King Georges: A Possibly Tasty Movie Review

On our way to dinner at The Broad Axe Tavern on a recent Friday night I told my wife Sandy about the approach, since abandoned, that I might take in writing the article you currently are reading. It was to be a comparison of dinner at The Broad Axe with what my opinion would have been, had I ever eaten there, of dinner at Le Bec-Fin, a famous, majestic and now-closed French restaurant in Philadelphia. All of this made possible sense because the movie that Sandy and I were headed to later that evening in suburban Philadelphia was King Georges, a documentary about the last few years (2010 to 2012) of Chef Georges Perrier’s involvement with Le Bec-Fin, which he opened in 1970.

Yup, I had thought that my culinary tastes and scrutinies would make for way cooler reading than a review of King Georges. And, dope that I tend to be, I was quite certain about what my conclusion would be, even before seeing King Georges. Namely, that I’d prefer to eat at The Broad Axe than at fancy-schmancy Le Bec-Fin. Broad Axe food I understand. It’s good for the most part and you don’t need a translator to figure out what’s what. Le Bec-Fin’s fare, which I had read about for decades, would have intimidated me. That’s because I knew and still know diddly-squat about high-level French cuisine.

We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.
We saw King Georges at the Ambler Theater.

But after watching King Georges I did an about-face. Who cares about my food preferences when a terrific piece of filmmaking is at hand? Clear the way! Movie review, here I come! And by the way, I should have given pricey LBF at least one spin during its lifetime. I’d have parted with some serious cash, but the meal and the experience would have been worth it. I hadn’t because I was a culinary coward.

Sure, the food looks great in King Georges. But that’s not the reason to see the movie, as food isn’t primarily what it’s all about. What we have here is a vibrant look at a pretty complicated guy. King Georges is filmed mostly in close-up and often in tight quarters, Le Bec-Fin’s kitchens, and reveals an extremely colorful and self-driven character as he wrestles with the reality that his famed and celebrated baby, LBF, ain’t the destination that it once had been. And that maintaining his customer base is hard and ultimately maybe not possible. What’s a top chef to do? In Georges Perrier’s case, keep on truckin’ and truckin’ until . . .

King Georges 2 IMG_1269
King Georges shows Perrier as a sometimes-crazed dynamo in the kitchen, his senses aware of what’s going on in every pot and pan attended to by the small army of chefs under his command at LBF. He rants and raves. He praises and hugs. He includes sh–t and/or fu–k in half the sentences that pour from his mouth. He’s a pip, a perfectionist, an incredibly hard worker who seems to have gotten no more than a handful of hours of sleep nightly for forty-plus years. How can you not love someone like this? I mean, he cares. Born and raised in France, he came to the USA in the mid 1960s hoping to own, cook for and run one of the best restaurants in the States. All of which he ended up doing for years and years. And he became a celebrity of sorts in the process, a big name in certain circles around the globe, eons before the likes of chefs/restaurateurs Emeril Lagasse, Bobby Flay and Mario Batali became media fixtures.

During the last few years, though, Georges Perrier hasn’t been too visible. Whom, then, do we have to thank for bringing him to our eyes and ears in 2016? None other than Erika Frankel, she whom neither you nor I ever heard of before. Frankel has earned her keep producing documentaries and other works since the early 2000s but, before King Georges, never had donned a director’s cap. How did she manage to handle the job so well? Maybe it was beginner’s luck. Probably it was innate talent. Whatever, having a charismatic figure to make a movie about didn’t hurt.

You know, writing this article has made me hungry. I’m going to head into the kitchen and labor over one of my exotic specialties, a grilled cheese sandwich. I’m sure that Chef Perrier would approve of my sandwich-flipping technique, the precise and practiced manner in which my right wrist rotates just so. Before I say goodbye, however, let me mention that King Georges isn’t making waves at the box office. In fact, Sandy and I were lucky to see it in a theater, because nationally only a single digits number of cinemas are showing it. But happily for the inhabitants of our planet, King Georges is obtainable via Amazon Prime and other online operations. Be it at a theater, or more likely in the comfort of your home, here’s your chance to be the first on your block to watch King Georges. Take it from me, kids. I think you’ll like it.

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(Photos by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on a photo, a larger image will open)

Putting Up The Good Fight: A Review Of Mr. Holmes

Arthur Conan Doyle published his final Sherlock Holmes opus in 1927. Copyright laws in Great Britain and the USA allowed him and subsequently his heirs to collect gazillions of pounds and dollars in royalties and fees since then, but the flow of those monies has become a trickle. Wikipedia tells us that the last of the copyrights expired in Britain in 2000. In the States, a handful of the final Holmes stories still are under copyright, but all the rest have fallen into the public domain. And a 2014 federal appeals court ruling stated that the creators of books and movies and television shows inspired by Sherlock no longer are obligated to pay licensing fees to the Conan Doyle estate, whose members must be grinding their teeth. I mean, is there a more enduring fictional figure than Holmes, the masterful detective? He’s hard to miss. Robert Downey Jr. starred as Holmes in two big screen productions from the 2000s, and a third undoubtedly will be heading our way in the near future. And two Holmes series currently are alive and well on the small screen: In the aptly named Sherlock, Benedict Cumberbatch portrays a modern day version of the great man in London for BBC television. Also set in the present day is Elementary, a New York City-based Sherlockian study, this one on CBS.

Books too have kept alive the Sherlock character. Dozens and dozens of them. For example, 2005’s A Slight Trick Of The Mind. Mitch Cullin wrote Slight Trick, and it is the basis for Mr. Holmes, the movie now gracing art houses and multiplexes worldwide. My wife Sandy and I recently watched it, and liked it, at the friendly and classy Ambler Theater in beautiful downtown Ambler, PA.

We saw Mr. Holmes at the Ambler Theater in Ambler, PA.
We saw Mr. Holmes at the Ambler Theater in Ambler, PA.

I’ve given some thought to Mr. Holmes, not an easy feat for me to undertake or accomplish. And I’ve come away with the opinion that the flick needn’t be looked at as part of the Sherlock Holmes continuum. It certainly is about Holmes, in fact a 93-year-old version of himself trying to stare down his failing mind and the end of his earthly existence. But the movie would stand just as handsomely if a few plot strands were reworked to undo the Holmes references, and if the lead figure were given another name. The movie I’d say is less about Holmes and more about understanding oneself, coming to grips with one’s shortcomings, trying to become a better person even as the end of the line draws near.

It is 1947 in the county of Sussex, England. By choice, Sherlock Holmes lives there in semi-obscurity on a small farm near the English Channel. He has been retired from the investigator game for about 30 years, having decided to hang up his detective tools because, because, because . . . Sherlock cannot remember why. His brain power, and body for that matter, are pretty strong, but some memories have begun to fade away. Holmes knows that his powers are slipping. An avid bee cultivator, he has doused himself for some time with his colonies’ royal jelly, a presumed mental strength rejuvenator. As the movie begins, he returns to Sussex from Japan, laden with that country’s prickly ash, a herbaceous product likewise touted for its restorative powers. Sherlock Holmes is not one to settle back and accept a drowsy and inevitable descent into a muddled mind.

At home, Sherlock and his property are tended to by Mrs. Munro, a widow with a bright as can be 12-year-old son, Roger. And it is here, in the mixings of these three lives, that the story finds its epicenter. Holmes, who has aged gracefully, is no longer the flinty and brusque superman of his younger days. He is fairly gentle with fellow humans and tolerant of their ways. Yet deep love is not, never was, an emotion he feels at home with. Spoiler alert: By movie’s end he will have opened his heart wider than ever.

A good chunk of the movie concerns a mystery from the past, from the years of the First World War. And that mystery, which involved Sherlock and a troubled woman, led to Sherlock Holmes’ abandonment of his Baker Street digs in London and his retirement to the English countryside. Throughout the film he strains to remember the why of his resettlement. But put aside this artistically designed and developed aspect of the movie and you still are left with a lovely character study. Ian McKellan, face creased like an accordion’s bellows, handles the elderly Holmes character with nuance and charm. His Holmes is quite yet smart as a whip, and not ashamed of the emotional vulnerabilities he has begun to develop in his golden years. His is the most complicated character on screen, the most multifaceted and the one with the most growing to do. Laura Linney (Mrs. Munro), the great American actress who to my ears has her English accent down pat, and Milo Parker (Roger Munro) at varying times coexist, bond and brawl with McKellan’s Holmes marvelously.

Bill Condon sure-handedly directed Mr. Holmes. The movie’s languid pacing feels right, and I’d bet that much of the credit for the actors’ strong performances belongs to him. Mr. Holmes is not a tearjerker. Oh, maybe one Kleenex will be of use. What we have here is a mostly cliché-free look at the tail end of the life of a proud man determined, maybe destined, to be a mensch.

(Photo by Sandra Cherrey Scheinin. If you click on the photo a larger image will open)

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Two Movies Talkin’ About Freedom

This year started a bit sluggishly for me moviewise, but I’ve been picking up the pace. The final weekend in May was a busy one. Two movies in two states. The movies couldn’t have been more different, one a somber sci-fi thriller, the other an anarchistic romp. But at their cores was a common theme that has been part of the human experience for millennia. The Rascals summed it up very nicely oh so many years ago when they sang, “All the world over, so easy to see/People everywhere just wanna be free.”

Ex Machina, one of five movies listed on the Ambler Theater's marquee.
Ex Machina, one of five movies listed on the Ambler Theater’s marquee.

That Saturday evening in Ambler, Pennsylvania, my wife and I caught the very well-wrought sci-fier, Ex Machina, at the Ambler Theater, an art house cinema. This movie has broken into the multiplexes a bit, and I think it might grow there yet. Its edginess, as I see it, makes it a match for adults young to old. For now, though, it mostly is confined to theaters like the Ambler, where the under 30 crowd doesn’t tend to congregate. We grabbed two seats in the first row, no better seats available. For the next two hours, our heads craned back, we risked developing stiff necks. Our necks survived just fine. The movie too was fine. It’s an unsettling creation.

Ex Machina’s Nathan Bateman (played by Oscar Isaac) is a techno genius who has made billions from the world’s most popular Web search engine, Bluebook. Nathan is pretty much a recluse, hidden away in an almost inaccessible mountain retreat which serves as his ultramodern home-cum-laboratory. For years there, Nathan has devoted himself to developing the perfect Artificial Intelligence robot, one so humanlike that, well, it would pass for human. And possibly surpass the average Joe or Jane. He has dubbed his newest robotic pride and joy Ava (Alicia Vikander). Ava’s mental abilities are exemplary, her personality coy and inquisitive. Brilliant as he is, though, Nathan wants confirmation of Ava’s wondrousness. Ergo, he flies in one of his Bluebook employees, Caleb Smith (Domhnall Gleeson), to vet the robot’s capacities. Nathan, Caleb and Ava, for the next week, engage one another in mind games and seductions. Honesty sometimes comes to the fore. More often, deceptions dominate.

The three leads couldn’t be better. Isaac’s Nathan is a most unlikeable fellow, his nasty and vain streaks miles wide. Nathan doesn’t get along well with fellow humans. Or robots. Odd then that his life’s passion is to build human replicas? I think that the challenge is too much for him to resist. Baby-faced Gleeson finds the right balance for Caleb’s young guy innocence and bright guy brains. And Vikander is a stunner. Her Ava is dewy eyed and flirtatious and, as noted, smart as a whip. She knows that there’s a big world out there beyond Nathan’s claustrophobic digs, a world she has never seen. For Ava, a high IQ laboratory rat, freedom chez Nathan is not much more than a concept. But it is also a goal, though its attainment might be nothing more than a pipe dream.

The 100 Year Old Man's official poster.
The 100 Year Old Man’s official poster.

Freedom, something easy to take for granted. And something I should ponder more frequently. One day after seeing Ex Machina I drove to New Jersey, near Princeton, and met up with a long-time friend. We went to Montgomery Cinemas to watch a movie with one of the longest titles of all time. Namely, The 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out The Window And Disappeared, an absurdist black comedy that treats both life and death with a bouncy attitude. I thought it was a hoot, and looking hard for meaning in its looniness I realized that, as with Ex Machina, the quest for freedom is part of its inner workings.

A globetrotting and subtitled film embracing numerous languages, including English, The 100 Year Old Man follows Allan Karlsson (the excellent Robert Gustafsson) from birth to his 100th year. Born in Sweden, Allan at film’s end is still going strong, contentedly savoring life with a gang of recently-made Swedish pals, and an elephant to boot, on a beach in Bali. How did he get there? Let’s just say that Allan is one of the blessed beings. Serendipity has smiled upon him at most junctures of his life.

An explosives enthusiast since early childhood, at age 99 Allan lives alone in the Swedish countryside with his best friend, a cat. One day a fox kills the feline, so outraging Allan that he lures the killer to a lunch of dynamite-encased food treats. The ensuing boom boom boom that promptly dispatches the fox doesn’t go over well with Swedish authorities, who relocate Allan to a heavily supervised retirement home. A life of incredible adventures behind him, Allan follows his gut instincts on the afternoon of his 100th birthday. Out the window of his retirement home bedroom he goes, and fairly nimbly too. Wild and crazy events ensue, quickly multiplying in consequences. Unfazed through it all, Allan more than survives. He goes for the gusto like few centenarians are able. He loves the freedom that allows him to motor on.

Freedom can be stifled, people can be subjugated. But the desire and need for freedom are built into mankind’s genetic code. For many of us in the world, fortunately, freedom allows life to blossom. Allan Karlsson, on the road and at the beach at age 100, seems almost to skip through his days with joy. Ex Machina’s Ava isn’t remotely in Allan’s circumstances. She is a freedom neophyte. But Nathan Bateman has programmed her in a fully human way. Ava feels freedom’s call. Watch out.