The End Of My Long Affair (With Turner Classic Movies)

When I moved to Philadelphia in 1974 I became a film buff of sorts. It all happened very naturally and wasn’t anything I thought about. There were fewer options for movie lovers back then in Philadelphia than there are today, but there were enough. In addition to first-run theaters, Philadelphia had various venues that specialized in lesser-known flicks — some were foreign, some not. I had never before seen many foreign or cult movies and found myself liking them. My cinematic diet, consisting of the mainstream, the obscure, the subtitled, has remained consistent ever since.

My wife Sandy, whom I met in 1990, is a big movie fan too. Each year she and I leave the house 40 or more times to take in movies. Chez us, together we catch an additional 25 or so flicks on the tube. We like doing things together. For a span of eight years in my married life though, I also viewed hundreds of films on my own. I watched them on the Turner Classic Movies cable channel. I became addicted to TCM, but I’m not anymore. Here’s the story:

In 2006 my thoughts and activities were less-focused than they should have been. My father had died the previous year and I think my restlessness was partly connected to his passing. He had lived with Sandy and me, and we spent a lot of time caring for him. With him gone I had trouble finding ways to fill up my days fully.

I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.
I began watching TCM movies on this TV in 2006. This is a recent photo of the TV.

Sandy had been suggesting I might do well to add some prime time television viewing to my regimen as one way to get my mind off of things. But I couldn’t decide what to watch, didn’t think I’d  be happy devoting a bunch of hours to the small screen. Somehow though, I heard the call of TCM. Our meeting must have been preordained. And so a few months into 2006 I began descending the stairs on many evenings from our kitchen to finished basement, a place I hadn’t visited all that much since moving into our house the year before. In the basement’s den area sat an old bulky TV that had traveled from our previous home.

The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. I took this photo recently.
The Letter was the first movie I watched on TCM in 2006. This is a recent photo.

I began the affair gingerly. The first TCM movie I watched in 2006 was The Letter, a Bette Davis melodrama. It was pretty good. “OK, let’s try another,” I thought, and not too many days later Tender Mercies passed before my eyes. I had seen it when it came out in 1983 but didn’t recall it too clearly. I gave it two thumbs up in 2006.

Turner Classic Movies is quite the amazing broadcaster. Movies in their unedited versions 24 hours a day with no commercial interruptions. TCM’s core is English-speaking productions from the 1930s through 70s. Once in awhile the station throws in a foreign movie or a silent or a post-1970s film such as Tender Mercies. Despite the station’s name, however, hardly every TCM movie is a classic. There are plenty of clunkers. On many occasions I turned off a movie within its first 30 minutes and made the long climb upstairs.

And yet, duds or not, I became very comfortable sitting in a recliner in front of the basement TV. By 2006’s end I had watched 61 movies on TCM. The next year’s number was 103, and the year after that I reached the 87 mark,  my two highest totals. Since then the counts have descended, from 64 in 2009 to seven in 2014. I’ve managed merely one movie so far in 2015, The Great Santini, a good one that seemed a tad better to me when it made its initial rounds in 1983.

Why the dramatic falloff? Well, after cutting a slew of notches into my movie-watching belt I discovered that my TCM motor was running out of gas. Eventually, many of the movies I contemplated watching didn’t seem, upon investigation, good enough to spend time with. And the slim pickings of films from 1980 onward began to bother me a little.

But I tip my hat to Turner Classic Movies without hesitation. You see, to Sandy’s amazement somehow I’d made it into my late 50s and early 60s without having witnessed On The Waterfront, West Side Story, Singin’ In The Rain, From Here To Eternity and others that the general populace would deem to be true classic films. TCM rectified that situation. Contrarian that I sometimes am though, Singin’ was the only one of those that I felt was completely worthy of wearing a crown. And, besides Singin’, at least 15 more offerings that I first caught on TCM are now on my list of elite movies: In A Lonely Place, Odd Man Out, The Misfits, Darling, Sweet Smell Of Success, Hud . . .

Hey TCM. you’re a great station and I thank you for all the entertaining hours that you bestowed on me. Add some movies from the current century and maybe once again you and I will become pals.

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

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Screwball Begone! (A Review Of Mistress America)

I wasn’t as fond as I thought I would be of the movie that my wife Sandy and I went to see recently. Sandy told me that various critics have heaped praises upon said flick, Mistress America, some calling it a screwball comedy in the grand old Hollywood tradition of Howard Hawkes and Preston Sturges. I saw the movie differently. I found it to be as much a drama as a comedy, as bittersweet as it is funny. And as for screwball, which can be great . . . well, Mistress America’s try at the madcap art form encompasses not the entire movie at all, settling instead for one long and uncomfortable segment in the second half. I didn’t have much fun with that interlude. A collection of intersections involving most of the movie’s cast, it felt flat and strained to me, out of place with the decidedly tilted but more realistic antics and people-play that populated the rest of the film. In other words, Mistress America overextended its ambitions. It would have been a better movie if its creators, Noah Baumbach and Greta Gerwig, had kept their eyes on the  wry and poignant, and left the supposedly wild and crazy alone. My rating? Two, maybe two and a half out of four stars.

We saw Mistress America at the Regal multiplex in Warrington, PA.
We saw Mistress America at the Regal multiplex in Warrington, PA.

Mistress America revolves around a small parade of characters led by Brooke Cardinas (Gerwig) and Tracy Fishko (Lola Kirke). Brooke is a 30ish lady on the go, an at-times free spirit who cobbles together a living in New York City by leading exercise classes, doing interior decorating, whatever it takes. Her dream is to open a restaurant slash hair salon slash hangout in Lower Manhattan called Mom’s, a place where customers will settle in and feel really comfortable. A wifty notion possibly, but who knows? Brooke already has signed a lease for the empty space she plans to transform, and is in the process of assembling financial backing. She’s committed, and several steps ahead of herself.

Into Brooke’s life enters Tracy, a Barnard College freshman not connecting very well to the college scene in Manhattan’s Upper West Side. At Mistress America’s outset, Tracy and Brooke have never met. Tracy learns of Brooke’s existence from her mother, who has plans to tie the knot with Brooke’s father. Following her mom’s suggestion, Tracy gives her stepsister-to-be a call. They meet, they bond, and the slings and arrows and goofy twists of fortune begin to fly.

Excising the unwieldy aforementioned portion of Mistress America, what we’re left with is an observant study of two women looking for some answers. Tracy is young, an introvert, and beginning what appears will be a very long process of self-discovery. I’m not placing heavy bets on her ever finding peace and contentment. She can be nasty and guileful, sides of her personality she might not have known were alive till the forceful Brooke’s influence poked them to the surface.

Brooke on the other hand is a longtime gung-ho trooper. Disappointments have peppered her life, but on she goes, pushing aside her doubts and sadnesses as she seeks the next opportunity or person that might set her on the true path. Late in the movie Brooke offhandedly takes a deep look inside and throws out some comments that almost are on target. To Tracy she says something to the effect of  “I know everything about myself. That’s why I can’t do therapy.” Actually, she knows so much that, I think, she scares herself. And keeps on running.

Baumbach and Gerwig, a real life couple, have been feeling their collaborative artistic juices the last few years. They cowrote Mistress America, and Baumbach directed. Ditto for 2013’s Frances Ha, which resembles Mistress America in that it centers upon a young woman who stumbles a lot in life. Frances, though, is several notches below Brooke on the got-it-together scale. Gerwig starred in Frances Ha, and I wasn’t sure if she would have the acting chops to differentiate her leading roles. I am glad to report that she does. Her Brooke is a complicated soul, usually energized and with a gleam in her eyes, but down enough times that my good wishes went out to her. Mistress America, despite its big ol’ flaw, offers plenty to chew on.

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

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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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Amy Schumer, Take A Bow!

For decades I was a devoted television viewer, faithfully devouring series galore. That pattern largely began to fade away in the early 2000s when Sex And The City waved goodbye to its audience, followed by NYPD Blue. Since the final Blue episode in 2005 I’ve had trouble following series religiously. Instead I’ve watched some movies and sports and have done tons of channel surfing, of which I’ve become a master.

Amy Schumer and Bill Hader star in Trainwreck.
Amy Schumer and Bill Hader star in Trainwreck.

As a dial-flipper, how could I not know about Amy Schumer? I’ve caught fragments of her Comedy Central series and a few minutes of a standup special. I thought she was funny. But I had no idea just how funny and talented she is till recently when my wife Sandy and I headed north to the Regal multiplex in Doylestown, PA to take in the Schumer-penned and Schumer-starring Trainwreck. If you are a fan of robustly foul-mouthed and sex-obsessed comedic vehicles loaded with did-he/she-really-say-that repartee, then Trainwreck is for you.

The setup: Schumer plays Amy Townsend, sexually active to the max and commitment-phobic. Amy T’s not looking for Mr Right. She’s just looking for the next one night stand, and has no trouble finding him after him after him. She’s a boozer, a pot smoker and looks at life with a most wary eye. Yet she also maintains a strong career as a magazine writer, turning out outlandish copy aimed at men for the slick and glossy no-conscience publication S’Nuff. In one scene Amy T and a few other writers are in a meeting with their Julie Christie look-alike editor-in-chief, portrayed by an unrecognizable Tilda Swinton. Townsend and her peers are pitching story ideas. Schumer’s crazily crude and politically-incorrect script shines here. How about “Where Are They Now? A Look At The Boys Michael Jackson Paid Settlements To” one of Townsend’s coworkers posits. “You’re Not Gay, She’s Boring” lobs another. Yup, I was slapping my knees during this sequence. Schumer had the funny stuff coming pretty consistently all movie long.

This is a movie where the plot almost doesn’t matter, but of course there is a plot and it’s fun. Bill Hader co-stars as a sports medicine titan, Aaron Conners, a physician who has revolutionized the arts of knee and hip and who knows what other surgeries, allowing professional athletes and working stiffs to return quickly and productively to their careers. One of his best friends is LeBron James. He also is pals with the lesser-known b-baller Amar’e Stoudamire. Amy T is assigned to write a story about Aaron for S’Nuff. She interviews him at his office, and her goofily charming side peeks through. Aaron is smitten. He invites her to lunch and, her defenses starting to melt, they begin to see one another a bit. Will Amy T put aside her wayward ways and join forces fully with the good doctor? Well, I’m not telling. No spoiler alerts here.

Judd Apatow, he of The 40 Year-Old Virgin and Knocked Up fame, directed Trainwreck. A few reviewers have noted that Apatow’s movies tend to go on too long. Probably that’s true. Trainwreck might have benefited if it went under Aaron Conners’ knife to eliminate 10 or 15 minutes of cinematic flab. Truth be told, though, Trainwreck’s length (two hours and five minutes) didn’t bother me at all. I’m granting three out of four stars to the Schumer-Apatow farce.

A few notes of amazement: Who’d have thunk that professional athletes would bring so much brio and presence to Trainwreck? They do. Turns out that LeBron James has a mighty gift for comedic acting. He receives plenty of screen time and stands toe to toe with everybody in his scenes. He’s got the pacing, the vocal inflections, the confidence. I’ll say the same and more for John Cena, a famous pro wrestler about whom I know almost nothing. He is absolutely hilarious as one of Amy’s suitors, a complicated and sensitive and sexually uncertain muscle guy whom Amy is toying with. Except for Schumer, he gives maybe the best show of anyone in the cast.

And a few mild gripes: LeBron James, a member of the Cleveland Cavaliers in real life and in Trainwreck, is never in Cleveland in this Manhattan-set flick. How come? The movie takes place during basketball season as far as I could tell. And one might think that Aaron Conners, a celebrated doctor for not only his work with athletes but also his donated time to countless Doctors Without Borders projects, would have an ungodly busy work schedule. In Trainwreck he’s kind of a slacker. Cafes and restaurants, gymnasiums, Amy’s apartment . . . Aaron spends far more time elsewhere than on the job.

In the end, little matter. Go with the flow, with the laughs, with the human insights that also are a large part of Trainwreck’s fabric. Amy Schumer deserves to be proud of what she has achieved here as an actor and a screenwriter.

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

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