Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Auf Wiedersehen, Restaurant Linderhof!

last night in original location

last night in original location
The first time my husband suggested we dine at Farragut's Restaurant Linderhof, almost ten years ago, I was incredibly dubious. I was going through a no beef, chicken or pork phase at the time and the idea of heavy German cuisine was not particularly appealing to me. When I first laid eyes on the exterior of the restaurant, a drab, tiny storefront inside a strip mall, I was underwhelmed, to say the least. Imagine my surprise when we stepped inside: half the walls were painted royal blue, the other half were wallpapered in gold. The itsy-bitsy space so was cram-packed with tables and lilac-colored chairs that you were practically dining on the laps of your fellow customers. And the whole place was covered in cherubs. Our host was an old man wearing a tuxedo. When he approached us and then showed us to our table all I could think was that we'd wandered into some sort of Kubrickian parallel universe. 

last night in original location

auction day
The waitresses at Restaurant Linderhof were usually clad in lederhosen. The owner's wife, Anita, was mostly behind the bar but every so often she'd venture out to the tables and try and entice the diners to "have a little Schnapps," like some fantastic character out of a folk tale. On very special occasions, such as New Year's Eve, party hats and noisemakers were brought out and there would be live accordion music. The atmosphere was always strange and magical and the food was always exceptional.

auction day

auction day
Linderhof changed hands a few years back but the quality of the food never wavered and the eccentric atmosphere remained the same.  The doors to the original location closed this past weekend but, fortunately, the restaurant is not saying goodbye, just moving a few miles down the road to a larger space (which includes an outdoor area for a beer garden). I am very excited to check out the new Linderhof when it opens next month but it was bittersweet to dine for the last time in the original Linderhof, a space that holds so many fond memories for my husband and me. I am sure the new location will not disappoint, though, and I look forward to the new memories we will have a chance to make there.

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Fall is in the Air

Once summer starts to cool its heels and autumn approaches everybody seems to clamor for pumpkin-flavored treats. At least everybody I know, cause my facebook, twitter and instagram feeds are inundated at present with references to pumpkin bars, pumpkin cakes and the ubiquitous Starbucks pumpkin spice latte. Look, I love all things pumpkin, too, but I think of very early fall as apple season. Apple cakes and spiced cider are what I start to crave this time of year. I don't want the apple to get sidelined by the pumpkin the way that Thanksgiving gets short-changed by the Christmas season. So let's welcome this weekend's Autumnal Equinox with a bit of apple-flavored childhood nostalgia. If you can hunt down a copy of Disney's Johnny Appleseed, I highly recommend checking it out. It's like my early fall precursor to watching Disney's Legend of Sleepy Hollow on Halloween night. I saw both these shorts when I was in Montessori school and they have always delighted me with their storytelling and gorgeous animation.

The Omen

This is my first contribution to the Final Girl Film Club. If you like horror movies and sass and you aren't reading Stacie Ponder's awesome blog you are missing out on a lot of fun. You should definitely check it out after you hear what I have to say about Richard Donner's baby antichrist masterpiece The Omen.

This has to be the definitive son of Satan flick, right? Why else would so many people (myself included) associate the name Damien with devil spawn? Speaking of spawn this movie was followed by two theatrically-released sequels (neither of which I've seen) that focus on Damien as an older adolescent and as a charming young adult who eventually, as per scripture, attempts to rise up through the political world and assert his unholy authority over the earth. But this first movie focuses on the early years of the wee beastie and his parents, Robert and Katherine Thorn. Technically, they are his adopted parents but only Robert knows about that. On the night that Katherine gives birth her own baby dies (we will later discover, to no one's surprise, that he was murdered) but her husband keeps this information to himself and conspires with the hospital chaplain to adopt another baby born that same night whose mother, conveniently enough, has died in childbirth. Kinda hinky, I know, but people do strange things when they're emotionally distraught and mourning the loss of their first born. Besides, an orphaned baby gets a home, Katherine is spared the grief of knowing she's lost her child. Win-win, yeah? What could possibly go wrong?

So much goes wrong. Robert has just been appointed US ambassador to Great Britain. The family Thorn moves into a posh English estate and, for a time, lives a very charmed life. Things eventually take a turn for the worse, though, beginning with the celebration for Damien's fifth birthday, where his nanny hangs herself in spectacular fashion in front of all the young partygoers. After that the family is plagued by an endless string of odd, unsettling occurances. A new nanny, Mrs. Baylock, appears and seems like a godsend but neither Robert nor Katherine can quite account for how quickly and mysteriously she arrived on the scene to take the previous nanny's place. When Robert and Katherine attempt to bring Damien with them to a wedding the boy throws a violent, hysterical fit as soon as he catches sight of the church where the ceremony will take place. When Katherine takes Damien on a driving tour through a wild animal park their car is attacked by a mob of irate baboons. 

Robert is contacted by Father Brennan, a catholic priest who adamantly insists that Damien is not human. Furthermore, he tells Robert his wife is pregnant but that Damien will never allow the child to be born. Father Brennan meets his own grim end shortly after he delivers this news to Robert. Then Damien goes all road rage with his big wheel, causing Katherine to take a terrible fall which does, indeed, result in a miscarriage. Shortly after that Mrs. Baylock defenestrates poor Katherine and the newly widowed Robert begins, at last, to seriously suspect that there may be something very, very wrong with this changeling he's brought into his home. He partners with a phototographer, Keith Jennings, who has begun to suspect the same and they set out to uncover the truth about Damien's origins.

For the most part The Omen is a restrained, melancholy movie (it's not quite as heartbreaking or elegant as Don't Look Now but I couldn't help but be reminded of the beautiful, unfortunate parents in that movie while I re-watched this one). That's one of the reasons the deaths, when they occur, feel so powerful and shocking. The most effective one for me is definitely the young nanny's, the only death where the victim is forced to die by her own hand. This scene is so magnificently staged and executed (sorry, I had to say it) that it gobsmacks me every time I see it. It's an entirely perfect, chilling bit of filmmaking. I think Katherine's death is powerful, too, but that's mostly because I love Lee Remick in this role and I feel so much sympathy for her character. Hers is one of a handful of horror movie deaths that actually brings me to tears. 

The rest of the performances in The Omen are solid as well, though I will confess that Gregory Peck seems a little awkward and stiff to me in the beginning. I know he's supposed to be a bit removed and aloof but it comes across more like Peck is out of place in the world of the movie. I appreciate him much more during the second half; as the horror and tragedy escalates and Robert's cool, composed facade begins to crumble I think Peck is much more convincing. David Warner and Patrick Troughton do marvelous supporting work as Jennings and Father Brennan and Billie Whitelaw is entirely entertaining and all kinds of creepy as the diabolical Mrs. Baylock. Harvey Stephens, who plays Damien, has very little dialogue but his reaction shots are priceless.

There are nifty little moments in The Omen that stand out for me, too, like the part where Jennings realizes that the mysterious, shadowy markings on his photographs of the nanny and Father Brennan serve as harbingers for their deaths. And I love the scene where Robert discovers the mark of the beast on his sleeping son's scalp, confirming his worst fears about the boy. The movie's score (which earned Jerry Goldsmith a much-deserved Academy Award) is frightfully atmospheric and memorable. This is an exceptionally well-made movie that's aged very well. 

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Five Awesome Movies Made More Awesome Thanks to Joseph Cotten

I follow a movie blog called Pretty Clever Films on twitter. A couple weeks back this Brandy Dean-penned list popped up on my timeline. It would be pointless to argue that Ms. Dean is wrong about Mr. Cotten. We're all entitled to our opinions of the tall, handsome Virginian with the wavy hair and the deep, melodic voice. I happen to love his contribution to cinema while Ms. Dean, most definitely, does not. Scroll through the comments below her little diatribe you'll see that many people agree with her that Jo (I sometimes to refer to him as "Uncle Jo." That's right. I like to pretend I'm very distantly related to Joseph Cotten. It could be true. It mostly likely isn't but, y'know, anything is possible . . .) was a "vacuum of screen presence" and that his smug, bland "Cotten face" ruined potentially great movies like Duel in the Sun and Under Capricorn

If folks don't like Joseph Cotten, bully for them. I will cop to having a massive crush on the man and zero objectivity when it comes to him and his work. My loyalty to Mr. Cotten pretty much demands that I share my own little list. These aren't my five favorite Joseph Cotten movies (although if I made that list there'd definitely be some overlap) but they are five films that I think are really great. And I think they are made even better because they are graced with "Cotten face."

5. Gaslight
I admit it's puzzling that a southern gentleman with no real ear for accents was cast as a detective with Scotland Yard. But it in no way detracts from my enjoyment of Cotten in the role of white knight to Ingrid Bergman's tortured heroine. It does drive me crazy that it takes Brian Cameron so long to cotton on to (forgive me, I couldn't resist) the fact that Paula Alquist is being slowly driven mad by her greedy, duplicitous husband Gregory Anton (Charles Boyer) but that's one of the reasons Cotten is great in the role. His understated, nonchalant demeanor suits the material perfectly.

4. Citizen Kane
I know that Kane is considered by many filmmakers and movie lovers to be the single greatest achievement in the history of cinema. I don't love it like that but I appreciate its technical and artistic brilliance and I genuinely enjoy watching it. I especially love Cotten's performance at Jed Leland. To me he's the closest thing the story has to a moral compass. He's the wounded, still-beating heart at the center of Charles Foster Kane's cold, unfeeling universe (and I like to think Leland and Kane were, on some level, in love with each other but that's probably just the shipper in me run wild) and Cotten's subtlety as an actor compliments Welles's gregarious performance beautifully.

3. Portrait of Jennie
Swoon! I could watch this supernatural, melancholy romance over and over again and always fall under its spell. Like Gaslight, I guess Cotten is kind of miscast here. Even though he was well into his forties when he made this one he is constantly referred to by Ethel Barrymore's Miss Spinney as a "young" struggling artist. I mean, he's young compared to her but, still, it's a little hinky. Despite the disparity the movie actually works just as well, if not better, with an older actor in the role. Cotten's Eben Adams is burned out and world-weary, convinced he'll never ever achieve success as a painter. When he meets young Jennie for the first time in Central Park he's inspired in a way that he never has been before. Cotten plays down on his luck characters well and here he gets to do that but also be the romantic leading man. He made four movies with the incandescent Jennifer Jones and I love watching them together. I think they had fantastic chemistry.

2. Shadow of a Doubt
This is the movie that made me fall in love with Cotten. It's a more assured character and a showier role than most of his other work, which is probably why it made such a strong impression on me the first time I saw it. I think Cotten's Uncle Charlie is just about the most seductive baddie there's ever been. He scares me to death but I can't help but be charmed by him. 

1. The Third Man
One of my all-time favorites. Fantastically directed by Carol Reed with a brilliant screenplay by Graham Greene. Cotten is in practically every single scene and he fully embodies hapless would-be hero Holly Martins. Everyone around him is more clever and arguably more interesting but Cotten manages to make Martins as endearing as he is dim-witted. I could go on or you could just go here and read all about my love for this movie and Cotten's excellent work in it.

So, that's my take on Joseph Cheshire Cotten. Maybe he's not the most memorable leading man the movies have ever seen. Maybe that's precisely why I like him as much as I do. He was great at bolstering the movies he made without making them all about himself. He was a team player. And, far as I'm concerned, he didn't need to try very hard to be entirely unforgettable.

Monday, September 9, 2013

You're Next

Home invasion is not my preferred sub-genre of horror. Probably because it's much easier to imagine myself as the victim. So many horror movies depend on unlikely scenarios and the poor decision making skills of the intended victims. But home invasion, hell, that could happen to anyone. You could be sitting at home, minding your own business when, out of nowhere, and for no apparent reason, you're beset by sadists intent on getting into your house and doing you great bodily harm. How unpleasant is that? I'd rather see a good haunted house flick or a movie about a ballet school run by a coven of witches. Even teen slasher films are more fun because they're usually so tongue-in-cheek. Home invasion movies just seem grim and joyless by comparison. They're usually grounded in the same true crime drama that inspires Law & Order episodes minus the eccentric, engaging law enforcement officials that make shows like that entertaining. If I want true crime I'll watch true crime. Fictionalized true crime seems redundant. 

While I appreciated Michael Haneke's attempt to push the boundaries of the home invasion film with Funny Games (and I thought both versions were incredibly well done and effective) I also resented the fact that I was being scolded for enjoying horror and thriller films. Yeah, I know, he's trying to get us to examine why we enjoy such unsavory material. But I feel like I have a pretty good handle on why I like that sort of thing. I'm a benign masochist. I enjoy being frightened but I also enjoy being able to overcome my fears, since I was often plagued by a crippling fear of creepy imagery as a child. I appreciate good filmmaking regardless of the genre but I happen to really appreciate the vicarious thrill that comes from well-crafted horror films. Also, I understand that they aren't real. I think it's entirely possible to enjoy the events unfolding in a horror movie but still be able to understand that, in the real world, those events would not be enjoyable or pleasant to experience.

You're Next is a home invasion horror thriller. But unlike the other ones I've seen it's darkly funny and genuinely scary in a zany, haunted house at the fair kind of way. There are lots and lots of jump scares. Effective ones, I thought. I was watching through my fingers on several occasions but the manic, gleeful tone of the thing kept me laughing at the same time. It manages to be more or less plausible but hyper enough to feel detached from real-world terror. And in its more serious moments it employs such obvious horror tropes that it's impossible to forget you're just watching a movie. That sounds like it'd be a bad thing but it wasn't for me. I like horror homage when it's done well. The opening scene with the first two victims is excellent and reminded of the chillingly effective opening scene in the first Scream movie. In fact You're Next kind of does for the home invasion film what Scream did for the slasher flick. By viewing the basic premise through the lens of satire it shakes it up and gives the audience something just different and just entertaining enough to be worth their time. Or worth mine, at least.