Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Ask for Joe

Some fans of my cocktails came back from Trader Joe's with a new ingredient - Pomegranate Lime juice. We got it on a hot, hot Sunday, and mixed it into a number of new drinks.

1. Mixed with Flor Cana rum in a highball glass with lots of ice: Nice. Seems to have the feeling, if not the actual taste, of coconut

2. Mixed with vodka in a highball glass with lots of ice: Not really a pom cosmo.

3. This one:

Free Trader

1 shot Trader Joe's Pom Lime juice
1 shot rum
1 oz Malibu coconut rum
1/2 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueur

Shake over ice and serve up in a martini glass

Going by my previous definition of a Mai Tai (fruit juice, 2 rums, orgeat or other nutty accent), this pretty much qualifies. And St. Germain has a rather tropical flavor, similar to lychee. But the effect is very different: The pomegranate and elderflower have a grassy, botanical effect. The rum/lime/coconut aren't as tropical as you'd expect.

In conclusion: St. Germain liqueur - yum.

Bonus cocktail: Add a shot of pomegranate lime juice to a margarita. I call it a Pommy Bastard.

Friday, June 26, 2009

Going Bats

Back to the Old Dark House movies: The Bat/House on Haunted Hill -Actually, just The Bat, we've seen House on Haunted Hill.

The Bat starts with a great title card, straight out of American International, with a very jazzy bongo-drenched theme. Not what I was expecting, but it was made in 1959. The look of the movie is low-budget B/W, almost made for TV. It stars Agnes Moorehead as mystery writer Cornelia "Corny" van Gorter who rents a spooky house with her maid from a small town banker. In quick succession, they learn about the serial killer, the Bat, who has been killing women, then they find that the bank has been embezzled, then the banker dies in a forest fire while hunting - with town doctor Vincent Price.

A characteristic of the classic Old Dark House, is that it takes place in a single house, often on a single night (saves money on sets). This movie doesn't follow those rules, but we do eventually get the big group of random characters, one of whom must be - the murderer!

Agnes Moorehead spends a lot of time in a negligee, which is a little wierd.

The Haunting of Hill House - wait - The Hill of the Haunted House - no - The House on Haunted Hill is probably the better movie. Vincent Price offers a group of random strangers (?) $10,000 each to stay overnight in a spooky house (Frank Lloyd Wright's Ennis house in exteriors!). He then gives them each a gun and gets shot. Whodunit?

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Night Watch

Another in our series of kid's fantasies: Night at the Museum.Ben Stiller plays a sad-sack divorced dad who is going to lose his apartment, causing his son to lose all respect for him. In desperation, he takes a job as nightwatchman in the Museum of Natural History. He will be working for fussy museum director Ricky Gervais, and replacing a trio of aged watchmen - Dick Van Dyke, Micky Rooney and Bill Cobbs.

Observation 1: Lots of cool talent in this movie. Add Owen Wilson as a tiny cowboy, at war with tiny centurion Steve Coogan, Robin Williams as Teddy Roosevelt, and you've got a movie.

The retiring watchmen try to warn him, but he kind of blows them off. So on his first night, when he discovers that the museum comes alive, he is shocked, then frightened, then threatened.

Observation 2: The museum comes alive at night! The T. Rex skeleton starts chasing bones. The little people in the dioramas start fighting. Attila the Hun and his hordes try to torture Stiller. Etc. This is a childhood dream of mine - just to stay in a museum overnight, nonetheless have it come alive. Possibly this come from reading "From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler" at a certain age. Possibly it comes from the time I planned to meet a certain someone at the entrance to the Museum of Natural History - and only found 4 of the 5 - she was waiting at the 5th. I suppose you either have this dream or you don't. If you do, this is your movie.

Stiller's first impulse is to quit. In fact, his boss's first impulse is to fire him. But he won't let his kid down, so he goes in the next night. Now he has a plan. He can handle it. He treats the museum exhibits with care and respect, and expects them to act responsibly. This may or may not work, but they certainly appreciate it.

Observation 3: The moral lessons aren't too heavy-handed: Don't give up, treat others as you would like to be treated yourself, read and learn. Stiller's character is feckless and a slacker, but his heart is in the right place, and he comes through in a pinch.

We loved it. Moves at a good clip, good gags, nice characters, museum setting. Looking forward to the sequel.

In conclusion: There's a monkey, too.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Falling in Love

What can I say about The Fall? You just have to experience it.

It starts with a silent movie, a western. There's a stunt, a jump from a train trestle, an accident. Next, a little girl in a hospital. She writes a note and throws it out of her window to a nun. It lands in the room of the stuntman from the movie. The little girl goes down to meet him, and he offers to tell her a story.

That is the framing device, somewhat like The Princess Bride. An injured stuntman telling a story to a girl with the broken arm. She is about 10 years old, Eastern European, and broke her arm picking oranges. Maybe she is Armenian? They picked fruit in CA during the silent film days, didn't they?

But the story the stuntman tells: It's about a bandit and his 4 stout friends, all great heroes: an Indian (East Indian in the girl's imagination, but the stuntman constantly refers to his "squaw"), an African, a Russian named Luigi, Charles Darwin and his pet monkey Wallace (the brains of the pair), and a mystic. They have amazing adventures trying to save a princess from the evil Governor Odious. And what adventures.

The director, Tarsem Singh, traveled the worlds and filmed his heroes in the most amazing locations, including the Taj Mahal, the Observatory at Jaipur, Goah Gadjah in Bali, and the Hagia Sofia. The cinematography is breathtaking, the stories (though childish) are captivating. Our stuntman is quite a storyteller. (Note: there's a hint of Wizard of Oz when you see that the heroes are based on the girl's friends. "And you were there, and you..."

The stuntman is played by Lee Pace, with a nice Owen Wilson accent. But he isn't an easygoing nice guy - he has big problems. He may be paralyzed from his accident, his wife left him for the star, and he wants to kill himself. He will enlist the girl to help out if he can.

The little girl is played by10-year old Romanian Catinca Untaru. She speaks a very broken English, and is very believable. She too has had a hard life - "angry men" burned her house, her father is gone (fell from a horse?), her family works the orange groves, and she is the only one who speaks any English at all. But she is an adventurous spirit who is easy to love.

So, two narratives - a man and a girl, and the story they share. The story is enchanting and beautiful, and the teller and his audience are deep and interesting. A great movie.

Tarsem's other movie is the J. Lo vehicle The Cell. Is that worth watching?

Chamber Performance

Naturally, I felt that I needed to watch 36th Chamber of Shaolin to appreciate Enter the Wu Tang (36 Chambers). I don't think it helped. Maybe I need to actually listen to the album.

This classic Shaw Bros. kung fu movie concerns a young man named Santa (or San Te) who is working with the anti-Manchu resistance. When his whole family is murdered by the Manchus, he heads for Shaolin Temple to learn how to fight them.

He spends the first year doing chores. It turns out, he had never asked to learn kung fu. Once he asked, he is introduced to the 35 chambers: rooms or courtyards where a particular skill is taught. He asks to start at the hardest, the First Chamber. This one features monks reciting sutras. If you miss a line, you're out. Too hardcore for our hero, he drops down to the last chamber, which comes first.

What follows is more or less the standard training story, with lots of cool gadgets/gimmicks: carrying buckets with arms out at you sides, with knives under your arms to poke you if you drop them, for ex (35th chamber). Personally, I prefer actually fights, although I suppose this is more realistic.

Anyway, the guy asks the temple abbot to start a 36th chamber to train laymen, and they refuse, etc. Trains laymen anyway, leads them in battle against Manchus, justice prevails, etc.

A good story, not a great one in my view. I like Shaolin Wooden Men better.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Not Enough Indians

Speaking of A Dark and Stormy Night, why hadn't I seen And Then There Were None yet? We just remedied that.

And Then There Were None is more or less an Old Dark House movie, although technically set on an Old Dark Island. It was directed in 1945 by Rene Clair from the Agatha Christie book/play Ten Little Indians. Like so many Christie setups, it is an almost perfect mechanical contraption. Like some many Rene Clair movies, it is light, lovely and funny. It is also full of murder.

U.N. Owen has invited 10 people to a house on an island. The boat won't be back for a few days. Mr. (or Ms.?) Owen ("unknown") does not appear. People start to die, all in ways predicted by the nursery rhyme, 10 Little Indians. Consider: This movie is 97 minutes long, and 10 people have to be murdered. It moves along at a tidy clip.

In A Dark and Stormy Night, we have ~16 characters before they start getting killed. Here, we have 10 - and what great characters:
  • Barry Fitzgerald, as an Irish judge
  • Walter Huston, a drunk surgeon
  • Dame Judith Anderson, a toffee-nosed spinster
  • Mischa Auer (!), a freeloading Russian prince
  • Etc. Discover them for yourself
The direction by Rene Claire is light and carefree, which clashes not at all with the abominable subject matter. Some scenes take an almost slapstick quality. For example, the doctor and judge are playing billiards together, when they realize that, if one of them is the murderer, there are no witnesses to prevent him from killing. At that moment, they both grip their cues like clubs and begin circling... This combination of suspense, mayhem and humor reminds me of Hitchcock, but it distinctly lighter.

Now one of my favorite Old Dark Houses. Try it, won't you?

Saturday, June 13, 2009

A Boy and His Dragon

Eragon may be the best movie about the love of a boy for his dragon ever. You know what I mean - it's stronger than the bond between a boy and his dog, or a girl and her pony. It's a mystical bond, telepathic but more. It's a bond beyond time, it's destiny. See, for instance, Anne McCaffery's Pern stories.

Myself, I don't really get it. Like, some people get all swoony about vampires, or pirates. It doesn't do much for me, but I like to see it done well.

Long ago, in a magical time, John Malkovich, the evil dragonrider, has defeated all other dragons and is cruelly oppressing the far away land of Analgeasia (sp?). However, someone has stolen one of his stones, and it is found by doughty farmboy Eragon. I should mention that the actor playing Eragon, Ed Speleers, looks remarkably like a young friend of ours (more from him later).

The stone turns out to be an egg, which hatches out a dragon. Jeremy Irons, playing the beggar who is More Than He Seems, appears to help him join the resistance movement and fight King Malkovich. Many adventures ensue.

Speleers does a good job as the strong, forthright Everyboy called by destiny to change the world. His dragon, Saphira (not to be confused with make-up company Sephora), is a touch on the cutesy side, with a cartoony face and a bit of a potbelly. She is voiced by Rachel Weisz, who gives her a somewhat motherly slant. For most critics, she is the best part of this movie. I would have liked more gravitas, more mystery, more menace, and maybe - a little sex.

For the accepted wisdom on this movie is: It is not good. Our friend, who looks like Eragon, is a bit of an expert on action and fantasy movies, although he prefers WWII movies. He said this about Eragon: It's pretty bad, but you have to watch it anyway - it has dragons.

In conclusion, I look forward to the sequels, Fragon and Gragon.

Monday, June 8, 2009

The Captain's Nuts

We had the neighbors over for cocktails the other day, a rare occurrence considering how much I enjoy playing bartender. To taunt me, one of them brought over a bottle of Captain Morgan's spiced rum, which she knows I hold in little esteem. But after serving a few rounds of margaritas, I got to thinking about Mai Tais, and decided to try something.

The result proved very popular, so I am publishing it here. We call it:

The Passionate Captain's Nuts

3 oz. Passionfruit juice (I like Looza brand)
1 shot Captain Morgan's spiced rum
dash of lime juice
1/2 oz. Macadamia nut liqueur (I use Trader Vic's, but ABC has another brand I don't remember)

Shake and serve over ice with a float of Malibu coconut rum

Theory: The original Mai Tai, invented by Trader Vic or Donn the Beachcomber, was lime juice, dark rum, orgeat (almond syrup) and a float of lighter rum. In the abstract, a Mai Tai is fruit juice, one or more rums and a slight nut flavor. Like the bitters in a Manhattan, it is the nut that makes a Mai Tai a Mai Tai. Macadamia liqueur does the trick.

When I told our friend that I had added a float of Malibu, she reminded me that I had snobbishly dismissed that rum as vulgar, as well as Capt. Morgan. So sue me. It tastes great.

Bonus cocktail: Captain Alexander

1 shot Captain Morgan's spiced rum
1 oz. creme de cacao (dark)
1 oz. cream or half&half

Shake over ice and strain into martini glass. Dust w/ nutmeg

Come On Eileen

I'm not sure why I queued up My Sister Eileen, but when I noticed that it starred Betty Garrett (see Dark and Stormy Night, On the Town), I had to push it to the front. She just turned 90, you know.

The story: Ruth (Garrett) and Eileen (Janet Leigh) are small-town girls who move to Greenwich Village to seek their fortunes, Garrett as a writer, her sister Eileen is an actress. They get a funky basement apartment, meet some wacky characters, and start to starve in style.
  1. Ruth can't get guys to notice her once they meet her sister Eileen
  2. Ruth can't sell her stories, but her editor (Jack Lemmon) likes the ones about Eileen
  3. Ruth pretends to be Eileen to get her editor to chase her
The story behind the story: Ruth and Eileen really existed, and the stories were more or less real. They were made into a Broadway play, and a musical, Wonderful Town, with music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Comden and Green. It was also made into a movie (1942) starring Rosalind Russell with a cameo by the Three Stooges (That's why I queued this up! I thought it was the other version!). This version, however, doesn't have music by Bernstein, Comden and Green. They wanted too much money, so Jule Steyn did this one (1955 - try to keep track).

Did I mention they also made a TV series out of the stories in 1960? Or that the real-life Eileen married Nathaniel West (Day of the Locust) and died with him in a car wreck the day after Hemingway died? Why haven't I heard of any of this?

Anyway, Garrett does a great Eve Arden-style sharp-witted/tongued dame who will never get the guy. Janet Leigh does a nice breathy blonde - reminds me of Marie Wilson in My Friend Irma (was that radio show based on this story as well?). The story seems like an afterthought - it never seems to gel. Jack Lemmon as Garrett's editor seems out of place, like a 60's character in a 40's musical. Which brings me around to the choreography.

Choreography by Bob Fosse (who also plays one of Eileen's beaux). That means lots of walking around stiffly with jazz hands and angular attitudes. I love his style, but I'd hardly call it dancing. But it's so jazz!

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Prince among Men and Others

We're having a kind of children's fantasy festival, so we took in Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian. Most satisfying.

The Pevensie kids from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe are back in Narnia, called by a blast from Lucy's hunting horn. Although only a year has past in the "real world", it centuries later in Narnia than their last visit. Narnia has been overrun by Telamarines (as in "Go Telamarines, the sailors won't believe you") and the magic creatures driven underground. The Telamrine Prince Caspian, an Inigo Montoya imitator, is sympathetic to their cause, especially as his uncle has usurped him, and he is on the run.

The heroic Pevensie's and the magic animals and dwarves all come to the rescue, but all looks lost until the deus ex leo shows up. He offers the Telamarines a chance to be ethnically cleansed from the land, which they accept. This seems a little creepy, since they seem a touch Mediterranean, rootless, and cosmopolitan (= Jews), but what the heck.

Best parts:
  • Reepacheep, the valiant rat (called Mouse by one and all), voiced by Eddie Izzard.
  • The White Witch, Tilda Swinton, back for a short cameo. Oh, how I'd missed her.
In conclusion, bring on the Dawn Treader!

Monday, June 1, 2009

Performance Anxiety

I remember everybody's Performance came out in 1970: a mixture of "Perfect!" and "WTF?" Yet, somehow, no one I know saw it, until I did, just now.

The concept: James Fox is a London thug, an enforcer who gets in over his head and has to hide out. He finds Turner, a reclusive washed-up pop star played by Mick Jagger, who has a basement room in his rundown suburban house. He also has a couple of birds:
  • Anita Pallenberg, who in real life was Brian Jones' and Keith Richard's lover. She co-wrote the movie and moves the story along in several places - not just by appearing nude a lot.
  • Michele Breton, who looks enough like Jagger to give you double vision.
Turner's menage, especially Pallenberg, start playing with Fox's head, feeding him magic mushrooms, getting him involved with kinky sex, and finally, fitting him up in a wig and makeup, Turner-style, while Jagger makes himself over as a flash gangster and sings his solo hit "Memo from Turner".

A note on the music: the soundtrack is mostly slide guitar blues, conducted by Randy Newman, featuring Ry Cooder and Lowell George, among many others.

Another feature: Lots of roughtrade AC/DC naughtiness. We see Fox stripped, whipped and taunted as a poofter - I'm sure this would appeal to some tastes. Not mine, particularly, and there's plenty of nakey women if you prefer that sort of thing. But special love is lavished on the kinky stuff.

In conclusion, do they really make Fox into an imitation of Jagger? I say, "No!" Fox has a foxier face and is completely missing Jagger's trademark lips. My theory: He is made into an imitation of Brian Jones, the deceased Stones guitarist. The slide guitar soundtrack seems reminiscent of Jones, the dandified outfit Fox is set up in recalls Jones' fashion sensibilities, and Fox had the lost, drugged look that haunted Jones' last years. My theory has one flaw - Performance was made in 1968, when Jones was still alive, even though it wasn't released until 1970, the year after Jones' death due to misadventure.

Vogue Wanger!

Walter Wanger's Vogues of 1938:Terrible movie or greatest title ever? So, it seems that in 1938, one Walter Wanger wanted to produce a movie, musical and fashion show, all in one technicolor package. He got Warren Baxter and Joan Bennett, some musical numbers, and went nuts.

Bennett is a penniless society playgirl marrying a rich stiff for his money. Baxter (a kind of Walter Huston strong, older man type) runs the fashion house that is running up her trousseau. She decides not to get married, but to work as his model, and, considering the publicity, he figures it is worth it. Now if only his silly wife would drop out of the picture...

Bennett's pure mercenary house-wrecking is rather daring. Other than that, the movie is pretty much pure spectacle: color, fashion, music. We get to visit the Cotton Club of Harlem, and El Maroc, and it all ends in a musical fashion show. I had been expecting something from Poverty Row, but this was definitely prestige. Max Factor invented a special cake makeup for the panchromatic film stock - it became known as pan-cake makeup. True story.

I had never heard of Walter Wanger before, but he produced a bunch of movies - from the Marx Bros. The Cocoanuts to Elizabeth Taylor's Cleopatra. He made Winter Carnival, the movie mascot of my alma mater. Good for him.

In conclusion, if the stars, the technicolor, the music, the fashion doesn't attract you to this, there is one more thing: Mischa Auer.