Thursday, June 23, 2016

Now You See Me 2

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Now You See Me 2 (Lionsgate, 2016) – Director: Jon M. Chu. Writers: Ed Solomon (s/p and story), Pete Chiarelli (story), Boaz Yakin & Edward Ricourt (characters). Stars: Jesse Eisenberg, Mark Ruffalo, Woody Harrelson, Dave Franco, Daniel Radcliffe, Isla Fisher, Lizzy Caplan, Jay Chou, Sanaa Lathan, Michael Caine, Morgan Freeman, David Warshofsky, Tsai Chin, Ben Lamb, William Henderson, Richard Laing, & Henry Lloyd-Hughes. Color, Rated PG-13, 129 minutes.

Although this movie takes place one year after the first installment, it’s been three years since the first one was released. For those who did not see the previous film, a little background information may be necessary. (For the full review of the first film, click here.) 

Four incomparable amateur magicians are formed into a team by an unknown benefactor and call themselves the “Four Horsemen:” J. Daniel Atlas (Eisenberg), Merritt McKinney (Harrelson), Jack Wilder (Franco), and Henley Reeves (Fisher). They perform in an elaborate Las Vegas show funded by Arthur Tressler (Caine) and their final trick is to empty the vault of the Crédit Republicain Bank in Paris of its recent delivery of euros and then shower the Las Vegas crowd with the money. FBI agent Dylan Rhodes (Ruffalo) is assigned to investigate them. He turns to former magician, now magic debunker, Thaddeus Bradley (Freeman) for help. In a later spectacular trick, they steal millions of dollars from Tressler’s private account and plant the money on Bradley, thus landing him in jail as well as making an enemy of Tressler. We learn that Dylan is the son of famous magician Lionel Shrike and he leads them to an elite and secretive group of magicians called The Eye.


A year later, Henley Reeves has left the infamous quartet and the remaining three are keeping under the public radar. But nature abhors a vacuum and illusionist Lula (Caplan) finds Atlas begging to be the fourth (and first woman) horseman. Dylan, still working for the FBI, and still unknown as the fifth horseman, inducts her into the group with a special mission. It seems that Owen Case (Lamb) has created a major bit of malware which can steal identities not only from computers, but from phones and other electronic devices. The Four Horsemen are assigned to discredit him. However, in the middle of their presentation, the scheme is thwarted by a mysterious intruder and the four run for their escape plan.

But instead of winding up in the truck they had waiting for them, they wake up in Macao. Asian thugs lead them to Walter Mabry (Radcliffe). Not only is he the one whose high-tech brilliance interrupted their show, but he’s the illegitimate son of Arthur Tressler. He wants the chip from Owen Cases’ machine (which just happens to be the same size as a standard playing card) for his own corporation’s uses.

Meanwhile, Deputy Director Natalie Austin (Lathan) and Dylan are seeking out the Four Horsemen to eventually arrest them, but the group’s public appeal as modern day Robin Hoods make it extremely difficult. Dylan breaks Bradley out of prison and, following the clues, wind up in Macao, where Bradley vanishes.

The first movie was spectacular, but the sequel easily outdoes it. There are several “Wow” moments, great dialogue, superb special effects, acting that makes you care about the characters and a super soundtrack. It was like watching a Penn and Teller show with a fantastic Mission Impossible story (virtually all the tricks performed are explained). It opens with the back-story between Dylan and Bradley when Young Dylan (Henderson) witnesses the death of his father, Lionel Shrike (Laing) in his final illusion – escaping an inescapable safe at the bottom of a river. Morgan Freeman’s performance was so slick you didn’t know if he was a bad guy or a good one. Daniel Radcliffe makes a greasy villain as compared with Michael Caine’s suave exterior. And I loved Lizzy Caplan as the new member of the team. She provides a lot of the comic relief, but you know she’s dead serious. And Woody Harrelson gets to play two parts, as the serious Merritt McKinney and his wacky twin brother, Chase.

I didn’t see any children in the audience but I’m sure they would be amazed, even without the first film. The language is kept clean almost throughout (only one goof and it’s a small one) and the short violent scene is bloodless. I came out of the theater almost tired. That’s entertainment!

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


The Perfect Pint
123 W. 45th St., New York

Casual is this Irish pub with the unusual menu items from Asian places. If you can’t locate The Perfect Pint by the pint-shaped neon sign three stories over the door, you might find it with the six-foot-high, three-dimensional one just above the faux-thatched awning over the entrance. 


Once inside, I confirmed my reservation with the hostess and she led me upstairs to a long, cozy room with perhaps 20 tables total. I sat at a central table about midway in the room and chose to face the bar. A true pub, none of the tables had tablecloths, but there were both charcoal and cream colored cloth napkins.

With a selection of 40 brews on tap, I was not about to order a cocktail. With Meabh, my server, I chose a three-course meal and the order in which each dish was to come. To start I chose The Perfect Pint Irish Red. This red beer had the creamy flavor and minimum bite for a refreshing start to my meal. 

As I mentioned before The Perfect Pint is an unusual pub in that interesting Asian dishes are mixed in with the standard Irish pub food. For my first course I chose the chicken lemon grass dumplings with ponzu (soy based) dipping sauce.

The dumplings were light, tender and aromatic with ginger and only a light flavor of the lemon grass. With it was a sprinkling of what only could be called kim chee, but not as spicy as the Koreans would make it. It was remarkable. With it, I chose the Magners “Angry Orchard” beer, boasting that 17 varieties of apple go into its brewing. It delivered the apple experience in spades.

I had considered the Newcastle Brown Ale to be perfect with my second course, the Irish onion soup – caramelized onions, stout, chicken broth, sage derby croutons and, of course cheese. It is sweeter and less salty than French onion soup and uses mozzarella instead of gruyere. The sage and the stout made it uniquely delicious.


On to the main course: crazy plum shrimp lo mein. I found it to be unlike any lo mein I’ve ever had in a Chinese restaurant; more like the Vietnamese would make it. The noodles were almost translucent with julienned green, red and yellow bell peppers, and the sauce was both spicy and sweet. The shrimp were cooked to that crunchy tenderness shrimp lovers enjoy.

To accompany it I chose Duvel Green – a full-flavored Belgian golden ale. Its spicy after taste almost interfered with the dish but it was an exciting combination.

Meabh then asked me what would my next choice of beer would be before dessert. I chose Hoegaarden – a white, Belgian wheat beer, spiced and fermented in the medieval fashion. It was rich, hoppy, and almost malty, but a good precursor to dessert.


While the Irish cream cheesecake was tempting, the Mississippi mud pie won me over. In addition to the rich, dark chocolate topping the normally cocoa/chocolate filling was imbued with Bailey’s Irish Cream and Jameson, making it irresistible on a chocolate, graham cracker crust.

Meabh was ready with my check, but I saw that they had specialty coffees. I asked if could have a cup of regular coffee. “Yes.” And I noticed that there were two single-malt scotches I’ve never tasted, Clynelish and Middleton. I ordered them both. Meabh identified which was which and I started my comparison. The Clynelish is smooth and unassuming, a good scotch for the non-scotch-drinker. The Midleton was my favored one; it had the character and the slight bite of a good scotch.

When I had paid the check and was ready to leave I asked Meabh how long the two Perfect Pints (there’s one on the East Side as well) have been in business and she responded, six years. I had a great time and I look forward to the chance of dining there again and trying more ales or beers.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for June 23-30

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
June 23-June 30

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

EXECUTIVE SUITE (June 24, 12:30 pm): A fascinating look inside the cutthroat world of the business boardroom as allegiances are formed through a variety of ways, including blackmail and seduction. Top executives at a major furniture company are fighting it out to see who will run the company after the president drops dead on the sidewalk. The dialogue is riveting and the storyline is compelling. A large part of the film takes place inside an office, particularly the boardroom, which normally detracts from a film. But this is quite the engaging movie. The film's greatest strength is its all-star cast – William Holden, Barbara Stanwyck, Frederic March and Walter Pidgeon at the top of the bill.

JULIUS CAESAR (June 25, 4:00 pm): This 1953 film is among my two favorite cinematic adaptions of William Shakespeare along with Laurence Olivier's Hamlet (which is on June 29 at 10:00 pm). Marlon Brando at his method acting mumbling peak is brilliant as Mark Antony. Brando more than holds his own in a film that features an all-star cast of Shakespearean veterans such as James Mason, John Gielgud and John Hoyt as well as other talented actors including Louis Calhern (as Caesar), Edmond O'Brien, George Macready, Greer Garson and Deborah Kerr. That it came from MGM, known for its slick production values, and was directed by Joseph L. Mankiewicz, who made numerous fine films but nothing even remotely close to Shakespeare, are pleasant surprises.

ED’S BEST BETS:

BLACK ORPHEUS (June 23, 4:00 pm): A beautifully lyrical updating of the Orpheus and Eurydice legend set during Brazil’s Carnival as streetcar conductor Orfeo (Bruno Mello) meets, loses, finds, and finally loses his Eurydice, country girl Mira (Marpessa Dawn). Wonderfully acted, directed and scored, this is the ultimate eye candy, with vivid images of Carnival drawing us in to the proceedings, a testament to the power of film to entrance and entertain. The soundtrack, with is mixture of samba and bossa nova, was a bestselling album and it’s easy to understand why. This is a film that cries out to be seen. It’s one of my Essentials.

SATURDAY NIGHT AND SUNDAY MORNING (June 26, 8:15 am): During the late ‘50s and into the ‘60s, Britain made a series of what became to be known as “Angry Young Man” films. This is one of the best. It’s centered on Arthur Seaton (Albert Finney), a Nottingham factory worker who combines a hatred of authority with his anger at his co-workers’ acceptance of it. The anger constantly eats at him, even during off work hours making pub tours with his mates. But though he is a rebel with a cause, he has no plan of how to escape the oppressive conformity that’s crushing his soul. To assuage himself, he adopts the motto of “What I want is a good time. The remainder is all propaganda.” In other words, live for the moment and see what tomorrow may bring and deal with it then. He channels his anger into drinking bouts and an affair with his best friend’s wife, Brenda (Rachel Rebuts), whom he ends up impregnating. At the same time, he’s head over heels for Doreen (Shirley Anne Field), a young woman whose extraordinary beauty masks her shallowness and desire for conformist respectability. Directed by Karel Reisz from a script from Alan Sillitoe.

WE DISAGREE ON ... JESUS CHRIST SUPERSTAR (June 30, 12:30 am)

ED: D+. Hollywood has always had a tenuous relationship with religion, with the question being how to make the most money with the least criticism. And for the most part, the depictions of Christ in the movies followed the cultural and political mores of the time. And this film is no different. Based on the musical by Tim Rice and Andrew Lloyd Webber, the Kings of Kitsch, it gives us a distinctly ‘70s approach to its subject, making him out as some type of hippie up against the Establishment. Aside from the music, it fails as a film: poorly directed and badly acted, especially by its lead, Ted Neely, whose voice wasn’t up to the task. (In fact, the vocals are all dubbed, with really poor sync, plus the film suffers from some serious continuity errors with the chorus dubs.) The anachronistic prop and costume choices were inconsistent, to say the least: sometimes they were period, sometimes they were modern, and sometimes in-between. The movie is supposed to be as look at Christ through the eyes of Judas, the film’s anti-hero. Unfortunately, Judas seems to be shrieking his songs like a mad dog. Josh Mostel’s Herod comes off as a camp figure and his scenes with Neely were pathetic. This was the first film that gave us Jesus as James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause – he’s so confused. In fact, the Jesus in this atrocity is so wimpy it’s hard to imagine anyone following him around the corner, much less to Jerusalem. Neely won a Golden Turkey from the Medved Brothers for his performance. For those who want to see a good feature on the life of Christ, try Nicholas Ray’s King of Kings with Jeffrey Hunter from 1961 or Franco Zeffirelli’s 1977 mini-series, Jesus of Nazareth.


DAVID: C. First, I'm not a fan of this film as you can tell by my grade. But I felt that Ed's D+ was too harsh as the movie has a few redeeming qualities. Carl Anderson is very good as Judas, Josh Mostel as an over-the-top Herod is campy fun, and Yvonne Elliman (who plays Mary Magdalene) is an excellent singer, but a terrible actress. The location shots are beautiful, some of the songs are good, and Jesus as the leader of a group of "Jesus Freak Hippies" is an interesting twist as is having Judas be a sympathetic character who thinks he's doing the right thing. I like how the film reflects its time during the early 1970s though Ed is correct that it's unclear whether it wants to be in biblical times or what was modern times in 1973. The “Superstar” musical number toward the end of the film is completely outrageous and enjoyable. Now for the bad – and there's a lot of it so I won't write everything. The biggest problem is casting Ted Neely as Jesus. He's awful. He can't sing, he can't act, and has no personality or charisma. If that was really Jesus, the Christian religion would not exist. Ian Gillan, Deep Purple's lead singer, sang Jesus' parts on the original 1970 rock opera album, and would have been a major improvement over Neely in terms of his vocals and presence. Gillan turned down the offer to play the title role in the film to focus on his work with the classic heavy-metal rock band. Everyone knows that nothing good comes from a singing dialogue and this film is Exhibit A on the subject. The movie is also about as anti-Semitic as it gets with the Jewish religious leaders plotting to have Jesus killed and the crowd of Jews portrayed as a blood-thirsty mob. I saw this film when it was in the theaters in 1973. I was six years old and my father didn't really understand parental responsibility. To say I was freaked out after seeing it would be an understatement. To this day even seeing clips unnerves me. As I've explained, the film isn't terrible, but its multiple flaws greatly exceed its good points.

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

Sunday, June 19, 2016

Special Agent

Film in Focus

By Ed Garea

Special Agent (WB, 1935) – Director: William Keighley. Writers: Laird Doyle and Abem Finkel (s/p). Martin Mooney (story). Stars: Bette Davis, George Brent, Ricardo Cortez, Jack La Rue, Henry O’Neill, Robert Strange, Joseph Crehan, J. Carrol Naish, Joe Sawyer, William B. Davidson, Robert Barrat, Paul Guilfoyle, Joe King, & Irving Pichel. B&W, 76 minutes.

Neither Bette Davis nor George Brent held any special regard for Special Agent. Davis felt frustrated by what she saw as subpar efforts by director William Keighley and cameraman Sid Hickox, while Brent was a little more vocal in his criticism, telling writer Ruth Waterbury of Photoplay that the film was “a poor paltry thing, unbelievable and unconvincing.” Brent’s statements shocked Waterbury, for his reputation around the lot was as an actor who did what was required and rarely complained. He considered himself fortunate to be in show business as he regarded his own acting abilities as poor and was often afraid that people would find out just how lousy he was and fire him.

True, Brent was a wooden actor, but his affable personality endeared him to moviegoers. Moreover, Davis liked him. Special Agent was the fifth film they made together, and they would go on to make six more, including the classics Jezebel and Dark Victory. But though she liked working with him, she still noted that his onscreen energy never came close to matching his off-screen vigor. Luckily for Brent, Waterbury never published his criticism because she showed it to the Warner Bros. publicity department and they talked her out of it.


However, Special Agent was popular with the public and critics. The New York Times lauded it as a “crisp, fast moving and thoroughly entertaining melodrama,” noting that Warner Bros. “have set about the job of glorifying the special agents of the Internal Revenue Bureau with commendable thoroughness and a neat sense of gun play.”

The script, from a story by real-life newspaperman (and the film’s co-producer) Martin Mooney, is a reworking of the Al Capone tax evasion trail. Ricardo Cortez, Warners’ stock villain of the time, is gangster Alexander Carston. Carston’s pretty much a Teflon Don, having just been acquitted by a jury on charges of bribery. As we saw at the beginning of the movie, the IRS Chief (Barrat) has charged his agents with going after those gangsters whom the local authorities have been unable to put away.

Carston is living pretty high on the hog. He’s a favorite of society people and a continuing story for reporters, one of whom is Bill Bradford (Brent). Carston has his bookkeeper Julie Gardner (Davis) audit the accounts of Alec “Waxy” Armitage (Strange), the hood who runs Carston’s gambling business. Julie reports that Waxy has come up $30,000 short. Waxy tries to talk his way out of trouble with his boss, offering to make good on the losses, but Carston’s not impressed. Waxy, knowing he’s good as dead, goes to fellow hood Jake Andrews (La Rue) for advice. Jake’s advice is that Waxy should go to the DA and turn state’s evidence. Waxy goes to see the DA. Meanwhile, Jake (being ambitious and wanting to step into Waxy’s shoes) tips Carston as to Waxy’s move. Carston assigns hit man Joe Durell (Naish) to take Waxy out. Unfortunately, Joe not only kills Waxy, but also the four policemen guarding him. Carston calls Joe into his office and tells him he’s botched the job and to lay low, but Durrell answers with a lot of lip. After he leaves, Carston tells his second-in-command Ned Rich (Sawyer) to take Durrell fishing and use him for bait.

Bill Bradford reports the story. Carston believes Bill is merely doing his job, which is why he doesn’t object to Bill’s romance with Julie. But what Carston doesn’t know is that the IRS has deputized Bill as a special agent.

Next to go is Andrews. The District Attorney (O’Neill) tells Andrews they have the goods on him and he can save his skin by trading information on Carston. Andrews spills what he knows, but a document he has given the D.A. is stolen by the D.A.’s file clerk Williams (Guilfoyle) who sells it to Carston for $10,000. Although Carston is tried for his role in the shootings, the main witness against him, Andrews, is killed and the vital document is “lost.”


In the meantime, things are getting sticky. Carston warns Julie about seeing Bill. Bill tells Julie he wants to marry her, but she’s afraid to leave Carston as only she knows his bookkeeping code.

After the jury acquits Carston, Bill reveals his true identity to the D.A. and Julie. Bill and the D.A. come up with a plan to photocopy Carston’s books, with the help of Julie, who offers to hide them in her room after Bill, in his role as the friendly reporter, tips Carston about the upcoming raid. Julie is arrested as a material witness. She helps the D.A. and Bill decode the books as Carston is arrested for tax evasion. Julie also exposes Williams to the D.A. as one of Carston’s informants. Before Julie can testify, however, Carston has her kidnapped while on her way to court.

Bill comes up with a plan to find Julie. He and the D.A. pressure Williams into tipping Carston that Bill is actually an IRS agent in disguise. When Bill visits Carston, the gangster has Rich take Bill to the hideout where Julie is also stashed. Bill is tied up next to Julie, but the police arrive and rescue them. Back in court, Julie is testifying about the code when Bill sees Carston pull a pistol from his valise. Bill shoots it out of his hand in the nick of time. Carston is convicted and sent to Alcatraz, and the film ends with Bill announcing he’s taking some time off to marry Julie.

Despite the fact that it a breezy, fast-moving 76 minutes, in the end it’s just another programmer ground out by the studio, no less and certainly no more. About the only thing worth remembering about Special Agent is that for Bette Davis, it was the film that she did immediately prior to Dangerous, which brought her the Oscar. Other than that, it was the sort of potboiler that the studio kept casting her in despite the acclaim she won for quality films such as Of Human Bondage.

 At least she got George Brent, one of her favorite leading men, as her co-star.

With the enforcement of the Code, Warner Bros. got an attack of establishment fever, making films glorifying the government lawmen sent to battle criminals that have eluded local law enforcement efforts. Cagney’s ‘G’ Men was released earlier that year (May), and Special Agent could have been as exciting if the studio had decided to put a little effort into it. But Warner Bros. didn’t value Davis in the same way they valued Cagney and the film suffers as a result.

Special Agent is obviously based on Al Capone, who was taken down by the IRS for income tax evasion. But the similarity stops there, as the studio opted for a generic gangster picture where only the titles of the characters change. The idea of Brent’s character being an undercover agent posing as a newspaper reporter has great possibilities, but the writers ruined it by having Brent established as a reporter who was deputized by the IRS as a special agent.

In reality, it doesn’t work that way, as there is no way a layman could just be deputized like that, with no training. Special agents did work in undercover roles; the Capone case was a prime example of IRS men going undercover to gather the necessary evidence to nail Big Al. If Brent’s character had been established as a special agent who worked undercover as a newspaper reporter, it still would be a bit far-fetched but would have at least made sense. Here, Brent is simply a reporter deputized as a cop, the result of lazy scriptwriting. And would a gangster on the level of an Al Capone employ a single young woman as the keeper of his books? That goes against every historical example and seems intended only as a way to give Bette Davis’ character something to do.


Davis and Brent give their usual professional performances and work off each other nicely. They should, considering their working history together. The only flaw in their performance is when Brent convinces Bette to turn on Cortez; it just doesn’t come off as convincing, considering that Davis’ character is scared to death of her employer. Speaking of, the best performance in the film belongs to Ricardo Cortez, who breathes life into what should be just another supporting role. I liked Cortez’s bit of constantly wearing gloves. It gives a little quirkiness to his character and sets us up for the trial scene, when he takes the gloves off just before reaching into his valise to a gun. William B. Davidson, one of the great unsung supporting players, is excellent as Cortez’s sleazy mouthpiece. Jack LaRue, as Andrews, the kind of role Humphrey Bogart would soon fill, uses his sleepy-eyed menace to good effect, though his screen time is all too brief.

In the final analysis, Special Agent is a film that should please Bette Davis fans, with the best thing being said about it was that it did neither Davis nor Brent any great harm. For Davis, although it did not seem like it at the time, great things were still in store for her in the future.

Trivia

Made just after the Hays Office began to strictly enforce the Production Code, the film suffered from uneven continuity resulting from the deletion of lines and parts of scenes deemed inappropriate. According to the TCM essay on the film by Jeremy Arnold, the toughest scene to fix was one involving a line of dialogue that was seen as especially offensive. As the scene couldn’t be cut because it contained important plot information and couldn’t be redone because of budgetary limitations, the decision was made simply to erase the line altogether, with the result that Cortez’s lips are moving, but nothing’s coming out.

In 1940, the studio remade the film in its B-unit as Gambling on the High Seas, with Wayne Morris in Brent’s role, Jane Wyman in Davis’ role, and Gilbert Roland as the crime boss. The gimmick to the film is that crime boss Roland is running a floating casino beyond the territorial limit. Morris remains a reporter; there is no connection to the IRS. After Roland is indicted, look for George Reeves in a quick scene as a reporter phoning in the story to his paper. 

Memorable Dialogue

Reporter Bill Bradford (Brent) to Julie Gardner (Davis) over lunch: “I like you. You don’t ask asinine questions at a ball game, you don’t get lipstick on a guy’s collar, and you carry your own cigarettes.”

Friday, June 17, 2016

Warcraft

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Warcraft (Universal, 2016) – Director: Duncan Jones. Writers: Duncan Jones, Charles Levitt (s/p), Chris Metzen (story & characters). Stars: Travis Flimmel, Paula Patton, Ben Foster, Dominic Cooper, Toby Kebbell, Ben Schnetzer, Robert Kazinsky, Clancy Brown, Daniel Wu, Ruth Nega, Anna Galvin, Callum Keith Rennie, Burkeley Duffield, Ryan Robbins, Michael Adamthwaite, & Dean Redman. Color, 3D, PG-13, 123 minutes.

It seems more and more movies are coming out inspired by video games. Some really do not need to be made. This movie is one of them.

The problem with making a movie based on a video game is that of translation: will those who have not played the game be able to understand what is going on? Unfortunately, in this case, no. The film comes off as a sort of Tolkien-Lite (with a little Star Wars mythology added along the way), stealing his concept of Orcs, which are described as larger than goblins, hideous, warlike and not very bright. They are led by as spiky green shaman named Gul’dan (Wu), who wields a magical power known as “the fel,” which has the ability to drain or instill the life force within its victim. Because their world has been destroyed by some form of apocalypse, Gul’dan has opened a portal for his warriors to run through, beginning a war with a world called Azeroth, home to humans, elves, dwarves, and much more, though in this movie we’re mainly introduced to the humans.


Along the way, Gul’dan is busy subjugating other Orc clans to his will, such as the Winter Wolf Clan, led by Durotan (Kebbell) and his mate Drakka (Galvin). They are quick to figure out that Gul’dan is not only the cause of the devastation of Draenor, their homeland, but that the magic power he wields, “the Fel,” is evil. Later they will join the forces of Azeroth in opposing the evil warlord. 

The human kingdoms in Azeroth are led by King Llane Wrynn (Cooper), his faithful warrior sidekick, Anduin Lothar (Fimmel), and the Guardian Magna Medivh (Foster). When Lothar learns of the Orc invasion, he along with the Dwarf King Magni Bronzebeard (Adamthwaite) urge King Wrynn to summon Medivh to stem the threat.  After a quick flight to Karazhan, Medivh is enlisted and brought to Azeroth, Llane is convinced and a scouting party is formed.

The scouting party is beset by orcs and saved though the magic of Khadgar (Schnetzer), a wizard who abandoned his monk-like order. They capture a half-breed orc/human named Garona (Patton). Knowing Gul’dan is evil, she convinces Lothar and Llane to meet with Durotan to join forces against Gul’dan. But working against them is the fact that Medivh has been perverted by the fel and is working for the orcs. As the movie continued, I had the feeling that the plot was not headed for a resolution so much as a sequel.

The problem with Warcraft, as mentioned above, is that it’s directed to those who are serious and frequent players of the video game. Director Duncan Jones – son of the late, great David Bowie – who previously made the excellent Moon and Source Code, is better as director than co-writer, as the battle sequences are far more accomplished than any of the scenes in which characters stand around spouting various inanities concerning the fel.

Like so much of the fantasy jargon employed in the film, there’s absolutely no wider explanation of what it is or how it works; it’s just assumed that the audience should understand what’s going on. The film’s characters spout monologues about the “Guardian of Tirisfal” or the rules of ancient orcish battle rituals. The result is that things quickly become hopelessly muddled, and it’s impossible to keep track of what’s going on.  

One of the most annoying irritating aspects the film to me was that it plunged me right into its plot without a concern for those, like me, who have never played the game. The characters just begin talking about even more creatures I haven’t yet met. A good movies gives out its information carefully, trusting that those who don’t quite get what’s going on will be able to catch up without too much time having passed. Warcraft feels like it should be accompanied by a guide explaining what it’s all about.

Unlike Tolkien and unlike other fantasies, this video game adaptation has veritably no comic relief. We yearn for a wisecracking character like Han Solo to relieve the tension and the seriousness. The lightest moment in the movie is when Lothar is holding Durotan’s head by the hair with a short sword to his neck, threatening to kill him if his mount, an enormous, snarling white wolf, does not back off. It does, and Lothar says, “Too bad. It would have made a nice coat.” Other than that, there is no lessening of the direness of the situation.

On the good side, though there is gratuitous violence throughout, the gore factor is at a minimum, even when heads are crushed or removed. Parents, judge accordingly. The 3D effects are excellent and the action scenes are not dizzying. But seriously, the Mystery Science Theater 3000 team would have a field day with this film. The fact that the orcs’ hands were twice the size of their heads made me think of Wreck-It Ralph. At one point, the plot turns Biblical when Drakka, seeing no other option, commits her child to the river in a basket. (I’ll bet he’s renamed “Moses” or something similar.) Yes, there will be a sequel. Sure, why not? Hollywood has no new ideas and there are five chapters to the original sequence of Warcraft games.  

Rating: 2½ out of 5 Martini glasses.


Azabu
438 Greenwich St., New York

Located along a lonely stretch of Greenwich Street, two blocks from Canal, is Azabu. The restaurant is one step up from the sidewalk, identified only by a white sign with its name. A sign on the door reads, “Open the green door to the left.” There are three. I tried two wrong ones until I found the correct one. 


Once inside, it’s a golden, simply decorated place with seven butcher-block tables on one wall and an eight-seat sushi bar on the other. Behind the sushi bar were two chefs busily working in front of a lighted, smoky lucite panel whose only decoration was a pictograph of a carp/catfish. The faux bamboo ceiling added to the Zen atmosphere. 

I was cheerily greeted by Su, whom I had spoken to on the phone confirming my arrival. She directed me to one of the only two open tables and I sat on the cushioned banquette facing the sushi bar.

Looking over the menu I noticed that, contrary to the information I gleaned online, the restaurant does not serve cocktails. Su explained that since they “lost” (she didn’t elaborate) the upper floor (meaning the ground level) they had to simplify their menu as well as eliminate the more complex cocktails. She recommended the sake, of which there were at least nine varieties. With her help, I chose one that turned out to be very nice; understated, but promising not to interfere with the flavors to come, and at the same time having potency.

Again with Su’s help, I was able to chart out a three-course meal that began with Wagyu Tataki (seared Wagyu beef with onions and a soy dipping sauce). For those not familiar with Wagyu, it’s as excellent and succulent as Kobe beef but with more marbling and more flavor. The bite-sized pieces of meat were served on a bed of thinly sliced white onions resting on a banana leaf in the long narrow opalescent platter. It’s a good thing chopsticks force you to eat slowly. I could easily have finished this dish in a minute.


Next came a six-piece sushi platter, consisting of O-Toro, the much-prized bright red fatty tuna (delightful and sweet), Kohadaa (Gizzard Shad, which was salty, not as sweet as the tuna, and a little denser in texture), Awabi (Abalone, which I first had at Foxwoods; once you try it you’ll be hooked.), and two Uni (Sea Urchin) from two areas of Hokkaido (believe it or not, there was a difference in flavor, with one being slightly sweeter than the other.) Last on the plate was Anago (Conger Eel), the only sushi served marinated in soy sauce. I love eel any way you prepare it and this was no exception.

I would like to call the next dish my main course from the way Su described it: Grilled King Crab with crab butter. Prying the crab meat loose with chopsticks was relatively easy. But calling the heavenly dressing simply “crab butter” was insulting to the herbal, rich flavor I received from this remarkable topping. The crab meat was perfect and tender and the whole experience was transporting.


I was still hungry, so I had Su bring back the menu (I believe she took it when we thought I was through ordering). I chose the Shiso Kanpachi Roll, a California style roll (rice on the outside). Six pieces were served on a shiny oval plate rimmed in gold and were comprised of Yellowtail, pickled radish and shiso leaf (a fragrant member of the mint family). Topping each piece with a dab of wasabi (hot Japanese horseradish) I alternated between sushi and slices of ginger and sips of sake. Very good. 

I asked Su about dessert and she cited various ice creams, sorbets and gelatos. I chose a combination of green tea and strawberry ice cream. Green tea, like red bean ice cream, is an acquired taste and I acquired it a long time ago. Such intense tea flavor! It outclassed the strawberry (usually my favorite) by a long shot and I told Su. No, they don’t make their desserts on site, they get them from a distributor who is very particular about the flavors.

Su’s only faux-pas was assuming I was finished then. She brought the check. There was no indication of any hot tea on the menu – odd for a Japanese restaurant. I had her bring back the drinks menu because I remembered “flavored sakes” as a category. I chose a glass of spicy plum flavored sake, thinking “how in the world could plum wine be spicy?” It was. The pinkish-orange beverage in the tall thin stemmed glass had a nice spicy kick to it.

Azabu may be in a lonely spot, they may have “lost” their ground floor, but it’s a gem to be found. A little on the expensive side, but when you consider that the fish is flown in fresh from Japan daily and the expertise of the staff, it’s worth it.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Cinéma Inhabituel for June 16-30

A Guide to the Rare and Unusual on TCM

By Ed Garea

Marie Dressler

We continue with our look at the films of Marie Dressler, an actress as adept at drama as she was at comedy.

June 20: The evening begins at 8:00 pm with Marie and Wallace Beery in Min and Bill (1930). Min and her boyfriend Bill (Dressler and Beery) are two waterfront characters that brought up Nancy, a young girl abandoned by her mother while in infancy. Sacrificing so that Nancy could gain advantages in life, their plans are nearly thwarted when Nancy’s real mother shows up and threatens to blow the whistle. This forces Min to take drastic action in this four-hankie drama written by Frances Marion. Dressler received the Oscar for her performance.

Next up is Reducing (1931) a comedy with Polly Moran as Madame Pauline "Polly" Rochay, the proprietor of an upscale beauty parlor that specializes in weight reduction. When she learns that her sister Marie Truffle (Dressler) is destitute in South Bend, Indiana, she welcomes Marie, her husband Elmer (Lucien Littlefield), and their three children into her home with disastrous results.


At 10:45 pm, it’s Politics (1931), a drama starring Marie and Polly Moran as two women outraged by the racketeers running their town. When a friend of Marie’s daughter Myrtle (Karen Morley) is killed after being caught in a crossfire, Marie decides to run for mayor with Polly as her campaign manager.

Dressler’s night ends with the 12:15 am showing of One Romantic Night (1930). Marie is in a supporting role as Princess Beatrice, whose daughter Alexandra (Lillian Gish) is being courted by Prince Albert (Rod La Rocque) at his father’s insistence. Albert falls in love with Alexandra and they must overcome various obstacles to marry. 

June 27: We begin with one of Dressler’s best known films – the wonderful ensemble piece, Dinner at Eight (1933). As one of an all-star cast that includes John and Lionel Barrymore, Wallace Beery, Jean Harlow, Lee Tracy, Edmund Lowe, Billie Burke, Jean Hersholt, and Karen Morley, Marie is former stage star Carlotta Vance, invited to a posh dinner gathering by Millicent and Oliver Jordan (Burke and Lionel Barrymore). A number of sub-plots are in play, with the most interesting being that of crooked mining magnate Dan Packard (Beery) and his brassy, gold-digging wife (Harlow). Also watch for John Barrymore as washed-up silent star Larry Renault and Lee Tracy as his agent Max Kane. Tracy is nothing short of amazing.

Next up at 10:00 pm is Dressler and Beery in Tugboat Annie (1933), a heart-tugging comedy with Marie as a tugboat captain and Wally as her ne’er-do-well husband. It’s a rather rambling film with the point being that Marie and Wally are trying to bring together their son Alec (Robert Young) with Pat Severn (Maureen O’Sullivan), daughter of her rival, Red Severn (Willard Robertson). Dressler and Beery outshine their material and make the film worth watching.

At 11:45 pm, it’s Marie in Emma (1932) as a housekeeper/nanny who marries her widowed employer (Jean Hersholt) and faces the snobbery of the community and the wrath of her employer’s spoiled children. It has all the elements for an overly schmaltzy drama, but Dressler refuses to let the film slide down to that level. 


Closing out the night is a funny comedy from 1932, Prosperity, starring Marie and Polly Moran as longtime friends who become feuding fools when their children (Norman Foster and Anita Page) marry. When Marie’s bank begins to teeter on the edge of failure, she devises a unique method of saving it. 

TCM SPECIAL THEME: BILLY WILDER

June 17: A good night for Wilder fans beginning at 8 pm with Sabrina (1954), followed by Love in the Afternoon (1957), A Foreign Affair (1948), and ending with Ball of Fire (1942).

June 24: An evening of later Wilder films begins at 8 pm with the exquisite Witness for the Prosecution (1957), followed by the comedy Some Like It Hot (1959), The Fortune Cookie (1966), the wry The Apartment (1961), and at 5 am, a film Wilder didn’t direct (that was Ernst Lubitsch), but one he wrote with partner Charles Brackett (and some help from Walter Reisch), the unforgettable Ninotchka (1939)

PRE-CODE

June 17: A good afternoon of Pre-Code features starts at 2:45 pm with Bill Boyd, James Gleason, and Warner Oland in the comedy The Big Gamble (1932). It’s followed by Helen Hayes, Ramon Novarro and Lewis Stone impersonating Asians in the dreadful Son-Daughter (1932). Then detectives seek to solve the murders in a mysterious mansion in RKO’s Before Dawn (1933), starring Stuart Erwin, Dorothy Jordan, and Warner Oland. The afternoon closes at 6:45 with the fascinating Mandalay (1934), with Kay Francis as Tanya, a woman with a past whose boyfriend, Nick (Ricardo Cortez), dumps her at Warner Oland’s Rangoon nightclub, Jardin d’Orient. She soon rises to fame and fortune as “White Spot,” the star attraction at the club. But she’s not in a staying mood and beats it on a ferry boat to Mandalay. While sailing, she manages a romance with Lyle Talbot when the ferry makes a stopover to take on new passengers. And who should board but Nick, anxious to win her back and install her as there star attraction of his new nightclub. Highly recommended, as Francis is superb.

June 22: It’s a morning and afternoon featuring the one and only James Cagney. Begin at 7 am with his first Hollywood feature Sinner’s Holiday (1930), then, in order it’s The Millionaire (1931), The Crowd Roars (1932), Hard to Handle (1933), He Was Her Man (1934), Jimmy the Gent (1934), The St. Louis Kid (1934), and Devil Dogs of the Air (1935). Closing out the fest at 6 pm is 1948’s The Time of Your Life

OUT OF THE ORDINARY


June 21: At the ungodly hour of 5:00 am, Francois Truffaut’s second feature Shoot the Piano Player (1960) is being shown. Though the film flopped at the box office, it’s a great B-noir inspired look as a concert pianist (Charles Aznavour) on the run who becomes mixed up with gangsters. Seen today by critics as one of the key films of the French New Age, Truffaut took the B-gangster movies of the late 40s and 50s as his inspiration. But instead of producing an imitation, he decided to place his own stamp on it, much as his idol Nicholas Ray did with his 1954 Western Johnny Guitar. He adapted David Goodis’ crime novel Down There, which was published in France as Shoot the Piano Player. Truffaut loved Goodis’ mix of fantasy and tragedy, and gangsters who talked about love, the opposite sex and the banalities of everyday life. With co-writer Marcel Moussy, Truffaut moved the locale from Philadelphia to Paris, but kept the story of a has-been concert pianist reduced to playing in dive bars. This film is a definite Must See. Jean-Luc Godard may have dedicated his film to Monogram Studios, but Truffaut made the ultimate Monogram feature.

June 23: At 4 pm, it’s Marcel Camus’ unique take on the myth of Orpheus, Black Orpheus (1960). Set in Rio during Carnival, streetcar conductor Orfeo (Breno Mello) is engaged to the fiery Mira (Lourdes de Oliveira). But when he meets the country girl Eurydice (Marpessa Dawn), he falls head over heels. Before they can be together, he must deal with his fiancé's vengeful jealousy as Eurydice is also trying to escape from a mysterious man dressed as "Death" who wants to kill her. Things ultimately take a tragic turn, which necessitates that Orfeo must embark on a mystical journey to the underworld. Winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, Black Orpheus is awash in vibrant colors reflecting the passion of Rio’s Carnival and the emotions of the principals. Though I have it on DVD, I watch it each time TCM shows it. It is an addicting film.

June 26: At 2 am, it’s the Italian drama Dillinger is Dead from 1969, written and directed by Marco Ferreri. Industrial designer Glauco (Michel Piccoli) comes home from his job testing gas masks and finds his wife (Anita Pallenberg) sick in bed. She’s made dinner, but it’s cold. So Glauco decides to cook himself a gourmet meal. While looking for utensils, he finds a revolver wrapped in a newspaper dating from 1934 announcing the death of famed mobster, and we take it from there. Many viewers may find it confusing, but it is in the style of an experimental film and deals with alienation in the face of modernity. Those who stick with it may find it quite rewarding. The cinematography by Mario Vulpiani is quite engaging, and keep in mind that it’s a satire.

June 27: At 6 am it’s director Robert Bresson’s early masterpiece, Diary of a County Priest (1950), from the novel by Georges Bernanos about a young priest who takes over a parish and has to fight the suspicions of being a meddling outsider by the parishioners plus a mysterious stomach ailment that is slowly robbing him of life and which is diagnosed as cancer. Though his physical strength slowly ebbs away, his spirituality remains firms. The final scene inform us of his death and his final words: “All is grace.” Though he used professionals in his early films, beginning with this he switched to nonprofessionals, explaining that professionals are trained to be good at pretending and seeming while the nonprofessional is good at simply “being” in authentic ways. Combined with Bresson’s austerity of use, discarding that which is not vitally essential to the story and what he wants to show, it makes for most interesting viewing. 

OZU

June 19: A Yasujiro Ozu double-feature begins at midnight with his 1932 silent Umarete Wa Mita Keredo (I Was Born, But ...), about two boys whose reaction to their father’s toadying to his boss is to go on a hunger strike, followed by his 1959 color remake, Good Morning. The remake shows how times in Japan have changed, for now the boys vow to stop speaking until their parents relent and buy a new TV.

KEATON


June 26: A Buster Keaton double-feature begins at midnight with Go West (1925) with Keaton as a small-town boy who goes in search of a new life as a cowboy out West. It’s followed at 1:15 am by Coney Island (1917), with Fatty Arbuckle (who also directed) and Al “Fuzzy” St. John. Keaton is taking his girl (Alice Mann) to Coney Island, but when he can’t afford the price of admission, Alice is immediately swept up by St. John. Meanwhile, Arbuckle escapes from his wife by burying himself in sand on the beach. He charms the girl away from St. John, and the competition becomes more and more comically violent and outrageous. When Fatty and the girl go for a swim, there are no bathing suits large enough to fit him, so he swipes a woman’s swimsuit and spends most of the film's remainder in drag, later using his female charms (and sausage-curl wig) to seduce St. John. Fatty and St. John eventually wind up in jail, where they begin sparring in their cell, literally tearing the bars from the walls.

DISNEY

June 28: Some lovely old Disney cartoons are being offered tonight, beginning at 10:15 pm with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in Clock Cleaners from 1936. Mickey dreams himself into the world of Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass in Thru the Mirror (1936). Then Mickey tries to lead a performance of the “William Tell Overture” despite interference from Donald Duck in The Band Concert (1935). 

At 12:45 am the cartoons return with Old King Cole (1933), followed by the classic Flowers and Trees (1932) and ending with The Pied Piper (1933).

PSYCHOTRONICA AND THE B-HIVE

June 16: It’s a morning and afternoon of one of our favorite B-series: Mexican Spitfire, with Lupe Velez. All eight films in the series, from The Girl From Mexico in 1939 to Mexican Spitfire's Blessed Event in 1943, are scheduled beginning at 9:45 am. The series came along at the right time for Velez, whose career was in the dumpster. The Girl From Mexico was originally conceived as a one only film, with Velez playing a singer in Mexico who is spirited away to New York by ad-man Donald Woods and not only becomes a star on radio, but marries her ad-man. The unexpected public reaction to the movie convinced RKO to commission a sequel, Mexican Spitfire, in 1940. Woods would later be replaced in the series by Charles “Buddy” Rogers as Dennis Lindsay, but the important cast member was Leon Errol, who played Dennis’ uncle Matt. He and Velez had a unique chemistry throughout the series as he helped get her into and out of trouble in each film. When the series had run its course in 1943, it was the end of the line for Velez. She received the best reviews of her life for her role in the Mexican version of Emile Zola’s Nana (1944), and six months later committed suicide over a combination of a failed romance and a failure to find work.

June 18: Beginning at 9:30 am, it’s two more episodes of Ace Drummond (1936) followed by The Bowery Boys in Here Come the Marines (1952). Late night brings us a David Bowie double-feature: The tragic vampire tale, The Hunger (1983), with Susan Sarandon and Catherine Deneuve, followed by the rock musical Absolute Beginners (1986).

June 25: More adventures of Ace Drummond at 9:30 followed at 10:30 by The Bowery Boys in Feuding Fools from 1952. Late night begins the the oft-aired gorefest Alice, Sweet Alice (1977), with Brooke Shields, at 2:15 pm, followed by the oft-aired gorefest Bloody Birthday from 1980. 


June 28: It’s the end of the world as we know it in The World, the Flesh, and the Devil (1959), as nuclear war leaves only three people: Inger Stevens, Harry Belafonte, and Mel Ferrer. Of course, there are more problems than good will in this melodrama as racism and sexual competition drive Harry and Mel into a showdown over Inger but eventually everyone decides to live in harmony. According to critic Michael Weldon, Roger Corman’s Last Woman on Earth had a more likely conclusion. Weldon also notes that the movie premiered in Cleveland. 

NEW BLOG SITE

An exciting new blog site devoted to film has arrived in the person of cineaste Jonathan Saia at https://servingupsaia.com

The author, like his site, is a work in progress, but if he continues to serve us reviews like the one he did on Lew Landers’ 1935 Karloff-Lugosi screamfest, The Raven, this will become a Must Read site. Other reviews include It’s A Gift with W.C. Fields, Mel Brooks’ High Anxiety, Elaine May’s Ishtar, and Quentin Tarantino’s recent The Hateful Eight, all excellently written, researched and analyzed. Give it a peek, but remember: it can become addicting.