collaborated on songs for a number of feature films, including High Noon.

Have Gun Will Travel was another wonderful theme song, though technically it was not a theme song as it was only heard over the end credits. The Ballad of Paladin was written by Johnny Western. Interestingly, the show’s opening theme was written by Bernard Herrmann, who scored many of Hitchcock’s films as well as Citizen Cane. The great trivia question about the series is what was Paladin's first name. Of course, it was Wire. It said so on his business card: "Have Gun Will Travel, Wire Paladin, San Francisco.

77 Sunset Strip, music and lyrics by Jerry Livingston and Mack David. Cookie, Cookie, Lend Me Your Comb. The two also collaborated on Surfside 6, Bourbon Street Beat, Hawaiian Eye and Lawman.

So now how about some themes you may remember but probably don’t know the person responsible.

The Rockford Files, Law and Order and Magnum P.I. These have very recognizable themes, all written by Mike Post. He also wrote the themes for, Hill Street Blues, L.A. Law, NYPD Blue and many others. There may be no one more successful writing TV themes today than Post.

The Star Trek theme was composed by Alexander ‘Sandy’ Courage. Not only was the series a real departure for prime time television so was the theme from what might be considered the norm at the time. Courage also wrote the theme for Judd for the Defense. Footnote: As a way of co-opting some of Courage’s royalties for Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry wrote some lyrics to the theme music, so that he could claim to be co-composer. The lyrics however were never used.

The Twilight Zone. This too is a very distinctive and unusual at the time, Theme. It was written by a Romanian-born French composer, Marius Constant.

Dallas, Jerrold Immel. He also wrote the theme for the Dallas spin-off Knot’s Landing.

Perry Mason. Fred Steiner wrote this theme as well as the theme music for The Rocky and Bullwinkle show – that’s a pair to draw to.

The Fugitive and Run for Your Life, Pete Rugolo

Fraiser, Bruce Miller, he also wrote the theme for Wings. The lyrics to Tossed Salad and Scrambled Eggs were written by Darryl Phinnesse

Barney Miller and Charlie’s Angels, Allyn Ferguson and Jack Elliot.

Gunsmoke was written by Rex Koury. He had written the theme originally for the Radio version, which starred William Conrad as Matt.

The songs:

Cheers, Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo. "Where Everybody Knows Your Name", but not theirs.

The Beverly Hillbillies. The theme song was written by the show’s creator, Paul Henning. It was sung by Jerry Scoggins with the backing of Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Henning also created two other ‘rural’ TV comedies though did not write the theme songs. See next.

Green Acres, Petticoat Junction. Vic Mizzy wrote both of these songs as well as Mr. Ed, The Addams Family, and the themes for F Troop, The Snoop Sisters and Quincy.

This is by no means a comprehensive list. I was just going with some that came to mind as I was thinking about this.

You probably have some favorites that I have left out or missed.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

282 films are under final consideration for an Oscar nomination in the Best Picture category. This is the largest number of films in five years to meet the Academy’s requirements for nomination. Ballots have gone out to the nearly 6,000 members of the Academy and voting began on Monday. Voting closes on January 3, with the announcement of the nominees on January 10.

There has been some controversy about this, as voting is earlier this year than in the past. That means that a lot of Academy members have not yet seen many (or perhaps most) of the eligible films; a lot of viewing will have to be crammed into the next two weeks.

With this schedule, many voting members will rely on DVD screeners rather than seeing a film in a theatre or at a special screening. Clearly there will be some if not many of the 282 films that may not get seen by many members.

Another change this year is electronic voting. The Academy has always used paper ballots in the past, but this year a member may vote online or via paper ballot. The online voting will help somewhat with the schedule; a member can wait until the last minute to vote.

Voting for Best Picture nomination and eventual winner is done by all members of the Academy. In other categories, nominees are selected by members of the appropriate branch of the Academy. For instance only Actor members may vote on nominees in the acting categories.

To make the qualified list, the film must be at least forty minutes long and have had a commercial run of at least seven consecutive days in both Los Angeles and New York, during the year.

From the 282 qualified films, members will select as many as ten but no less than five actual nominated films (the other categories are limited to five nominees). This is determined by how many first place votes a film receives. With the sheer number of films and a number of real contenders from the Major studios (they have the money to put into high-powered Oscar campaigns) there will likely be 10 nominees. Last year there were 9.

The short list of films likely to be nominated includes some big pictures from the major studios (in the past few years, Best Picture nominees and winners have favored smaller budget, Independent films).

Here are some that I would be surprised if they did not get nominated. Each of these has received positive attention from critics, the film-festival circuit, Golden Globe and SAG Award nominations, and of course, the ‘Hollywood buzz’.

Lincoln, Argo, Zero Dark Thirty, The Master, Les Miserables.

The SAG Awards can be particularly predictive. Actors make up the largest branch of the Academy, so their votes are meaningful. Their nominees for best cast in a Motion Picture could be telling in how they vote in the Best Picture category.

Other possibilities: Silver Linings Play Book (which played at the Denver Film Festival), Amour and even Skyfall. Yes it is a year in which big, studio pictures are contending. My sleeper (and wishful) possibility is The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

You can view the entire list.

Friday, December 14, 2012

No ‘Monkey’ Ward? No Reindeer named Rudolph.

Christmas music is everywhere again this season – every store you go into. A mainstay of that music is Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer by any number of different artists.

But where did it come from?

I wrote recently about brands that have disappeared. One of those was Montgomery Ward and Company, known often as ‘Monkey’ Wards. Montgomery Ward was originally a Chicago mail-order business that evolved into a chain of retail department stores, similar to its other Chicago competitor, Sears. It went out of business, closing its last store in 2001.

Fortunately, when it was still a thriving business it gave the world one of the most popular Christmas songs ever – Rudolph The Red Nosed Reindeer.

Wait a minute, I thought that was Gene Autry, you say.

Yes, but without Monkey Wards it would never have existed.

In the 1930s a man named Robert May went to work for Wards in Chicago as an advertising copywriter.

In 1939, he was asked by his boss to write a ‘cheery’ Christmas coloring book with an animal as the central character for Ward’s shoppers. The company had been buying and giving away Christmas coloring books every year as a goodwill gesture. That year they decided to do something in house.

In early 1939, May went to work. He decided to use a deer as the animal (his daughter loved the deer at the Chicago zoo). The coloring book text would be in the form of a poem and thus was born Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer in rhyme.

Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of the book during the 1939 holiday season and it was immensely popular.

WWII came along and restrictions on the use of paper prevented a reissue until the war was over in 1946. That same year May also authorized a spoken-word recording of the poem, which was produced. (Montgomery Ward owned the copyright to the poem but graciously gave the rights to May, free of charge. A big corporation with a heart, apparently!)

Then in 1948, May’s brother in law, Johnny Marks adapted the poem as a song. In 1949 Gene Autry recorded it and it became a huge hit.

Interestingly, though May and his brother in law Marks were both Jewish they were responsible for one of the most popular Christmas songs of all time. Of course, Irving Berlin, who wrote White Christmas was also Jewish. Moreover, Marks, as a songwriter wrote a number of other Christmas songs including Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree recorded by Brenda Lee; I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day by Bing Crosby; A Holly Jolly Christmas by Burl Ives who also did a version of Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer; and Run Rudolph Run which Chuck Berry did.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

SAG Award and Golden Globe Nominations for Motion Pictures

Nominations are out for the 19th annual SAG Awards – can it really be 19 years that we have been doing this? Anyway, these nominations can be a harbinger (for the most part) of Oscar nominations in the actor category. Because of some differences in the nominating process, some films that qualify at the last minute for Oscar consideration can have been missed by the SAG Awards.

Nominations are also out for the Golden Globes. We'll look at those acting nominations as well.

SAG Awards:

For Theatrical Motion Pictures, there are nominations for male and female actors in the leading role and supporting role categories. There are also nominations for Motion Picture casts as a whole. There are also similar category nominations for Television but I won’t deal with those today.

Argo, Lincoln, Les Miserable, The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Silver Linings Playbook have all been nominated in the Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture category. I have to think that Lincoln and Les Miserable may have the inside track however Hotel could be the sleeper. It truly is ensemble work with terrific performances by a cast of veteran and favored actors. It is wonderful to watch seasoned actors who know how to interact (and react) with their peers in such a seamless and seemingly effortless fashion.

Lincoln and Les Miserable are also represented in the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Leading role category: Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln and Hugh Jackman in Les Miz. These are both big and showy parts, so again one has to consider them the favorites. However, my money is on John Hawkes in The Sessions. This is the kind of role and performance that actors (they are the ones who vote) really appreciate. Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook and Denzel Washington in Flight are also nominated.

For the women, it is Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, Helen Mirren in Hitchcock and Naomi Watts in The Impossible. Here, I don’t have a clue.

In the Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln, Philip Seymour in The Master, Robert De Niro in Silver Linings Playbook, Javier Bardem in Skyfall and Alan Arkin in Argo. I think Arkin may win this.

Outstanding Performance by a Female Actor in a Supporting Role has Sally Field in Lincoln, Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy, Maggie Smith in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel and Helen Hunt in The Sessions. I am leaning to Maggie Smith, but it certainly could be Hunt because of the nature of the film and the role.

I have listed what I think may be the outcome in the categories but not necessarily how I will vote. I do get to vote but I won’t make up my mind until I have to submit my ballot. Stay tuned.

We will know Sunday night, January 27, 2013.

Golden Globes:

The best actor nominees also include Daniel Day-Lewis in Lincoln John Hawkes in The Sessions and Denzel Washington in Flight. Additionally, Richard Gere in Aribitrage and from The Master Joaquin Phoenix.

Leading women nominated are almost identical to the SAG Awards nominees: Jessica Chastain in Zero Dark Thirty, Marion Cotillard in Rust and Bone, Helen Mirren in Hitchcock, Naomi Watts in The Impossible. The anomaly here is Rachel Weisz in The Deep Blue Sea.

Footnote: I have always refused to use the word ‘actress’ in referring to a woman who acts. There are male actors and there are female actors – it is gender neutral as far as I am concerned and I hate the idea of ‘genderizing’ what we as actors do.

The Golden Globes also nominate separately for actors in a comedy or musical.

For the men: Jack Black in Bernie, Bradley Cooper in Silver Linings Playbook, High Jackman in Les Moserables, Ewen McGregor in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen Bill Murray in Hyde Park on Hudson

Bradley Cooper and Hugh Jackman also made the SAG Awards list.

For the women: Emily Blunt in Salmon Fishing in the Yemen, Judy Dench in Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, Jennifer Lawrence in Silver Linings Playbook, Maggie Smith in Quartet, Meryl Streep in Hope Springs

It is interesting that Maggie Smith has a SAG Awards nomination for her supporting role in The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, and here, Judy Dench is nominated for the same film.

For supporting actors, the Globes don't create separate categories for comedy/musical and drama.

Men include some also nominated by the SAG Awards: Alan Arkin in Argo, Philip Semour Hoffman in The Master and Tommy Lee Jones in Lincoln. The others are Leonardo DiCaprio in Django Unchained and Christoph Waltz also in Django Unchained.

The Golden Globes nominated four women also nominated for a SAG Award: Sally Field in Lincoln,
Anne Hathaway in Les Miserables, Helen Hunt in The Sessions and Nicole Kidman in The Paperboy. Amy Adams was nominted for The Master.

I don't have a vote in the Golden Globes - I don't think I am foreign enough.

The Golden Globes Awards show airs January, 13th. that is two weeks before the SAG Awards and two days before the Oscar nominations are announced. As I said earlier, stay tuned.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Buffalo Bill's Grave and Museum - a Denver Treasure worth visiting

So when was the last time you visited the Buffalo Bill Museum? Is it something you recommend to your out of town friends or family when they come to visit? Did you even know that Denver has a Buffalo Bill Museum and that the westerner and showman is buried there?

This is one of Denver’s great treasures and while visitors from all over the world visit the museum and gravesite, many local Denver residents are not even aware that it exists.

William Cody “Buffalo Bill” got his nickname as the result of having a contract with the Kansas Pacific Railroad to provide buffalo meat to the crews building the railroad (what is now the Union Pacific). He was paid the rather sizable sum for the time of $500 a month. This ditty regarding Buffalo Bill was penned by an unknown railroad worker:

Buffalo Bill, Buffalo Bill
Never misses, never will
Always aims to shoot and kill
And the company pays his buffalo bill.

He was born in Iowa in 1846 and spent his life as a soldier, scout and showman creating his world-famous Wild West Show. He died in Denver in 1917. The funeral and procession was huge, 20,000 people attended the open casket funeral.

His wife Louisa said that he had always wanted to be buried on Lookout Mountain, west of Denver and that is where he is buried and is the site of the museum. The burial site was and is controversial as the town of Cody Wyoming (which Buffalo Bill founded) claimed that he should be buried there. In 1948, the Cody chapter of the American Legion offered a reward for ‘the return of the body’. The Denver chapter of the American Legion then posted a 24 hour guard on the grave. Eventually, the grave was sunk deeper into the mountain and covered with five tons of scrap metal and concrete to dissuade grave robbers.

Louisa died in 1921 and was buried in the same grave and on top of Buffalo Bill. It is said that she wanted to be buried on top of him to keep him from ‘gallivanting’ around. Apparently Bill was prone to gallivanting. He had tried to divorce Louisa in 1905, accusing her of trying to poison him. The divorce was not granted - the Judge didn't think the poisoning allegations was true. But during the trial a lot came out about Bill’s philandering. Despite all this, Louisa still wanted to be buried with him.

Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show was one of the great attractions in the late 19th and early 20th Centuries. It toured throughout Europe and the United States beginning in 1883 and lasting thirty years.

The museum and gravesite are actually part of the City of Denver’s Mountain Park system. The Museum’s core collection contains Cody’s last saddle, his Wild West Show outfit, and other personal, “favorite” items that he owned at the time of his death including his favorite portrait and favorite saddle.

The Museum also has one of the largest, if not the largest collections of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show promotional materials, including lithographs and programs. There is also a large collection of firearms.

The Museum also has a significant Native American collection including the headdresses of three important Sioux leaders: Sitting Bull, Iron Tail (he was used as the model for the Indian Head/Buffalo nickel), and Short Bull. Part of Sitting Bull’s peace pipe is also on display.

The gravesite and Museum (and of course the nearby Bison heard) on Lookout Mountain are consistently in the top-ten paid attractions in the Denver metro area. So, if you’re local and you haven’t, or even if you have; or if you are visiting and looking for something special, drive the short twelve miles west of downtown Denver on I-70 to Lookout Mountain. Enjoy the museum, the gravesite and the spectacular view east to Denver’s skyline and the Great plains beyond.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

Singin' In the Rain and Chariots of Fire on stage? Yup.

Cross pollination in the Theatre is not new, there is a long-standing practice of creating plays and musicals from other literary forms.

However, when I was in London recently and contemplating what plays I might see, I was struck by the number of offerings, which are based on a motion picture or television program. It was an ‘hmmm’ kind of moment. But as I thought about it, I realized that that cross pollination has been going on for a few years, now. Though, certainly it is more prevalent than ever now, even here in Denver.

The Denver Center Theatre Company (DCTC) is currently producing White Christmas, which is based on the 1954 film of the same name, which itself is based on the 1942 film Holiday Inn – cross pollination times 3. Both films feature songs by Irving Berlin (as does the DCTC production) and star Bing Crosby.

The Arvada Center has Miracle on 34th Street, the Musical, which is based on the 1947 film starring Maureen O’Hara, John Payne, Edmund Gwenn and Natalie Wood.

White Christmas, Holiday Inn and 'Miracle' are Christmas-time viewing favorites. It also should be noted that Miracle on 34th Street has been remade (it shouldn’t have been- why mess with something so good) in 1994.

Beyond these two productions, here is a rundown of recent or current theatrical productions based on a motion picture or television program:

The Bodyguard, the Musical, based on the 1992 film starring Kevin Costner and Whitney Houston, opened in London’s West End this fall. It stars Heather Headley as Rachel and Lloyd Owen as Frank Farmer.

Chariots of Fire also opened in the West End this autumn. Adapted from the 1981 Academy Award winning film about the 1924 Olympics (no accident that this play opened the same year as the 2012 London Games), the stage production features the Vangelis score from the film. Hugh Hudson, who directed the film, is one of the producers of the play.

Singin’ In the Rain, based on the 1952 MGM film of the same name, opened in the West End last February. Getting rave reviews it is scheduled to run until next September. And yes, the great dance and song sequence that Gene Kelly created happens on stage – deluge and all.

Top Hat is another song and dance film translated to the stage, in London. This production based on the 1935 RKO, Fred Astaire, Ginger Rogers classic, opened last May. It is all about the singing and dancing.

Shrek the Musical is of course based on the 2001 film and has been around. It played on Broadway, the West End and has toured.

Newsies, the Tony award-winning musical currently playing in New York is based on the 1992 Disney film about the 1899 New York news boy strike.

Mary Poppins is another Disney film that has been running on Broadway for five years – Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Spiderman. After some serious technical issues, the rock musical based on the 2002 film and comic book character opened on Broadway in June of 2011. It features music and lyrics by U2s Bono and David Howell Evans (the Edge).

Disney has also given us the stage musical The Lion King based on the 1994 animated film of the same name. The stage version opened originally in 1997 at the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis. It has since seen productions, many continuing, everywhere, including Broadway and the West End. It has been a huge success and money maker. Tim Rice wrote the lyrics and Sir Elton John wrote the music. It is currently the 5th longest running musical on Broadway.

There is also Wicked, which was ‘suggested’ by the 1939 MGM classic The Wizard of Oz.

And The 39 Steps which is a comic version of Alfred Hitchcock’s more serious 1935 film and which has been playing in London forever. There was also a production by DCTC at the Ricketson Theatre in 2010.

Finally a couple of plays that came from Television.

Yes, Prime Minister, which I recently saw in London, which is based on the BBC Television series, Yes, Minister and its sequel Yes, Prime Minister.

Steptoe and Son. This classic BBC comedy series has now been adapted to the stage. The London version will open at the Lyric Hammersmith next March. The BBC’s television series was the inspiration for American Television’s Sanford and Son with Redd Foxx and Demond Wilson.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Eating in Honolulu

I'm just back from Honolulu and thought I would share some thoughts about eating there, if you might be headed that way soon (for your sake, I hope so).

Eating in Honolulu can be a challenge particularly in Waikiki There are lots of tourist oriented spots and some are pretty marginal. There are also the chains, everything from Denny’s to KFC to the various sub shops. And of course, there are some nice, white table cloth places, most pretty pricey.

However, eating in Honolulu is also cultural experience. Honolulu, like the rest of Hawaii is culturally diverse: Native Hawaiians, Japanese, Chinese, Haole (people like me), the Portuguese and others. The good news is that diversity is reflected in the cuisine that is available.

Here are my thoughts for eating in Honolulu. This is by no means a comprehensive list, nor is it meant to be a list of the cheapest places to eat, though some are very inexpensive and all are reasonably priced. The cuisine is local, meaning these are places the locals eat, too.


You can get typical American style breakfasts (eggs, bacon, pancakes, etc.) most places but instead, why not a real taste of Hawaii, Loco Moco? There can be many variations of Loco Moco, but essentially it is white rice, topped with a hamburger patty, a fried egg and brown gravy. Yum. You can often get it with brown rice instead of white and Spam or Kalua Pork instead of Hamburger. And frankly there are even more variations you may run into in place of the hamburger.

You can get Loco Moco most anywhere (even McDonald’s in Honolulu has Loco Moco on the menu), but two you might want to seek out are Like Like Drive In and the Rainbow Drive in.

Like Like opened in1953 and though it is no longer a car-hop drive in, you will feel like you are back in the 50s when you eat there.

Rainbow is just a bit younger. It opened in 1961. In addition to Loco Moco, Rainbow also serves another Hawaiian classic, the Plate Lunch. Plate Lunch is actually similar to Loco Moco, but with Macaroni salad in addition to the rice and without the fried egg.

But for a real treat, get your coffee (Kona, of course) and stop by Leonard’s bakery for some Malasadas. Malasadas are Portuguese doughnuts – actually doughnuts without

the hole. You can get them plain (with sugar or with sugar and cinnamon) or filled with custard.

Take your coffee, Malasadas and maybe some orange juice and find a bench along the south end of Waikiki beach across from Kapiolani Park. There is a nice area near the War Memorial Natatorium – itself worth seeing. It can be very pleasant, away from the hotels along Kalakau just gazing at the Pacific and eating your Malasadas.

Leonard’s also had its start in the 50s, 1952 to be exact by Leonard and Margaret Rego, the grandchildren of Portuguese immigrants. Much of what we consider ‘local’ food, including Loco Moco and Plate lunch has a Portuguese influence combined with that of the other ethnic cultures to create uniquely Hawaiian dishes.


Your choice, one of two places right next door to one another:

Nico's on Pier 38. The fish is as fresh as it can be, provided by the local fishing fleet – on the very pier where the restaurant is located.

Nico's started as a hole-in-the-wall lunch counter by Jim Cook and Nico Chaize. Jim is the fisherman and Nico is the chef. To eat, you went to the counter, ordered your food, and hoped to find a place at one of the open air tables. I first ate at Nico's when it was still the funky take-out place and vowed I would always come back when in Honolulu.

The food was outstanding and that meant that Nico's popularity with locals continued to grow and that meant that Nico's had to grow. It now occupies a large space a few yards from the old place. It boasts lots of tables but more importantly the food is still outstanding.

You don't have to have the fish – there are lots of other items on the menu, including Loco Moco – but with fish hand-selected each morning at the Hawaii fish auction (also on Pier 38) it is difficult to opt for anything else. Lunch is served 10 AM to 4 PM.

“We honor the Uncles.” That is the slogan at Uncles, also on Pier 38.

The name of this restaurant and the slogan refer to “the brotherhood of hook and net – the long ago men who beat the sun up by hours to be heading out of the harbor  in pursuit of ahi, aku, and bottom fish.” Video of Japanese, Chinese, local Haole, Filipino and Hawaiian fisherman play on screens in the restaurant.

While there a lots of other items on the menu, it is fish that Uncles is all about. The restaurant is run by fish wholesaler Fresh Island Fish, right next door. That means that the fish literally comes off the boats, into Fresh Island Fish and then onto your plate.

Interestingly, Uncles is just a stone's throw from Nico's.

There is always a catch of the day and you can get it as fish and chips, or a fish sandwich. Fish in Fish and chips is done in a very nice Panko coating. In the sandwich, your choice is grilled, broiled or blackened Cajun style.

A specialty is the Ahi Poke Tower.


Chuck's Cellar.

The last place you would expect to enjoy a meal in the heart of Waikiki is Chuck's Cellar.

Located between the Ohana East and Sheraton Princess Kaiulani hotels, Chuck's Cellar is actually in a cellar underneath Roundtable Pizza. You will have to look for the door in the exterior wall.

There is nothing elegant or fancy about this place, but the food is outstanding, it is exceptionally, reasonably priced and the atmosphere is informal and comfortable. And not only do you go down the stairs to the restaurant you feel like you are going back in time. Chuck's is just like it was when it first opened in 1959.

There is a bar, with great bartenders, and nightly entertainment. Local musicians with an emphasis on piano, bass and drums, standards, light jazz, etc.

The menu is heavy on beef but there is fish, too. The prime rib, available every night is slow roasted 4 to 5 hours and is great. The steaks are all USDA Prime, aged and hand-cut on the premises and grilled over Lava Rock.

There is a nightly special, always Mahi Mahi paired with the chef's choice of Steak Diane, Hibachi Steak, or Prime Tips and mushrooms.

There is also always a catch of the day of locally caught fish.

Chuck Rolles, the Chuck of Chuck's Cellar came to Hawaii after graduating from Cornell Hotel and Restaurant school. With the success of the 'Cellar' he opened a second Chuck’s on Waikiki (this one actually has a view) and later to places in the Continental US. But the Cellar is still the best.

So have a 'real' martini – no little umbrellas in the drink - listen to some tinkling piano, order your entree from one of the extremely friendly and helpful wait staff (you won't be rushed, if you are looking for a leisurely eating experience) go to the soup and salad bar when you are ready, its included with the meal and the soups are made fresh, in-house daily. I am not a fan of salad bars, but I make an exception here. Enjoy.

Like Like Drive In
745 Keeaumoku St.
Honolulu, HI 96814

Rainbow Drive In
3308 Kanaina Ave
Honolulu, HI 96815

Leonard's Bakery
933 Kapahulu Ave
Honolulu, HI 96818

1133 Nimitz Hwy.
Honolulu, HI 96817

1135 Nimitz Hwy
Honolulu, HI 96817

Chuck's Cellar
150 Kaiulani Avenue
Honolulu, HI 96815

Friday, December 7, 2012

Pearl Harbor movies and others - the best and the not so best

There have been numerous films and TV series that dealt all or in part with Pearl Harbor. Some are good and some are pretty marginal. Some deal with Pearl Harbor as part of a larger look at WWII; some deal with Pearl Harbor and the war immediately after; only two that I am aware of deal with the actual attack itself. There is also one that deals with the attack but the period leading up to it is actually about the fictional characters on Oahu at the time of the attack.

So here is my list of films that I will almost always watch – that doesn't mean they are all great (though some are) it just means they are my favorites and some I usually don't miss. The list of TV series and 'Others' follows.

From Here to Eternity
Fred Zinnermann’s masterpiece won Best Picture, Best Supporting Actor (Frank Sinatra), Best Supporting Actress (Donna Reed), and five additional awards. The film deals with the weeks leading up to the attack and centers on soldiers stationed at Schofield Barracks and the women with whom they are involved. Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster filmed a scene that, at the time was not a cliché – a searing romantic kiss on the beach as waves washed around them.

Based on the novel by James Jones, it focuses on Robert E. Lee Prewitt played by Montgomery Clift who falls in love with Donna Reed's character, a 'lady' at the New Congress Club (in the book it is clear she is a hooker but the film dances around that). Prewitt is a bugler (he played taps at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier) and a former boxer. He killed a man in the ring and refuses to fight, which creates much of the tension in the film. As Lancaster's character says, “he was always a hard head.”

In the movie The Godfather, a young Italian singer comes to the Godfather asking a favor. He really wants a part in a movie that he is sure will revive his career. Later the producer of the movie is made 'an offer he can't refuse'. He wakes up to find the bloody head of his favorite horse in his bead. The singer gets the role. The story has been that this was in reality Sinatra and the movie was From Here to Eternity.

The cast is full of wonderful actors: Jack Warden, Ernest Borgnine, Claude Akins, Mickey Shaughnessy and in a wonderful sequence, Merle Travis 'Travis Picking' and singing, Reenlistment Blues.

I love this film. Along with Casablanca, I will watch it anywhere, anytime.

Tora Tora Tora
The film tells the story of the attack in almost documentary style from both the American and Japanese perspective. The battle sequences are incredibly real, and the performances quite good. Telling the story by moving from the Japanese fleet, to Oahu, to Washington DC, works very well. One gets caught up in the unfolding 'mystery' of what will happen, despite knowing what will happen. The ability to build suspense in that way is a real credit.

In Harms Way
This is another one that I will watch anywhere, anytime, though it certainly is not in the league of Casablanca or From Here to Eternity.

It centers on Naval Captain (eventually to be Admiral) Rockwell Torrey played by John Wayne (who would go on to single-handedly win WWII in numerous films). He is commanding a cruiser just arriving at Pearl Harbor as the attack begins. The rest of the film follows 'Rock' through the early months of the war, winding up with a major naval battle, that we are certain will turn the tide of the war.

Rock becomes romantically involved with an Army Nurse, played by Patricia Neal, who utters one of the worst lines imaginable but with such aplomb and dignity that she makes it work: “Will there be time for us, Rock, out there?”

Kirk Douglas plays Rock's second in command. He has an evil fire burning inside him that eventually comes out when he rapes a young nurse who is engaged to Rock's son. He makes up for it by going on a suicide mission to determine where the Japanese fleet is.

Whether it was intentional or not, I don't know, but the film begins with a sequence reminiscent of the beach scene in From Here to Eternity. where Douglas' character's wife leaves a dance and drunkenly ends up on the beach with a Marine officer (played by Wyatt Earp – Hugh O'Brien). They have ostensibly 'done it' there on the beach, probably kissing as the waves washed around them. The scene ends with them fleeing as the Japanese attack and they are killed.

Pearl Harbor
Michael Bay's blockbuster set immediately before, during and after the December 7, 1941 Japanese attack tells the story of two best friends and the woman they both love. Heavily criticized for its script and acting, the movie, nevertheless, features the best re-creation of the Pearl Harbor attack ever put on film.

There have been a couple of TV Mini-series as well.

Winds of War
Based on the epic novel by Herman Wouk, who wrote about WWII as well as anybody, Winds centers on a naval officer, 'Pug' Henry, played by Robert Mitchum, who is a confidant of Franklin Roosevelt and Naval Attache to the American embassy in Berlin. The story begins in 1939 prior to Hitler's invasion of Poland and end after the attack (it was followed by the sequel War and Remembrance).

The cast included Polly Bergen, John Houseman, David Dukes, Ali McGowan and Ralph Bellamy as Roosevelt (he had previously played the President in Sunrise at Campbell).

It was directed by Dan Curtis, famous for the original daytime vampire soap opera, Dark Shadows.

If it comes back on cable, I will watch it.

This was a less satisfying series. It starred Dennis Weaver, Angie Dickinson (with whom, I did a Made for TV movie – The Suicides Wife), Leslie Ann Warren and Robert Wagner. The battle scenes were terrific – they should have been, they were lifted from Tora Tora Tora, to save production costs.


December 7th, 1941
John Ford won an Academy Award for this short film, which was released as propaganda in 1943. Originally surpassing 80 minutes, it was edited down to some 30 odd minutes to cut out footage that presented the United States military as being poorly prepared for the attack. However, the full-length version was released in the early 1990s. Because it’s propaganda it’s considerably far from truth, but presents an interesting view nonetheless.

I Bombed Pearl Harbor
If you’re looking for the flip side, I Bombed Pearl Harbor, a Japanese film from 1961, tells the story of a young Japanese pilot who survives the attack on Pearl Harbor. Although he celebrates the victory, he later is confined after the battle of Midway. It’s an intriguing look at the attack from a different angle.

Remember Pearl Harbor
Released in 1942, this was the first fictional film based on the events at Pearl Harbor. While it’s not a blockbuster action flick, it presents a thought-provoking look at the reactions of Hawaiians after being bombed by the Japanese.

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Documentaries and the Oscar, some I have seen

Fifteen documentary features will advance in the Oscar nomination process. Two of those have had a screening at the Sie Film Center, though interestingly not as part of the Starz Denver Film Festival.

Ethel, about the wife of Robert Kennedy screened in March as part of the Women+ Film series. Detropia had a regular run in October. Both of these films certainly deserve making the short list for an Oscar.

The process for being nominated for an Oscar is a cumbersome one for documentaries. The Academy requires, among other criteria, that the film have a commercial run of at least one week in both Los Angeles and Manhattan, prior to December 31. Many worthy documentaries cannot meet this requirement and in the past have been ineligible. The International Documentary Association has developed a somewhat inelegant workaround, allowing more documentaries to at least submit this year.

The fifteen film short list was pared by the Documentary Branch of the Academy from an initial submission of 126 films. A second round of voting by the Branch will come up with the five nominees.

As I noted in my review, Detropia is visually stunning and tells its story in a moving fashion.

Ethel is done in more conventional documentary style. It was made by Rory Kennedy, the youngest daughter of Ethel and Robert. Ethel was pregnant with her at the time Robert was killed, and Rory was born six months after his death.

The film consists of commentary and interviews with the surviving Kennedy children and Ethel herself. Rory provides the narration and does the interviews. It tracks Ethel from the time she met the Kennedy clan, eventually married Robert and raised eleven children after her husbands death. It is funny and bittersweet and very moving to those of us of the generation that revered Bobby and Jack and what they stood for. But more than that, this is a portrait of a remarkable woman.

In addition to Ethel and Detropia, I have seen one other film from the list of fifteen: Searching for Sugarman.

This is an interesting film. It deals with a search or really an investigation by two South Africans, Stephen Segerman (called Sugarman by friends – more about that later) and music journalist Craig Bartholomew Strydom, to find out what happened to an American Folk Singer from the early 70s, Rodriguez: did he really die by committing suicide on stage? The tone of his songs was often bleak (he was living in Detroit and the times were bleak) and so some of those who heard them could easily believe that he would commit suicide.

Rodriguez was a somewhat mysterious singer/songwriter who produced two albums, one in 1970 and another in 1971 and then disappeared. And the film is really more about developing a 'picture' of Rodriguez than it is about the search itself – that is also why it is a better film.

Saying, he disappeared is almost a misstateent. His albums did not sell in the United States and he was basically unknown, so in point of fact he never really appeared in order to disappear. The albums were released by Sussex Records (now out of business) and in December of 1971, they dropped him – two weeks before Christmas. (Ironically, one of the songs on the last album talks about being fired two weeks before Christmas.)

The individuals who heard him, produced the songs and signed him originally were dumbfounded that he did not become a megastar on the order of Bob Dylan – many of those persons are interviewed in the film.

However, through a strange set of circumstances (and without him knowing it) he developed a huge fan base in South Africa. A young American woman, visiting in South Africa brought with her the first album. Segerman, heard it and fell in love with it. The album, or its successor was not available in South Africa at the time, so Segerman started making cassette copies and passing them on to friends. From this grew the fan base and eventually a couple of South African record companies obtained the South African rights to distribute the album and Rodriguez' following in the country grew to giant proportions.

In the middle 90s, Segerman decided he wanted to find out what had actually happened to Rodriguez. Why wasn't he still recording, why wasn't he a hit in the US, did he really commit suicide? Teaming up with Strydom, he created a website, with a drawing of Rodriquez on a milk carton. It is a this point, halfway through the film that we actually first hear about the search and how it was conducted.

Finally there is a hit on the website. Segerman gets an email from a woman in America, who states that not only is Rodriguez not dead, he is her father.

Segerman and Strydom meet Rodriguez – he is working as he always has as a blue-collar, working-class laborer doing demolition in Detroit and his name is actually Sixto Rodriguez. However, they arrange for him to go to South Africa for a series of concerts – sold out concerts with thousands of screaming fans. It is surreal.

As I note above this is less about the actual search than introducing us to this man and letting us hear his music - he will be touring in 2013.

I am not certain how this will play with Academy voters or if it will actually make the final five nominees, but it is a fascinating story and that is what makes it, rather than the aesthetic of the filmmaking.

The documentary is a Swedish/British production by Malik BendJelloul.

Oh and Sugarman? Early in the film Segerman notes that he was indeed called Sugarman by friends and he sort of associtated that with the fact that Rodriguez had a song on his first album titled Sugarman.

Saturday, December 1, 2012

Larry Hagman - actor and bagman

So, last Sunday morning when I read the London Sunday Times I did a double take at a story on the front page.

In a trip to Romania in the 1980s with his wife, Hagman was asked by then dictator Nicolae Ceausescu for permission to put a giant portrait of Hagman, as JR Ewing on the side of a building.

The television program Dallas was very popular in Romania and the dictator thought that popularity could some how rub off on him and his regime (it didn't he was executed in 1989 in the uprising that brought down the communist government).

Hagman agreed, provided that a bag of hard currency was left in a ladies room in the government building for his wife to pick up the next day. It was and she did. Hagman said a brown paper bag of money was there and they spent it pretty quickly.

Hagman told this story to the Sunday Times but asked that it not be published until after his death.

Truth can be stranger than fiction!

Hagman had also said in previous public interviews that he thought Dallas had a lot to do with the downfall of not only the Ceausescu regime but Soviet Communism. In an interviews with the AP, he said, “I think we were directly or indirectly responsible for the fall of the empire. They would see the wealthy Ewings and say, 'hey, we don't have all this stuff.' I think it was good old-fashioned greed that got them to question their authority.”

Hagman had always been a Republican, but he shocked many when he became very outspoken against George W. Bush. He once said that Bush “is a sad figure, not well-educated despite all his advantages, who does not get out of America much,”

Hagman had also become very 'green' (not just with money from Romanians), drove a Prius and had converted his Ojai home to solar power and self-recycling water systems. He said his environmental commitment was 'penance' for all those years of making the Ewing oil barons seem so “damned charismatic.”

Larry Hagman was indeed charismatic.

As an actor, he will always be remembered for Dallas and I Dream of Jeannie, but for me I will always remember him for a couple of smaller roles: the Sheriff in one of my favorite westerns, The Hired Hand with Peter Fonda and Warren Oates, and the interpreter for Henry Fonda's President in Fail Safe.