Wednesday, February 10, 2016

The Finest Hours

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

The Finest Hours (Disney, 2016) – Director: Craig Gillespie. Writers: Scott Silver, Paul Tamasy & Eric Johnson (s/p). Casey Sherman & Michael J. Touglas (book). Stars: Chris Pine, Casey Affleck, Ben Foster, Eric Baba, Holliday Grainger, John Ortiz, Kyle Gallner, John Magaro, Graham McTavish, Michael Raymond James, Beau Knapp, Josh Stewart, Abraham Benrubi, Keiynan Lonsdale, & Rachel Brosnahan.  Color, Rated PG-13, 117 minutes.

The Finest Hours, like Storm of the Century (2000), is based on a book (The Finest Hours: The True Story of the U.S. Coast Guard's Most Daring Sea Rescue by Michael J. Tougias and Casey Sherman.) It’s a far better movie, though, than Storm of the Century, a riveting, exciting film that celebrates the dedication and determination of those who serve to keep our shores safe.

The movie begins calmly in Wellfleet, Massachusetts, in 1951, where we meet Bernie Webber (Pine), a Coast Guardsman at Chatham Station who drives with his best friend to a small coffee shop to meet two girls. One of them is Miriam Pentinen (Grainger) and it’s quite obviously love at first sight. Though Bernie is a bit standoffish and shy, eventually Miriam takes command and asks him to marry her at a dance as the film jumps ahead to February 1952. He says “No.” She leaves. He follows. They talk it out and decide to marry in April.

Later that night, a nor’easter is wreaking havoc off the coast of Cape Cod. Chatham Station is partially disabled by a faulty radar system and is desperately awaiting a repairman. Bernie’s commander, Daniel Cluff (Bana), is not a native of New England (in fact, he’s from the South) and is unaware of the stormy conditions in the North Atlantic in winter. Still, when he gets notice of an oil tanker breaking up in the storm, he sends a crew out in their larger boat to rescue survivors. He doesn’t choose Bernie for this mission because, we learn later, he had a mishap on a previous mission.


Meanwhile, out at sea, a second oil tanker, the Pendleton, is traveling too fast for the high seas around it and the captain only begrudgingly heeds the “slow-down” messages from his Chief Engineer Ray Sybert (Affleck), who is already worried about a weak spot in the hull. Down in the galley of the pitching ship, the cook, George “Tiny” Myers (Benrubi), is trying to keep his assistant’s spirits up by singing “Sit Down, You’re Rocking the Boat” from Guys and Dolls. However, a view outside shows the bow of the tanker spearing way out of the crest of gargantuan wave and the scene cuts to the engine room where we hear a loud thud and a groan of metal. The weak spot in the hull becomes an 18-foot gash and water starts pouring in. Ray sends a crewman to alert the captain because he’s not answering the radio. The crewman, running along the catwalk heading toward the bow, stops suddenly when he realizes there’s no more catwalk. In fact, there’s no more bow. The tanker has split neatly in two and he’s just in time to see the entire front end sink in the wave trough below.

Meanwhile, the Pendleton has been spotted and reported to the Coast Guard station. Commander Cluff orders Bernie to round up a crew and take CG 36500 (the smaller of their two boats) on a possible suicide mission to retrieve the survivors. Bernie takes Richard Livesey (Foster), Andrew Fitzgerald (Gallner), and Ervin Maske (Magaro). As he leaves, he ignores the pay phone ringing in the hall, knowing it is Miriam calling. Miriam, distraught, heads to the Coast Guard station and confronts Cluff repeatedly, asking him to call Bernie’s boat back.

On what’s left of the Pendleton, one man is rallying the crew to let down the lifeboats and abandon ship. It is here that Sybert becomes a leader. After cutting one of the empty lifeboats free, he proves what would have happened if it were filled with men, as it smashes to pieces against the hull. He coordinates the men in constructing a manual rudder by which they can steer the remaining half to a shoal and run it aground, giving rescuers more time to find them.

It was said about The Finest Hours that it keeps you on the edge of your seat, and though I was sitting in a lounge chair, it accomplished this. Bernie and his crew face a failing engine, ridiculously high waves at “the bar” (a dangerous shoal they must cross before entering the open sea), and a lost ship’s compass that went missing during one of the many swampings their vessel endured. Still, using his innate knowledge of the shores and the sea, he guides the tiny craft to the wreck, just as the Pendleton loses power from water entering the exhaust pipes of its engines.

Thirty-two survivors crowd onto Bernie’s boat – 10 more than its capacity – and head for shore, when Chatham loses power due to the storm. Miriam, the strongest female lead I’ve seen since Helen Mirren did Margaret Thatcher, doesn’t give up. She leads a string of cars to the harbor. They follow her example and point their headlights out to sea. Exhausted, Bernie (and the audience, for that matter) brings the boat to dock safely amid cheers from the townspeople.

Given the running time of an hour and 57 minutes, the movie never lagged. Several times I wondered, “How in the world did they film that?” Later on, I checked out the Visual Effects crew listing and it was incredibly long. I have to admit I’m impressed. I found nothing wrong with the portrayals, the acting, the dialogue, or the cinematography. All were superb and I heard myself saying, “Wow!” That’s what I look for in a movie. And Disney Productions did all this without vulgarity or gore. Amazing!

Rating: 5 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Malai Marke
318 E. 6th St., New York

East Sixth Street in Manhattan is fondly known as “Curry Row” or “Little India” for its profusion of mutually surviving Indian restaurants. In its heyday, I counted about 30 in the two block space between 2nd Avenue and Avenue A. I’ve dined at half of those.

Today, the number of restaurants has declined remarkably. Some moved uptown or just around the corner, some just went out of business, and some changed cuisines. I was sorry to see the flash and excitement leave the neighborhood. But Malai Marke (Hindi for extra cream) has been a survivor and, as near as I can estimate has been open at least three years. They feature a two-page, three-column menu that not only includes the most familiar Indian dishes, but also some original recipes and something intriguing labeled “Calcutta-Chinese” cuisine.


The large entrance on 6th Street has two doors. One is marked “use other door” and is overhung by a sleek black semi-awning with the restaurant name in big red letters. Obeying the sign, I used the other door and found the Captain’s Station right away. Generally, Indian restaurants do not have a bar, and this one is no exception. Tables for four lined the left wall and tables for two were on the right. The left wall was open brick decorated with traditional brass serving pots and lids, and the right wall featured a mural depiction of the spices one might see in a typical Indian spice market.

A young man noted my reservation and led me to a table half-way down the main hall. My server, Kalidas, poured my tap water into a mason jar and asked if I wanted a drink. From the beer and wine list, I chose Flying Horse Indian Lager and asked him to leave the list for future reference.

I always forget that Indian beers sometimes come in large bottles; this one contained a pint. It was a good, filling lager and I made it last while I considered my choices on the menu, telling Kalidas that I needed time with all the selections.

As for the Calcutta-Chinese dishes, I didn’t choose any, but I’m sure I’ll be back to try the corn soup with garlic and scallions, or the lollipop chicken – spicy, pulled back chicken wings, vegetable hakka noodles, or the hot garlic shrimp.

Another server brought a basket of papadum (flaky crisp chips) with mint, tamarind and onion chutneys for dipping and, as the beer wound down, I was ready, and Kalidas came to take my order. I listed my choices and, when he asked whether one dish should arrive first or another, I suggested that whatever comes out of the kitchen first should be served first. He agreed.


The mulligatawny soup arrived shortly thereafter. Each time I have this soup it’s different, depending on the chef. In this recipe the yellow lentils were mixed with coarsely ground chickpeas, lemon, fresh coriander and curry leaves. I loved its hearty thickness and mild spice. The color was a warm pinkish yellow, almost orange, perfect for a cold night.

Next came the appetizer, Kurkuri Bhindi: shredded okra tossed with onions, lime and chaat masala (savory spice coating) and deep-fried. The flavors of this dish ranged from mildly spicy to salty, to savory, and this is without the bright green mint chutney served alongside.

My beer now finished, I asked Kalidas which of the very reasonably priced red wines would go best with my main course. He raved about and enthusiastically recommended the 2013 Duckhorn “Decoy” Cabernet Sauvignon – described on the menu as being big and rich with expansive black currants and spice. I ordered it and found the “spice” in the wine worked wonderfully with the meal.


For my main course, I chose the allepy red curry: tilapia cooked with kokum (a plant indigenous to the Western Ghats of India whose fruit – called a squash – yields a bright red color), tomatoes and whole garlic. It was a beautiful shade of red with big, tender pieces of fish, onions, curry leaves and one long dried red chili pepper. A good-sized bowl of basmati rice accompanied it (one must order the rice as it’s not automatic here), along with a bowl of cool cucumber yoghurt dip (raita).

The onion nan flatbread arrived at the same time and I prepared my dish, spooning rice first, then some of the fish, a slice of the bread and a couple of spoons of raita. The flavor was like nothing I’ve had before, only mildly spicy, rich, tomato-y, and with the wonderful earthy flavor of the rice. Interestingly I learned later that the Michelin guide recommended the seafood dishes from the Indian southwest coast.

Even though there was much to choose from on the menu, there were only three desserts. I ordered the gulab jamun, (my usual) – malted milk balls in honey/rose water syrup and a masala (spiced) tea.

Malai Marke was buzzing from the moment I entered until after I left, and I’m not surprised. I felt welcome by the efficient staff, the food is great as well as interesting, and the ambiance is charming. Friendly service encourages friendly customers. A girl saw me taking a picture of the mural on my wall and offered to take a picture of me with it as a backdrop. How friendly is that?

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Monday, February 8, 2016

Kung Fu Panda 3

Dinner and a Movie

By Steve Herte

Kung Fu Panda 3 (20th Century Fox, 2016) – Directors: Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh. Writers: Jonathan Aibel and Glenn Berger. Voices: Jack Black, Bryan Cranston, Dustin Hoffman, Angelina Jolie, J.K. Simmons, Jackie Chan, Seth Rogen, Lucy Liu, David Cross, Kate Hudson, James Hong, Randall, Duk Kim, Steele Gagnon, Jean-Claude Van Damme, Willie Geist, Al Roker, Liam Knight, & Wayne Knight. Animated, Color, Rated PG, 95 minutes.

Chi” is defined in Chinese philosophy as the circulating energy inherent in all things. We achieve good chi by a balance of negative and positive forms in the body. This latest sequel to Kung Fu Panda is deeply involved with mastering chi.

The movie starts in the “spirit world,” where Grand Master Oogway (Kim), a great tortoise, makes his abode. Kai (Simmons), a bulky bull, who was Oogway’s brother in arms long ago but who turned against him in his lust for power, appears before Oogway. Kai has been stealing the chi of all the past kung-fu masters, wearing them as jade ornaments on his belt. Though Oogway puts up a good fight, Kai steals his chi as well and makes the transition into the mortal world.


Po (Black), now known as the Dragon Warrior, believes that kicking butt and protecting the village is the sum total of kung-fu (that and eating tons of dumplings and noodles). His fellow warriors: Tigress (Jolie), Monkey (Chan), Mantis (Rogen), Viper (Liu), and Crane (Cross), referred to as “The Five,” are known and celebrated for past victories. Master Shifu (Hoffman), however, wants Po to progress to the next level and he uses chi to make a flower bloom, which gets Po’s attention. But Po is aghast when Shifu turns over the training reins to him for The Five.

Po’s first training session is a disaster and the only thing learned is that Tigress is flammable. Mr. Ping (Hong), a duck who makes a living cooking dumplings and noodles, notices something wrong when Po sprinkles hot peppercorns into his bubble bath instead of bath salts. While Po explains, a villager pig bursts in to announce that Po’s record for eating dumplings is being broken. We see a large character from behind. He turns around and introduces himself as Li Shan (Cranston), a panda who has been looking for his son. Po tells him he’s been looking for his dad. They both wish each other the best of luck and turn away from each other while the villagers look back and forth between the two of them in shock. Suddenly, they both realize that they’re both pandas and their searches are over as they hug.

Mr. Ping is outraged and asks for proof. While Po shows Li Shan the temple where he trained, the Valley of Peace is attacked by “Jade Warriors” sent by Kai, who Po recognizes as Masters Porcupine, Bear, and Croc (Van Damme). After he and his friends defeat the attackers, Shifu runs to his library for an ancient scroll that tells the story of the pandas in the secret valley who can master and control chi. Li Shan tells Po that he’s been sent a message from “the universe.” He is to find his son and bring him back to the secret valley.

Li Shan and Po make the incredibly long journey unaware that Mr. Ping has stowed away in Po’s backpack until they rest for lunch. The last part of their trek is an impossibly high, ice-covered cliff. Knowing that pandas have trouble with stairs (defined as “panda-asthma”) Po wonders how they will climb it, when Li Shan pulls on a rope and they ascend the cliff in an elevator basket.

At the top is a beautiful, peaceful scene where pandas fly kites, eat and play. Among others, Po meets the twins Dim (Geist) and Sum (Roker), and the ribbon-dancing Mei Mei (Hudson). Yes, he learns how to be a panda, including discarding his chopsticks when eating dumplings, but he wonders when his dad will teach him to master chi. Time runs short when Kai attacks the Valley of Peace and absorbs the chi of Monkey, Mantis, Viper, Crane and Shifu and is now on his way to the secret valley. An exhausted Tigress brings this news to Po.

What to do? There is no time to teach kung fu to all these pandas. Instead, Po teaches them to use their natural abilities with kung fu weapons and his “army” meets Kai’s jade warriors to hopefully distract Kai long enough for Po to use his “finger pinch” and best move. He learns to his dismay that this move will only work on mortals, not Kai. Thinking quickly, Po gets Kai in a headlock and performs the move, taking them both to the spirit world and saving the mortal world.

The battle continues in the fantastic, golden realm until it looks as if Po will lose. Li Shan rallies Mr. Ping and Tigress into channeling chi to infuse Po with power and the tide is turned. Po literally becomes the Dragon Warrior.

Kung Fu Panda 3 is easily the best of the trilogy, combining fast action, detailed computer generated animation, excellent script writing and talented actors cast perfectly. Po even looks a bit like Jack Black, and mimicking his mannerisms. I could see Angelina Jolie in Tigress and Dustin Hoffman in Shifu. The superb directing team of Alessandro Carloni and Jennifer Yuh makes the story and characters believable. I think it was Daffy Duck who said, “Anything can happen in a cartoon.” It was difficult to remember this while Po is getting a severe trouncing by Kai. That’s how real it felt.

Sadly, I think this is the last in the series. There were two words at the finish of this movie that I don’t remember seeing after the first two: The End.

Rating: 4 out of 5 Martini glasses.


Tutto Il Giorno
114 Franklin St.New York

This is another restaurant tucked away in an unlikely location. Franklin Street can be very dark and brooding, but on its north side there are white twinkle lights decorating the shrubs outside Tutto Il Giorno. A single large-pane window engraved with the name and a warm glow looks out on the street. Three steps up to a black door and you’re inside.


You expect a small place but stop in awe of the world that has just opened to you. Twenty-foot ceilings support four-foot diameter chandeliers designed in medieval candle rings, but with soft fluorescents. The bar is bathed in the glow of glass-beaded swags glittering above it. The room forms a “T” and continues to the back, where there is a “window” on a leafy garden. The leather banquettes are a subtle shade of camel, sporting matching pillows for the diners.

I announced my reservation at the Captain’s Station, checked my coat, and a young lady led me to a comfy banquette one table from the back window. My server brought me the wine and drink book and took my water preference as I considered my choices.

When my server returned he asked if I wanted a cocktail. As neither Beefeaters gin nor Stolichnaya vodka were available, I settled for a Tanqueray gin martini. The wine was obvious – a 2013 Tutto Il Giorno Montepulciano D’Abruzzi. It was very reasonably priced and also the right red for my dinner, with an aromatic nose and lightly tannic aftertaste.


My first course was a Chef Agostino Petrosino signature dish, called simply parmigiana. It was the best eggplant parmigiana I’ve ever had. The sauce was thick and rich with San Marzano plum tomatoes and smoked provola (provolone cheese), topped with fresh basil garnish. The smoky flavor was in every bite. Another server brought a dish with one slice of crusty Italian bread. I would need a lot more bread.

The excellent primi piatti was a half order of tortelli stuffed with squash and in a lamb ragu with almonds and toasted pumpkin seeds.

Tutto Il Giorno is one of those restaurants where the servers know protocol; two courses are never served at the same time. My server timed the meal perfectly. 


A little later, the main course arrived: venison topped with shredded zucchini and onions in an au jus sauce, garnished with rosemary. The meat was almost tender enough to cut with a fork and juicy enough to forgo the sauce. The side dish was preserved organic peppers, festive in red, green and yellow and with a slightly pickled taste.

They didn’t have my favorite Italian dessert. However, the baba au rhum, with vanilla ice cream sitting on an orange slice and tumbled with cherries, more than made up for that. It paired nicely with the ice cream and a double espresso to finish my meal.

Asked if I would like an after-dinner drink, I chose Strega. Rarely do I ever see that liqueur on any menu and it was a pleasant surprise.

Tutto Il Giorno is a little over a year old, having been open since 2014 but I think it will hold its own against the major competition of Italian restaurants downtown, most notably, Accapella, Giardino D’Oro, Da Claudio, Gran Morsi and of course, Scalini Fedeli. Will I return to Tutto Il Giorno? Yes. Tutto is not only a part of the restaurant’s name, but also the surname of the family who owns it.

For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.

Saturday, February 6, 2016

TCM TiVo Alert for February 8-14

TCM TiVo ALERT
For
February 8–February 14

DAVID’S BEST BETS:

THE GRADUATE (February 8, 3:30 am): 1967 is a landmark year in cinema. Films were more daring and adventurous such as Bonnie and ClydeIn the Heat of the NightPoint BlankBelle de JourClosely Watched Trains and The Graduate. The latter features Dustin Hoffman in his breakout role as Benjamin Braddock, a recent college graduate trying to figure out what to do with his life. One of his parents' friends, Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft), a bored and sexy suburban housewife, has something in mind for Benjamin. She carries on an affair that pushes the envelope of sexuality that was rarely seen before in an American film. It's funny, it's dramatic, it's got a great soundtrack from Simon and Garfunkel (even though it's three songs sung differently), and it challenges the conventional Hollywood movie fan. "Plastics."

TOOTSIE (February 12, 8:00 pm): This is a movie that has disaster written all over it. How many times can Hollywood make a movie about a man dressed as a woman? And why in the world would anyone cast Dustin Hoffman for that role? However, this is an outstanding and genuinely funny film largely for Hoffman's performance. (Yes, I'm recommending two Hoffman films this week. He's that good.) My praise of Hoffman isn't meant to dismiss the rest of the cast, which is terrific. Bill Murray has a small part and steals every scene he's in. Teri Garr, Dabney Coleman, Charles Durning and director Syndey Pollack (his first, but definitely not his last acting role in years) are exceptional. And the scene in which Hoffman's character reveals his true identity is outrageous and makes me laugh every time I see it.

ED’S BEST BETS:

THE GREAT ESCAPE (February 10, 8:00 pm): Based on one of the biggest mass escapes from a POW camp in World War II, it boasts an all-star cast that includes James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Steve McQueen, James Donald, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. The plot is relatively simple: The Nazis have built an escape-proof camp to which every escape artist is being sent to stop them from even thinking about another attempt. But the duty of every prisoner is to escape, and this lot is up to the task. It’s a great film that never stops moving with a plot that adds new obstacles and challenges to the prisoners’ dilemma. Attenborough is “The Big X,” a veteran escape artist whose arrival sets the plot in motion. The film also solidified the image of Steve McQueen as the King of Cool through his portrayal of the individualistic prisoner Hilts, as witnessed by the scene near the end when he attempts to jump a border fence with a stolen motorcycle. This is also a film that one can watch numerous times without getting bored. Watch for the scene where the Germans catch Attenborough and Gordon Jackson. It’s one of the best ironic scenes in the history of the movies. Also keep an eye of James Garner and Donald Pleasance and the chemistry between them. The Great Escape is one of those rare movies that comes along every once in a while where the audience is entertained through the use of intelligent plotting and restrained performances. That’s the main reason I have watched it numerous times, even though I’m not exactly a Steve McQueen fan.

CASABLANCA (February 14, 8:00 pm): When recommending movies I usually look for the interesting, but not so well known. Not in this case – this is a no-brainer if ever one existed. It’s one of the greatest romances ever made and turned Humphrey Bogart into a most unlikely romantic hero. It’s easy, however, to be romantic when Ingrid Bergman is the object of one’s affections. I don’t think Bergman has looked any more beautiful than in this film, and the way she was photographed only added to her beauty. We all know the story and the fact it’s a metaphor for America’s becoming involved in the war. But what has always amazed me is the number of lines from the movie that have found their way into pop culture, like “Round up the usual suspects,” “I’m shocked . . .shocked to discover gambling is going on here,” and “I’m just a poor corrupt official.” Behind Bogart and Bergman is one of the greatest supporting casts ever assembled, with several European refugees, such as Marcel Dalio, in the mix. I watch this just about every time it airs. I’m hooked.

WE DISAGREE ON ... STEEL MAGNOLIAS (February 13, 8:00 pm)

ED: A-. There are few things done better than a good “women’s” film, and this excellent comedy-drama-romance of a close knit group of six Southern women of varying ages in a small Louisiana town fits the bill perfectly. We view the ongoing relationship between the six women who frequent the same beauty parlor as the film alternates between humorous, everyday happenings that bring out good-natured quips and the seriousness and heartache that accompany life's unexpected tragedies. The casting is superb and the film a peerless example of ensemble acting, with Sally Field (M'Lynn), a mother still worried over her very grown up daughter; Julia Roberts (Shelby), a young woman who feels that having a baby is worth risking everything; Dolly Parton (Truvy), the married but lonely beautician who lights up when her shop is full of customers; Olympia Dukakis (Clairee), the gossipy widow and town bigwig; Daryl Hannah (Annelle), a young woman with a mysterious past who gets a job at the parlor working for Truvy; and Shirley MacLaine (Ouiser), a cantankerous older spinster who carries her dog around and exchanges barbs with M’Lynn’s husband, Drum (Tom Skerrit). Although the plot is extremely manipulative and somewhat predictable, the impeccable writing sees everything through to a satisfying conclusion. And pay close attention for the score of Georges Delerue, which gets the viewer through some of the slower spots.


DAVID: C-. I guess it's nice to see Ed's feminine side. But that's probably the best part of this overacted, overscripted faux sensitive movie that seems to never end. Its goal is to make you laugh and then to make you cry – and it doesn't care how manufactured it has to get to make viewers feel those emotions. Steel Magnolias boasts an impressive ensemble cast, but the script is so contrived that it leaves the actresses playing stereotypes rather than real people. The film is about a half-dozen women in the South who spend their days at a hair salon owned by the kindly Truvy (Dolly Parton), who's in a loveless marriage. Clairee (Olympia Dukakis) is the town gossip – though they all love gossip – while Annelle (Daryl Hannah) is the new girl at the salon trying to start over, Ouiser (Shirley MacLaine) is the town's rich bitch, M'Lynn (Sally Field) is the protective mother to Shelby (Julia Roberts), the martyred pretty young thing who dies a tragic and prolonged death. Field gets her monologue yelling at God at Shelby's gravesite. I don't care about any of the characters and except for the dying Shelby, there's little in the way of a story. Among the Hollywood heavyweights, country singer Parton easily gives the best performance. And what's with all the strange first names?

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

Thursday, February 4, 2016

A Free Soul

Films in Focus

By Ed Garea

A Free Soul (MGM, 1931) – Director: Clarence Brown. Writers: Becky Gardiner, John Meehan, Philip Dunning, Dorothy Farnum, & John Lynch. Adela Rogers St. John (book). Willard Mack (play, unbilled). Stars: Norma Shearer, Lionel Barrymore, Leslie Howard, Clark Gable, James Gleason, & Lucy Beaumont. B&W, 93 minutes.


MGM, looking for a good, edgy follow-up for Norma Shearer after her big splash in The Divorcee, bought the rights to Willard Mack’s play, which was based on the novel, A Free Soul, by Adela Rogers St. Johns. St. Johns wrote the novel as a sort of memoir of her father, San Francisco attorney Earl Rogers, a pioneer of theatrical legal defense tactics and also a hardcore alcoholic.

To back Shearer’s character, Jan Ashe, Lionel Barrymore was given the role of her father, Stephen Ashe. Clark Gable, resigned by the studio to a new contract, would play the role of gangster Ace Wilfong. James Gleason was given the role of Eddie, Stephen’s Man Friday. Leslie Howard was cast as Jan’s stuffy fiancé, and Lucy Beaumont was given the smaller role of Jan’s grandmother.

Stephen Ashe (Barrymore), noted criminal attorney, adores his free-spirited daughter, Jan (Shearer). And the feeling is mutual. They represent the black sheep in a family of socially notable bluebloods. Jan has recently escaped from the family compound to spend a few days with her father and relax without having to conform to the rules laid down by Grandma Ashe (Beaumont), the head of the family. The first we see of her is a nude silhouette in the shower room as she calls out for something to wear. Shortly later, as they eat breakfast, she tells her father that they’re expected at Grandma’s 80th birthday. It’s an event both are not looking forward to attending.


Stephen is also an alcoholic, relying on his friend and employee Eddie (Gleason) to carry his flask while in court. Stephen is also in the midst of a tough case. His client, a gangster named Ace Wilfong (Gable), is accused of murder. The prosecution’s main piece of evidence against Wilfong is a hat with his initials left behind at the murder scene. It’s the final day in the trial and Ashe needs to discredit the evidence.

While court is in recess, Jan decides to pay her father a visit. While Dad is getting well oiled from a bottle supplied by Eddie, Jan makes the acquaintance of Ace. They exchange small talk as she begins commenting on how he should look going back into the courtroom, picking out a tie for him. Her glances during this scene, combined with some of the most obvious dialogue written, tell us that she’s pretty taken with Ol’ Ace, and that something’s going to happen.

Back in the courtroom, Stephen addresses the jury about that troublesome hat left behind, and with some over-the-top theatrics, he succeeds in discrediting the prosecution’s evidence and winning Ace’s acquittal.

That night, as Grandma, Jan, and the rest of the family, including Jan’s stuffy polo-playing fiancé, Dwight Winthrop (Howard), await the arrival of Stephen, Grandma asks Jan if she heeded the advice not to let her father drink that evening. However, as Stephen drives up to the family manse, it’s obvious that Grandma’s advice went unheeded, for Stephen stumbles out three sheets to the wind. Worse, he’s brought along a guest – none other than the newly-acquitted Ace. The family’s reaction to Stephen and his friend is as expected. Stephen, disgusted, leaves with Ace, and Jan follows. While driving home, Jan tells Ace he’s the most exciting man she’s ever met. Right after she makes this confession, the rival Hardy mob, as if on cue, ambushes Ace in a drive-by, but he escapes. Jan, who’s never been involved in anything remotely like this before, is totally captivated. The drive ends at Ace’s place above his casino, where the couple has champagne for dinner, and also for breakfast the next morning.

As time passes, Jan’s growing fondness for Ace is matched only by her father’s growing fondness for draining whiskey bottles. Jan, for her part, sees Ace as just another fling, but Ace doesn’t see it that way. He, unlike his new girlfriend, plays for keeps. One night, while Stephen is at his casino, drinking and losing money at roulette, Ace approaches him about marrying his daughter. This is Barrymore’s most effective scene in the movie. Until now, he has been seen as somewhat of a loveable drunk, but once Ace makes his intentions known, Stephen turns, shooting daggers into the gangster with his eyes as he tells him, “The only time I hate democracy is when one of you mongrels forget where you belong.” So, it’s no. Stephen, unlike his daughter, knows what Ace really is – a cheap hoodlum involved in activities that can only spell doom for his daughter if she were to hitch her wagon to his sleazy star.


Not that it matters, for Jan and Ace continue to be an item. But reality is beginning to impinge on this idyllic relationship. After getting the short shrift from Stephen, Ace returns to his place to find Jan there in a bathrobe. They begin to argue, during which Ace makes his demand for a long-term commitment clear while Jan’s only response is to tell Ace to cut the gab and make with the sex – the famous scene on the divan.

Soon after Ace left the casino, the cops pull a raid. Stephen, by this time six sheets to the wind, is adding a goodly dose of disorderly to his drunk. The gang, to shut him up, tosses him in Ace’s apartment, where he discovers Jan lounging in a robe. Both father and daughter are shamed by the discovery of each other in this condition. They silently leave and return to their apartment.

Back at their apartment, Jan confronts Stephen with the truth – that each of them has been indulging their worst vices. She offers to give up Ace if Stephen will give up the bottle, and suggests the two of them go on a retreat to cleanse it out of their systems. Stephen, seeing this as his last chance, readily agrees.

At first, all is idyllic, as they romp among the wilds of Yosemite, but not for long. When they return to town, Stephen makes a beeline for the drug store and purchases a bottle. This makes for one of the weirdest scenes in the movie. Jan and Eddie see him approach, bottle in hand. As they rush toward him a train goes by between them. But as the train leaves, there’s no Stephen. Did he simply grab onto one of the car handles a la Buster Keaton or Charlie Chaplin and cadge a free ride?


At any rate, Jan figures that if Dad is going to return to his vices, then so will she, and returns to Ace. But it’s not the same Ace she left. No, Ace is furious that Jan left him without so much as a “goodbye” months ago, only to return and make him look like a fool. Ace now has ideas, and one of those ideas is that she will marry him – the next day. He does so in manner that leaves her shocked and almost speechless. He intends to take full control of this “free soul.”

Jan tries to ignore Ace and his plans; she’s disappointed in herself for having gotten so involved. But there’s no escape, as the next day Ace returns and repeats his plans, this time with a rejoinder: he threatens to kidnap her if it comes to that. As they argue, old fiancé Dwight come in and confronts Ace. Ace brushes him off, telling Dwight, “She lost her Ritz months ago. She came to my place and stayed there.” In other words, Jan is used goods. Wilfong leaves on the note that if Jan doesn’t go along with the wedding, he’ll start spreading rumors about Jan’s sexual proclivity, which will ruin her reputation.

Dwight is gobsmacked. What’s a boy in love to do? Simple, he goes to Ace’s casino and guns the gangster down in cold blood. Then, in true melodramatic fashion, he calls the police and tells them exactly what he just did: he shot Ace over a gambling debt.

On trial for first-degree murder, Dwight has as much chance as a snowball in hell. Only a first-rate lawyer could spring him. So guess who now shows up? That’s right, Stephen returns from the society of the alcoholic hobos, or wherever he was, to make what for him will be his last hurrah.


Stephen declares the murder is a case of temporary insanity. He states that it is not Dwight who should be on trial, but he himself, as Jan’s father, for if he had not allowed Jan to see Ace to begin with, the whole tragic affair could have been prevented. After calling Jan to the witness stand, Stephen, impassioned in his defense, and what he must ask, suffers a heart attack and dies in Jan’s arms. The jury finds Dwight innocent, and he and Jan leave for New York, where they plan to pick up their lives.

Truth be told, A Free Soul isn’t a very good movie, which for some cinephiles, is akin to blasphemy. The problem lies with the writing and the plain fact that the movie only becomes interesting when Gable is in the frame.

The fame of A Free Soul comes from its shock value, especially when cited in documentaries about the Pre-Code era. When a clip from the movie is shown, it’s always the same clip, that of Norma Shearer reclining on a divan and exhorting Clark Gable to “C'mon, put ‘em around me.” Shocking? Yes, especially when taken out of the context of the movie. Watch the rest of the movie and it becomes obvious it’s another Shearer melodrama wherein Norma gets mixed up with some pretty bad eggs and has to figure a way out, if she can. From some of the almost see-through gowns Adrian designed for her, she could almost be called “Norma Sheerer.”

Although she was nominated for a Best Actress Oscar, this is not one of Shearer’s better performances. She seems to be working hard at being sexy and wanton, something that came rather naturally to actresses such as Joan Crawford and Jean Harlow. She also lets a few of her silent movie mannerisms, especially the art of over-gesticulating, stand out quite noticeably. Mordaunt Hall, in his review for The New York Times, perhaps said it best: “Miss Shearer, who looks as captivating as ever, is called upon to act a part which is quite unsuited to her intelligent type of beauty.”


It also doesn’t help that her co-star is Lionel Barrymore, one of the greatest scene-stealers to ever live. Lionel pulls out all the stops, especially in the last courtroom scene and won the Best Actor Oscar for what was essentially one of the hammiest performances ever captured on film, especially given the awful dialogue he has to recite.

Clark Gable also manages to outshine Norma, though he’s still reduced to playing his usual (for the times) one-note heavy. Still, he does make quite an impression, as noted before, the film becomes interesting only when he’s on screen, and this is the film that catapulted him into stardom. Leslie Howard is all but invisible as the effete fiancé, and the best performance is that of James Gleason as Barrymore’s confidant-assistant-enabler.

The problem with the film is its reliance on shock value and theatrics rather than solid plotlines. The scene in the courthouse at Ace’s trial is a good example. Stephen is holding the hat police found at the scene of the crime. He muses over the initials in the hat, going over a couple of possible names before stopping and conceding that it could well belong to Ace Wilfong. 



There is only one way to be sure, he says, and calls Ace up to try on the hat. As Ace places the topper on his head, it’s evident that the hat is two sizes too small and the courtroom breaks out in laughter as Stephen drives his point home to the jury.

This scene came to me immediately when I was watching the O.J. Simpson trial. Johnnie Cochran practically had Simpson acquitted then and there when he asked the defendant to try on the gloves supposedly used by the murderer. As Simpson tried to wiggle his hands into the gloves, it was apparent that they were too small, and Johnny uttered that famous phrase, “If it doesn’t fit, you must acquit.” I have always wondered if Cochran got that line of defense from A Free Soul.

The descent into melodrama is all too frequent, as witnessed later by the scene where Jan and Stephen go on a retreat to get their vices out of their systems. Stephen’s sudden lapse back to the bottle brings about his total disappearance, leaving his daughter to her own devices, and we know where this is going. Interestingly, Jan taps into the modern psyche when, in excusing Stephen’s alcoholism, says, "Drinking is just a disease with him." And anyone who at this juncture thinks we’ve seen the last of Stephen is suffering from self-delusion, for the final descent into pure melodrama is yet to come.

After Dwight shoots Ace in cold blood and goes on trial, it looks like curtains for him. Jan scours the city for a lawyer to defend him. As the trial proceeds and Dwight is looking more and more guilty, Stephen suddenly shows up to take over Dwight’s defense, without any preparation at all, mind you. He puts Jan on the witness stand, where she confesses all about her relationship with Ace and of his threats just before the shooting. Stephen them sums up by telling the jury that Dwight is not the murderer, but himself. Yes, he is the real murderer for having neglected his daughter. And just as he finishes, right on cue, he drops dead. The jury is so moved they acquit Dwight, who goes on, presumably, to live happily ever after with Jan. It’s one of the most preposterous endings in the history of movies, but, strangely enough, one that fits with the morality of the day. Jan strayed from the moral path by getting involved with Ace to the extent she did and now must pay for it until she is sufficiently punished. To save Dwight, Stephen must sacrifice his daughter, for the moral code of the day dictated the ruin of any woman who not only slept with a man before marriage, but also practically lived with him. This is why Ace’s threats to out this behavior on her part were so daunting.

Barrymore’s final speech lasted for 14 minutes. Shearer, according to director Clarence Brown, played “bedroom politics” by complaining about the final scene to her husband, Irving Thalberg, and the fact that both she and Gable fade into the deep background during the scene. (Of course, Gable’s character is no longer with us, so I don’t know how that could have been managed, except by using a flashback.) Thalberg turned her suggestion down and kept the scene as it was shot, ensuring Barrymore the Oscar.


The film did have its strengths, which lie entirely in the hands of director Brown. His use of the camera and fast editing move the film along nicely, especially since this is a film that could easily become trapped in its own melodrama. Brown brings out the naiveté in Jan, who mistakes it for freedom and sophistication. One of the best scenes is when Gable’s henchman, Slouch (Brophy) explains the drive-by attempt on Ace’s life to Jan:

Well, the mug that was rubbed out, Miss, was a snooper of the chief’s running with the Hardy mob, slipping us the lowdown. Hardy gets hep to it and he puts the rat on the spot. They nab the boss’s 'kelly' and plants it. Your old man jaws him out and the Hardy mob grabs the typewriters and the ukeleles.”

Jan’s confused reaction is priceless, and Brown lingers on it just long enough to drive the point home.

And in the scene at Ace’s where Stephen confronts Jan, Brown uses a lingering shot of Jan noticing that the flowers on the table have decayed to the point where they crumble in her hand. She catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, as if seeing herself for the first time. She then spots Stephen in the mirror as he downs another drink, and the look on her face tells us that the game is up for her. It’s a beautiful look into her thought process without any dialogue whatsoever, a perfect illumination of the phrase that a picture is worth a thousand words.

The only problem is there weren’t enough of them.

Trivia:

The film was a smash at the box office, turning a final profit of $244,000. It was also voted “One of the Ten Best Pictures of 1931” in a poll by Film Daily.

A Free Soul was remade by MGM in 1953 as The Girl Who Had Everything with Elizabeth Taylor in Shearer’s role, Fernando Lamas in Gable’s role, and William Powell in Barrymore’s role.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Alan Rickman: In Memoriam

A Smooth Criminal

By Ed Garea

He was the most suave villain to hit the silver screen since Basil Rathbone, and like Rathbone he endowed his characters with a sort of cultured dignity to disguise the fact that their motivations were no different than an ordinary villain.

Alan Rickman, the accomplished British stage actor who proved equally successful in the world of film and television, died on January 14 at the age of 69.

Catherine Olim, a publicist, confirmed Rickman’s death, stating the cause was pancreatic cancer.


During a career that spanned more than 40 years, Rickman, known for his sonorous voice and often inscrutable smile, played a host of characters who, while suave and knowing on the outside, were often wrought by their own inner complicated motivations and emotions.

He was born Alan Sidney Patrick Rickman in Acton, west London, on February 21, 1946, the second of four children of Margaret Doreen Rose (Bartlett), a housewife, and Bernard Rickman, a painter and decorator. When only eight years old, his father died, leaving his mother to raise him and his three siblings mostly on her own, save for a brief marriage that lasted three years.

The young Rickman attended Derwentwater Primary School in Acton, Derwentwater Junior School, and then Latymer Upper School in London, where he became involved in drama. After leaving Latymer, he attended Chelsea College of Art and Design and later the Royal College of Art, where he trained in graphic design and typography, writing for the college journal, ARK, while he was there. His first job was as a graphic designer for the Notting Hill Herald, which Rickman considered to be a more stable profession than acting. Later, he opened his own graphic arts studio, called Graphiti, with several friends.
But the acting bug was still there, and after three years of business success, Rickman decided to pursue acting as a full-time career, taking a job as an assistant stage manager at the small Basement Theatre Company. He was awarded a place at the prestigious Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, which he attended from 1972 to 1974, studying Shakespeare and supporting himself by working as a dresser for Sir Nigel Hawthorne and Sir Ralph Richardson. 

After graduation, Rickman worked in British repertory and experimental groups. He also performed with the Copurt Drama Group and the Royal Shakespeare Company, with whom he had on of his early successes, being cast as the manipulative Vicomte de Valmont in the Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. He earned a Tony Award nomination when the production moved to Broadway in 1987.


His next role made him famous – that of urbane, sharp-tongued terrorist Hans Gruber in Die Hard (1988). Matched against the Cagneyesque John McClane, the resourceful cop played by Bruce Willis, his elegant put-downs and coldly calculated violence helped raise the film above the standard action film.

Rickman played Hans Gruber for all he was worth, wringing every drop of malicious venom from Gruber’s swaggering speech. When finally meeting his adversary after being frustrated time and again, his delivery is wickedly perfect: “Who are you? Just another American who saw too many movies as a child? Another orphan of a bankrupt culture who thinks he’s John Wayne? Rambo? Marshal Dillon?”

In one scene as he’s negotiating with the authorities, Gruber recites a list of terrorists he wants freed. After finishing, he’s asked by his assistant whether he thinks the authorities will actually release those he mentioned. “Who cares?” he says coolly.

Rickman said later in an interview that he got the role of Hans Gruber because he came so cheap: “They were paying Willis $7 million so they had to find people they could pay nothing."

But even as an actor appearing in his first big Hollywood production, Rickman managed to influence his surroundings. It was his idea to dress immaculately in a designer suit to further accent the differences between Gruber, the urbane thief, and McClane, the proletariat cop. In a later interview with GQ magazine, Rickman recalled how he temporarily shut production down when he refused to knock fellow actress Bonnie Bedelia to the ground as demanded by the script. "My character was very civilized in a strange sort of way and just wouldn’t have behaved like that," he told the interviewer. "Nor would Bonnie’s character, a self-possessed career woman, have allowed him to. It was a stereotype – the woman as eternal victim – that they hadn’t even thought about. Basically, they wanted a reason for her shirt to burst open. We talked our way around it – her shirt still burst open, but at least she stayed upright."


After playing an Australian rancher who tries to kill Tom Sellick in Quigley Down Under (1990), Rickman took a role that further cemented his typecasting as a villain – that of the Sheriff of Nottingham in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves. His over-the-top performance was so mesmerizing that he stole the film from its star, Kevin Coster, who reportedly had some of Rickman’s scenes cut or reduced in the editing room. But who can forget the Sheriff’s disgust when asking a scribe about the popularity of Robin Hood: “That's it then. Cancel the kitchen scraps for lepers and orphans, no more merciful beheadings, and call off Christmas!”

When he received a Bafta for his work, he said, “I'll take this as a healthy reminder that subtlety . . . isn't everything.”

Wary of typecasting, Rickman sought and accepted roles such as that of Jamie, the late boyfriend of Nina (Juliet Stevenson) who returns as a ghost to ease her grief in Anthony Minghella’s Truly Madly Deeply (1990).

In 1995, he attracted critical acclaim as the honorable Colonel Brandon in Sense And Sensibility, opposite his close friend Emma Thompson, who offered him the role. His acting partnership with Thompson also led to roles in 2003's Love, Actually, in which they played husband and wife, and the 2010 BBC drama, The Song Of Lunch.

Rickman also took on broad comedy, playing Alexander Dane in the 1999 sci-fi spoof Galaxy Quest, about the cast of a fanatically loved television show who haven’t been able to find work since it went off the air and have had to earn their living appearing at fan conventions and the like. Rickman gave a marvelously dry performance as Dane, who played the I-am-actually-not-my-strange-looking-alien character, Dr. Lazarus, a parody of Leonard Nimoy.


In 2001, Rickman took on the role of Severus Snape, the sarcastic instructor at the Hogwarts school from J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series of novels, in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Although the character began as Harry’s nemesis, as the series progressed, Snape ultimately turned out to be a man who had young Harry’s best interests at heart.

In a 2012 interview with The New York Times, Rickman shared his ruminations over the character of Snape, saying that he signed on to the series without a clear idea of how the character would evolve over the course of the series, and finding the last film “very cathartic because you were finally able to see who he was.”

Besides film, Rickman also starred in television roles. During a hiatus from the RSC in 1982, Rickman played the Reverend Obadiah Slope in the BBC's adaptation of Barchester TowersThe Barchester Chronicles. He had earlier played the role of Vidal in the 1980 BBC adaptation of Emile Zola’s Therese Raquin.

He also had a couple of outings behind the camera, directing Emma Thompson and her mother, Phyllida Law, in the 1997 Scotland-based drama The Winter Guest. And in 2014, he directed and starred as French King Louis XIV alongside Kate Winslet (with whom he had starred in Sense and Sensibility) – in A Little Chaos.

In his private life, Rickman met his partner Rima Horton in 1965 while in the amateur Group Court Drama Club, when he was 19 and she was 18. They lived together from 1977 until his death. In 2012, Rickman announced that he and Horton had secretly married in a private ceremony in New York City. Horton was a Labour Party councilor on the Kensington and Chelsea London Borough Council from 1986 to 2006 and an economics lecturer at Kingston University. They had no children.

In his spare time, Rickman supported many charities and was an honorary president of the International Performers' Aid Trust, a charity that alleviates poverty in some of the world's toughest conditions.

When talking about politics, Rickman has said he “was born a card-carrying member of the Labour Party.”

In August 2015, Rickman suffered a minor stroke, which lead to the diagnosis of pancreatic cancer. He concealed the fact he was terminally ill from all except a few close friends. He died on January 14, 2016, in a London hospital. A family statement simply said: “The actor and director Alan Rickman has died from cancer at the age of 69. He was surrounded by family and friends.”

Rickman will be seen in two films completed before his death: Eye in the Sky, a thriller about drone warfare in which he stars alongside Helen Mirren and Aaron Paul to be released in March; and Alice Through The Looking Glass, scheduled for release in May, in which he plays the voiceover for the Blue Caterpillar.