Saturday, September 30, 2017
Thursday, September 28, 2017
TCM TiVo ALERT
October 1–October 7
DAVID’S BEST BETS:
STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. (October 4, 5:15 pm): Buster Keaton's last independent silent film – and one of the last silent films he ever made – is the legendary actor at his best. The stunts are stunning, including one of the most memorable in cinematic history. The facade of a house falls forward with Keaton, who is in front of it, saved by perfectly hitting his mark standing where the empty third-story window lands. It is an insane stunt that could have easily killed Keaton. Don't try this at home, kids. It's a perfect example of Keaton's physical comedic style. Keaton is basically the entire movie as the plot is paper-thin. Keaton is the small college-graduate son of a riverboat captain, who's about to lose his broken-down paddle steamer and livelihood to a wealthy rival. Keaton's character is in love with the daughter of his father's rival. Besides the physical comedy, there's some other exceptionally funny moments in the film such as Keaton attempting to get his father out of jail by giving him a loaf of bread with tools obviously inside.
HEAD (October 7, 3:45 am): This confusing but entertaining film features manufactured pop band The Monkees doing their best to break their "Pre-Fab" mold. The four jump off a bridge symbolically killing themselves, but they learn even that does nothing to change their image. The trouble for the group is when this film was released in late 1968, The Monkees' popularity was low. The group desperately wanted to leave behind their teen-pop image and appeal to a cooler hippie audience. The problem is the band's core audience is dismissed and ridiculed in the film, and because The Monkees were squares with the in-crowd (despite some excellent songs), no one went to see this movie. And that's a shame. While the plot is simple enough, how it is handled is rather sophisticated even though the viewer has no idea at times what's happening – something that was intentionally done.
ED’S BEST BETS:
DRACULA’S DAUGHTER (October 1, 9:30 pm): An excellent sequel to Tod Browning’s Dracula (1931) with Dracula’s daughter, Countess Marya Zaleska (Gloria Holden), trying to free herself of the vampire spell her father put over her. She returns to London with her manservant Sandor (Irving Pichel), who is in love with her, but her vampiric tendencies still reign. She engages psychiatrist Dr. Jeffrey Garth (Otto Kruger) to help her in shedding her problem. To ensure his cooperation she has Sandor kidnap his secretary/lover Janet Blake (Marguerite Churchill). However, the Countess wants more than a consultation. Will she get it? Tune in.
ISLAND OF LOST SOULS (October 3, 2:00 am): A gruesome and unsettling adaptation of H.G. Wells’ The Island of Dr. Moreau starring Charles Laughton at his most fiendish as the mad doctor isolated on a remote island who is conducting experiments transforming jungle animals ostensibly into human brings, but in reality coming up with half-human abominations. Moreau's theory is that evolution can be sped up through experimental skin grafting. The man-beasts who populate the island know his laboratory as “the house of pain.” When Richard Arlen, the sole survivor of a shipwreck, arrives at the island Moreau wastes no time in trying to mate him with his most successful creation, a panther woman (Kathleen Burke). But Moreau’s empire comes crashing down after the arrival of Captain Donahue (Paul Hurst) and Parker's fiancee Ruth (Leila Hyams) who have come for the missing Arlen. The finale is equally gruesome as Moreau gets a taste of his own medicine from his creations. Banned in England, many film historians credit it with helping to sped enforcement of the Code.
WE AGREE ON ... THE PUBLIC ENEMY (October 2, 5:45 pm)
ED: A+. If ever a film deserved to be labeled as an “essential,” this is the one. Ably directed by William Wellman and adapted by Kubec Glasmon and John Bright from their novel about the Chicago mobs, Beer and Blood, it made a star out of James Cagney. I’m sure everyone is familiar with the old story about Edward Woods being cast in the lead with Cagney as his sidekick. Over the years everyone from Wellman to Glasmon and Bright to Darryl Zanuck has taken credit for the switch. But whoever made it obviously made the right move, for Cagney is electrifying as Tom Powers. Even though he’s completely amoral, ruthless, emotionally brutal, and terrifyingly lethal, we are still drawn to his every move. Without him, the film is just another run-of-the-mill gangster epic, much like Doorway to Hell, made the year before and starring the miscast Lew Ayres in the lead, with Cagney as his sidekick. Shot in less than a month at a cost of around $151,000, The Public Enemy was the first film to gross over $1 million at the box office. It might surprise some viewers out there to learn that many of the happenings in the movie were based on real-life events. The shooting of the horse, the grapefruit to the face of Mae Clarke (in reality it was an omelette), the machine gun ambush of Tom and Matt Doyle (Woods), and the murder of Putty Nose were among the events fictionalized by the authors and repeated in the screenplay. Cagney’s Tom Powers is a combination of real life mobsters Hymie Weiss and Dion O’Banion, who ruled the North Side of Chicago, while Johnny Torrio and Al Capone ruled the South Side. Wellman keeps the action going at a frantic pace, never allowing the viewer to slow down and take stock of the situation. The only downside to the movie is the short shrift given to Joan Blondell and Mae Clarke as the molls of Matt and Tom respectively. When Edward Woods played Tom Powers, he had quite a frisky bedroom scene with a scantily-clad Blondell. When the roles were switched, the scene was cut from the movie. For those who have not yet had the pleasure of watching this film, I urge you to do so when it comes on. For those of you who have seen it, you’ll probably want to see it again – that is, unless you have it on DVD as I do. The most mesmerizing thing about The Public Enemy is that it has lost none of its power or magnetism over the years; in fact, the opposite may well be true and the movie has actually gained in stature.
DAVID: A+. After the credits and the cast of characters, the film opens with this: “It is the ambition of the authors of The Public Enemy to honestly depict an environment that exists today in a certain strata of American life rather than glorify the hoodlum or the criminal.” Despite the warning and giving the lead character, Tom Powers (James Cagney), no redeeming qualities – except he loves his mother – he is the quintessential anti-hero. You can't help but like him as he commits murder, serves as muscle for a bootlegger and is an overall vicious and cruel criminal. It is Cagney that makes this early talkie/Pre-Code film a classic. Eighty-six years after it came out, it is still one of the greatest gangster movie ever made. Tom and Matt Doyle (Edward Woods) grow up committing petty crimes before finally making it big thanks to bootlegging during Prohibition. It's a Warner Brothers gangster film from 1931 so obviously it's gritty. While most of the violence is off-screen, the last 20 or so minutes are absolutely brutal and hold nothing back. This is Pre-Code so when someone gets shot, they bleed. Thanks to the brilliant and intense performance by Cagney and an incredible directing job by William A. Wellman, this goes far beyond any other gangster film of its time and even to this day. Gangster films have become more violent, but The Public Enemy is so authentic and captivating that you can't turn away from it – and you don't want to. It includes two of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history: Tom shoving a grapefruit in the face of Mae Clarke and the shocking ending.
For the complete list of films on the TCM TiVo Alert, click here.
Tuesday, September 26, 2017
Films in Focus
By Jonathon Saia
I've Heard the Mermaids Singing (Miramax, 1987) – Director: Patricia Rozema. Writer: Patricia Rozema. Stars: Sheila McCarthy, Paule Baillargeon, Ann-Marie MacDonald, Richard Monette, John Evans & Brenda Kamino. Color and B&W, Rated R, 81 minutes.
"To make something beautiful is to be beautiful forever."
It's about...well, I'm not exactly sure. I'm not sure the film knows. I've Heard the Mermaids Singing seems to be trying to make some kind of statement about art and Art and how artists find worth in their work, but it's all done in such a blissfully low key manner that it's hard to glean hard answers. Maybe it's not trying to give answers. Maybe it's just posing questions. Or at the very least, trying to showcase its lead actress. Which is more than enough reason to see the film. Hold that thought though. I'll get back to Sheila McCarthy in a few paragraphs.
OK, so the story follows Polly (McCarthy), a socially awkward recluse, as she temps for a curator. She has no art education or great interest for that matter in the subject, but needed a job so here she is. She is dreadfully ordinary, yet doesn't seem to mind. Or really even notice. She lives alone, but doesn't seem lonely. It's so refreshing to see a protagonist, especially a female protagonist, not wallowing in her own self-pity while searching for a man. Her philosophy is direct and self-aware: "Sometimes I think my head is like a gas tank. You have to be careful what you put into it or it may destroy the whole system." She holds no great dreams other than surviving. And taking photographs. But these photos are not for grandeur, not for others, but for herself. For her own pleasure. Her photos capture simple things, real life beauty that, like herself, is usually ignored. She tacks them up on her drab apartment walls and fantasizes elaborate scenes where she lives inside her photos. Polly makes Art for the purest of reasons: to create the world in which she wants to live.
But that begins to shift after a conversation with Gabrielle, her boss. Gabrielle (Baillargeon) doesn't want to just curate art. She wants to make it. To create one universally revered piece of work to solidify a legacy and prove her worth. She shows her paintings to Polly. Polly is flabbergasted. They are beautiful. Radiant. The paintings seem to glow, in fact. These paintings must be seen. After Gabrielle has passed out on the couch, Polly decides to steal one. But not for herself. To help her boss overcome her shyness and achieve her dream of sharing her talent with the world.
In a somewhat contrived piece of business, an art critic stops by the office while Gabrielle is out, reviews the painting in the Times, and she is suddenly the newest genius on the block. This awakens Polly's curiosity to see if maybe her hidden talents are worthy of accolades. She sends Gabrielle an anonymous package hoping that her photos will speak for themselves so she can be featured in the next art show. Polly has latched onto Gabrielle as a role model, a mentor, and even a romantic object. Surely, she will see, as one artist to another, her potential. But Gabrielle thinks they are "simple-minded" – exactly what others had said about her own work before she made it big.
Since Gabrielle's opinion has come to serve as her own, Polly is devastated. And feels betrayed. How could she not see her soul, her heart, her passion in the photos? We see for the first time Polly's pride in her work – which may have been the first time Polly even realized how much her photos meant to her – and that beneath her provincial charm, maybe she actually does long to be someone of note. Sadly, she is quick to give up, burning all of her photos and throwing her camera off the roof. Later, when Polly discovers Gabrielle is a fraud, that she has a ghost painter, she loses her sense of self and lashes out with unclear consequences.
If the film seems light on action, it's because it is. I've Heard the Mermaids Singing is really a character study of an unremarkable woman trying to find her way in a remarkable milieu. Though a Canadian production, it bears a resemblance to the European style of a-day-in-the-life films like Cleo from 5 to 7 (1962); the type of films that drown without a dynamic lead character at the helm. It's a unique film (with a confounding title) that rests on the talents of its leading lady to carry it through its somewhat dull and esoteric universe. And make no mistake about it: Sheila McCarthy is a revelation.
In her incredibly gifted hands, Polly is mousy without being pathetic, plain without being boring, and so full of specificity I wish she had existed in silent pictures. Take the scene in a restaurant. We notice the way she tries to sit at the Japanese table. The way she fumbles with her chopsticks plays like a reverse dinner roll scene from The Gold Rush (1925) or a much more subdued version of Ernest fumbling with his fork. I could have watched this scene unfold for an hour. There's the way she chugs her rum, maybe drinking for the first time, wanting to seem sophisticated. The way she wraps up her own comforter as a birthday gift for her boss. The way she narrates the film and somehow doesn't make it seem superfluous. The slow drain of disappointment when Gabrielle tells her her photos are no good. The subtle smile when she realizes her photos have the power to transport her to other worlds. Her offbeat charisma reads like Amy Poehler without the wink. McCarthy won the Best Actress Genie (Canada's version of the Oscars) for I've Heard the Mermaids Singing, her first film.
Friday, September 22, 2017
Dinner and a Movie
By Steve Herte
It (New Line, 2017) – Director: Andy Muschietti. Writers: Gary Dauberman, Cary Fukunaga & Chase Palmer (s/p). Stephen King (novel). Stars: Jaeden Lieberher, Jeremy Ray Taylor, Sophia Lillis, Finn Wolfhard, Chosen Jacobs, Jack Dylan Grazer, Wyatt Oleff, Bill Skarsgård, Nicholas Hamilton, Logan Thompson, Owen Teague, Jackson Robert Scott, Stephen Bogaert, Stuart Hughes, Geoffrey Pounsett, Pip Dwyer, Mollie Jane Atkinson, Steven Williams, Elizabeth Saunders, Megan Charpentier, Joe Bostick, Ari Cohen, Anthony Ulc, Javier Botet, Carter Musselman, Tatum Lee & Edie Inksetter. Color, Rated R, 135 minutes.
“We all float down here, you’ll float too,” said a possessed Georgie Denbrough (Scott) to his heartsick big brother before the malevolent clown rose from the sewer water.
As terrifying as the 1990 television miniseries was, this remake is more so. The special effects technology that hadn’t been developed 27 years ago was used to full effect in this chilling movie. And at two hours and fifteen minutes, it’s only half the story.
For those who are not “of the body” in Derry, Maine, we have the Losers Club (though they never refer to themselves that way). The club consists of Bill Denbrough (Lieberher), Ben Hanscom (Taylor), Beverly Marsh (Lillis), Richie Tozler (Wolfhard), Mike Hanlon (Jacobs), Eddie Kaspbrak (Grazer), and Stanley Uris (Oleff). They’re brought together by being the victims of the town bullies, led by Henry Bowers (Hamilton). But these guys take the term to the next level, as Ben, the new kid in Derry, gets the name “Henry” carved into his belly with a knife at the hands of Bowers.
But Ben is a bookworm who discovers that every 27 years a rash of child abductions breaks out in Derry and a voracious lunatic clown is at the bottom of it. Bill’s younger brother Georgie is the first one to see Pennywise (Skarsgård) when his paper boat floats down an open catch basin drain. When the clown holds it out for him, he makes the mistake of reaching for it and eventually follows it down in the most brutal manner.
They all see manifestations of Pennywise cloaked in their own individual fears (Richie is afraid of clowns, Beverly is afraid of her lecherous father, etc.), and band together under Bill’s firm resolve to find his brother and overcome their fears and stand against the evil monster. They even make a pact to return in 27 years.
I read the book several years ago but this film brought it all back with a few twists I don’t remember but liked. For instance, one kid’s fear was of the Modigliani painting hanging in the family home. Pennywise makes sure that painting comes alive in the worst way. The casting is excellent. All the characters are recognizable and you can’t help but be drawn into the action of this version. The soundtrack alone is terrifying, tense and shocking. And, like the grand master of the macabre, the effects do not shy away from excessive gore and the gross-out factor. I don’t think I’ll look at a red balloon in just the same way ever again. I hope the sequel comes soon.
Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 Martini glasses.
35 East 21st Street
After a dark, violent movie, where do you go for dinner? Obviously, a dark, “Mexican-inspired” restaurant that was once a strip club.
Yes, I learned that Cosme, under the guise of innovative Mexican dishes was previously a “Gentlemen’s entertainment venue.” When I ordered the Striptease cocktail – Vida Mezcal, Dolin Blanc vermouth, guanabana lime, and absinthe salt – my server Xavi clued me in. It wasn’t quite as dark as Wolfgang Puck’s new restaurant, though. I could read the menu without a flashlight. The drink was similar to a margarita, but drier and with that strange wormwood flavor.
The menu featured a whole section of vegetarian dishes that, though interesting, did not appeal to me. I decided on two in the “seafood” category and one of the main courses for my dinner. The wine list was one of the most varied I’ve seen. I ordered the 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon, Vena Cava from the Guadalupe Valley, Baja California, Mexico. It was fabulous, medium-bodied and with deep fruits, and held its own with the subtle and not-so-subtle flavors of my meal. And it seemed a logical title after a bloody movie.
First up was a combination I’ve never seen in any Mexican restaurant, the “Uni Tostada” – sea urchin, avocado, bone marrow salsa and cucumber garnished with cilantro and slices of jalapeno on a crispy tostada. It was a delicious and unusual combination, as the sweet of the avocado is mixed with the delicate taste of the sea urchin and the savory salsa to create a fiesta of flavors. Carefully using a knife and fork I managed to get all the layers into each bite. Instead of bread, Cosme serves a single large, homemade blue corn chip and a mildly spiced bean salsa. Very nice.
My next dish was “Fluke Aguachile,” featuring Chicatana ant (yes, a Mexican insect), with sesame seeds. The “chili water” surrounded the sushi-grade filets of fluke and made them come alive with spice. The ants were not obvious, nor was the dish crawling with them. They were there just for the nutty flavor.
The main course was a beautiful strip of “Short Rib” with scallions, Cipollini onions and avocado, served with a basket of fresh warm homemade blue corn tortillas. The avocado part of this dish was a spicy puree that I spooned onto a tortilla around pieces of tender short rib and a slice of onion before wrapping it and taking a bite. A little messy, but fun and delicious.
Mexican desserts are usually predictable and limited, but not at Cosme. The “Blueberries with lavender Semi-freddo” was an eye-opener as well as a delight. Think of a pond frozen over with lavender ice, broken up and almost covering large juicy sweet blueberries and garnished with a purple flower. Heavenly.
To finish this unique dinner I chose a “Carajillo,” a Spanish drink combining coffee with brandy, whisky and anisette. Perfect. Cosme successfully followed an awesome movie with an awesome dinner.
For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.
For the Dinner and a Movie archive, click here.