Drink of the Week: The Reign of Terror (TCM Fest Salute #4)

The Reign of Terror.If there’s something that unites film geeks and cocktail enthusiasts, it’s an interest in the aged and the obscure. Yes, a lot of lost old movies and cocktails were lost for a good reason — not everything can last beyond its time. Nevertheless, there are still plenty of buried gems and few things in life are more fun for any kind of enthusiast than unearthing one of them.

So it is with the final film in my set of cocktails inspired directly by movies I saw at this year’s Turner Classic Movies festival. Newly restored and salvaged from footnote status, 1949’s “The Reign of Terror” is also known as “The Black Book.” The latter title describes the film’s McGuffin, a book of men marked for death which will bring about the destruction of a powerful criminal mastermind, if only it can be found. The fact that the perp in question is named Maximilien Robespierre and the setting is not postwar L.A. or NYC but 18th century Paris might give you a clue about how unusual this directorial effort from cinephile favorite Anthony Mann (“T-Men,” “Winchester ‘73”) really is.

At this point, Mann was chiefly making low budget film noirs. However, the Walter Wanger production company had a bunch of period sets left over from the big budget “Joan of Arc” starring Ingrid Bergman. In the interest of thrift, they decided that it made sense to capitalize on the vogue for darkly themed and lit expressionistic crime films by making a  cloak and dagger noir drama that just happens to be set during the most murderous portions of the French Revolution.

“Reign of  Terror” stars the usually affable Robert Cummings as a hardened operative of anti-terror forces and Arlene Dahl as the woman he doesn’t really trust to help him in his efforts to prevent Robespierre from appointing himself dictator of France. Very wisely, no French accents are attempted and noir super-cinematographer John Alton transforms 15th century sets into 18th century ones by using black and white cinema’s most powerful weapon: darkness. It’s a dandy drama that anyone who digs expressionistic cinema must check out when they can.

Oh, you wanted a cocktail, not a film review? I get it. So, here we go with a drink that was kindly whipped up for me by Ian, ace bartender at Tonga Hut, my neighborhood hang and one of L.A.’s oldest surviving tiki bars. Ian elaborated on my idea that the Reign of Terror cocktail should contain some Fernet Branca, arguably the most terrifyingly bitter and astringent of cocktail makings, and made me a dandy drink. I spent the rest of the week getting the proportions down and making one doubtful improvement. Here is the result.

The Reign of Terror

3/4 ounce brandy
3/4 ounce gin
1/2 ounce Fernet Branca
1/2 ounce Benedictine
1/2 egg white
1/2 teaspoon absinthe (very optional rinse)
1-2 dashes Peychaud’s Bitters
1 lemon twist (important garnish)

Combine all the liquid ingredients, except the absinthe, in a cocktail shaker. Since this drink has some egg white, you’ll want to dry shake (shake without ice cubes) first…though that may not be 100 percent necessary if, like me, you’re using prepackaged pasteurized egg white. Next, add plenty of ice cubes, shake again, and strain into a chilled cocktail glass which, if you want, may have been rinsed with absinthe as you would with a Sazarac. (Extra fancy coupes like the one pictured may be especially appropriate for this beverage.) Add the lemon twist. Sip and toast anyone who can figure out why it’s not nice to decapitate people just because they disagree with you.

****

The goal with the ingredients was to be a little bit terrifying and a little bit French. I’m not quite sure I quite made it on the latter point. For starters, it’s just occurring to me right now that Fernet Branca is actually Italian in origin. As for the brandies we used, Ian chose a cognac, which is always from the Cognac region of France, but then I went with the Hartley brandy I had on hand at home, which turns out to be from Italy also. I later opted for Reynal, my value-priced default brandy, which is bills itself as “rare old French brandy.” Gin is usually from England, of course; I used Tanqueray, Gordon’s, and Nolet’s, which sounds French but is actually Dutch. Peychaud’s bitters is more Creole than French. In other words, my cocktail is not so French as I might like, but then the movie “Reign of Terror” is about as français as a French dip sandwich.

I will say, however, that the drink has perhaps a slight hint of terror but also enough sweet smoothness to be very drinkable thanks to the Benedictine (which is French) and the egg white. On the down side, I’ve grown increasingly negative on the one big change I made to Ian’s recipe, which was the absinthe rinse. More and more, I think it just gets in the way of the almost chocolatey flavor of the Reign of Terror. Maybe give it a try both ways — assuming you’ve got the absinthe on hand in the first place — and see what you think.

Getting back to that half an egg white, I can see where that would be pretty terrifying for would-be bartenders since no one sells half-eggs. The solution is to either make two cocktails at once and double up on all your ingredients, or to use 1 1/2 tablespoons of packaged egg white. Not so terrifying, really.

  

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Movie Review: “The Age of Adaline”

Starring
Blake Lively, Michiel Huisman, Harrison Ford, Ellen Burstyn, Amanda Crew
Director
Lee Toland Krieger

There is no pleasure in putting down a movie that is in love with science, to the point where the screenplay invents a new law of molecular biology – one that won’t be discovered for another 20 years, no less – in order to justify the fantastical plot. Indeed, we’ll give “The Age of Adaline” credit for taking a left-field approach to the love story of the girl who won’t/can’t stop running, but in this case, the opposites don’t attract; the science talk is almost exclusively done via narration (THE MOVIE IS EXPLAINING ITSELF TO YOU BECAUSE YOU WON’T UNDERSTAND IT OTHERWISE), and it’s actually even more jarring when it’s inserted into the dialogue. However it’s delivered, it never gels with the love story. In fact, the love story never gels with the love story.

Adaline Bowman (Blake Lively) was born in 1908. She met a man, fell in love, got married, had a daughter, and lost her husband in an accident. One night, while driving to visit her parents, she had an accident that sent her car plunging into a lake. The cold temperatures of the water stopped her heart, but she was revived when her vehicle was struck by lightning (again, the science behind this is decades away, they assure us), and as a result, she stops aging. This obviously makes it difficult for Adaline to forge long-lasting relationships (both friend and other), and avoid the suspicions of law enforcement. She eventually learns to guard her privacy to the present day (her daughter is now played by Ellen Burstyn), but handsome philanthropist Ellis Jones (Michiel Huisman) refuses to leave her alone. Adaline, who now calls herself Jenny, wants to let him into her life, but decades of running is a hard habit to break. She agrees to spend the weekend with him as his parents celebrate their 40th wedding anniversary, and it is there that Jenny, for the first time in ages, comes face-to-face with her past.

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Blu Tuesday: Taken 3, Everly and Escape from New York

Every Tuesday, I review the newest Blu-ray releases and let you know whether they’re worth buying, renting or skipping, along with a breakdown of the included extras. If you see something you like, click on the cover art to purchase the Blu-ray from Amazon, and be sure to share each week’s column on Facebook and Twitter with your friends.

“Taken 3″

WHAT: After his ex-wife Lenore (Famke Janssen) is murdered and he becomes the prime suspect, former special ops agent Bryan Mills (Liam Neeson) sets out to find the real killer and clear his name while being hunted by a tenacious police inspector (Forest Whitaker).

WHY: If “Taken 2” proved anything, it’s that money should never be the driving force behind a sequel, although try telling that to the makers of “Taken 3,” because that seems to be the only reason why the movie was made. Though Luc Besson was smart to go the “Fugitive” route for the third installment (there’s no way he could have gotten away with doing another story about the Albanian baddies), it results in a movie that feels very different from its predecessors. For starters, no one is kidnapped this time around, and the villains are so far removed from the story that the main antagonist only appears in the opening scene and shortly again at the end. There’s also very little action compared to the first two films, which only makes the dull moments stick out even more. Liam Neeson and Forest Whitaker (doing his usual eccentric cop thing) manage to prevent the movie from turning into a complete bore, but they’re never given the chance to form any sort of relationship, which was a hugely missed opportunity. Just like director Oliver Megaton’s other Besson productions, “Taken 3” is competently made, but it’s an incredibly stale action thriller that seems to have forgotten what made the original so entertaining.

EXTRAS: There’s a short retrospective on the “Taken” series, a pair of production featurettes and a deleted scene.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Everly”

WHAT: After serving as a sex slave for ruthless crime boss Taiko (Hiroyuki Watanabe) for the past five years, Everly (Salma Hayek) strikes a deal with one of the few honest cops in town to testify against Taiko. But when Taiko learns of her betrayal, he places a bounty on her head, forcing Everly to fight back against countless waves of ferocious intruders intent on collecting the reward.

WHY: There’s something oddly appealing about a movie that encourages you to turn off your brain for 90 minutes while a gun-toting badass takes down a bunch of bad guys in extremely violent fashion. Some of cinema’s guiltiest pleasures have followed this formula to great success, and though director Joe Lynch’s “Everly” desperately wants to join those ranks as the next cult classic shoot-‘em-up, it falls disappointingly short. Though it starts out as a fairly decent, low-budget action film, “Everly” gets progressively worse with each passing minute, dragged down by the terrible dialogue, poor acting and paper-thin villains. Hayek does the best she can with what little she’s given, but nothing about her character makes sense, like how she’s able to dispatch an army of killers when she barely even knows how to shoot a gun. It’s not quite as awful as Lynch’s last effort, the horror-comedy “Knights of Badassdom,” but while the idea of watching a scantily-clad Hayek fight her way through yakuza henchman and prostitutes-turned-assassins may sound like a ton of fun, “Everly” is never able to match its B-movie aspirations, instead forced to flounder in the gutter like the filthy, exploitative grindhouse film that it is.

EXTRAS: The Blu-ray boasts a pair of audio commentaries – the first with director Joe Lynch, producer Brett Hedblom and Editor Evan Schiff, and another with Lynch and cinematographer Steve Gainer – but that’s the extent of the bonus material.

FINAL VERDICT: SKIP

“Escape from New York”

WHAT: In the future, the country has become so ravaged by crime that the entire island of Manhattan has been turned into a maximum security prison. But when the U.S. President (Donald Pleasence) crash-lands inside the walls, notorious outlaw Snake Plissken (Kurt Russell) is implanted with an explosive device an given 24 hours to rescue the President, or die trying.

WHY: John Carpenter’s 1981 cult classic may not have come close to predicting the future as it would be in 1997, but it marked the beginning of a beautiful friendship between the filmmaker and star Kurt Russell, who would go on to work together again in “The Thing” and “Big Trouble in Little China.” While “Escape from New York” isn’t the duo’s best collaboration (although it probably depends on who you ask), the movie is responsible for creating what is perhaps the most iconic character in Russell’s career. Snake Plissken is the ultimate antihero – a macho, cool-as-a-cucumber badass who’d just as quickly kill you if it meant saving himself – and it’s hard to imagine anyone else in the role. “Escape from New York” is a really fun B-movie with some solid set pieces, Carpenter’s trademark synth score, and a colorful supporting cast featuring Lee Van Cleef, Isaac Hayes, Harry Dean Stanto and Adrienne Barbeau. Granted, some people forget that it’s still only a B-movie, which means that it’s served with a large side of cheese, but Carpenter and Russell form such a great team that even when they swing and miss (like the mid-90s sequel set in L.A.), it’s worth going along for the ride.

EXTRAS: In addition to a new 2K high definition scan that looks great, the Collector’s Edition is overflowing with goodies, including three audio commentaries featuring director John Carpenter and star Kurt Russell; producer Debra Hill and production designer Joe Alves; and a new track with actress Adrienne Barbeau and cinematographer Dean Cundey. Additionally, there’s a new featurette on the film’s visual effects, new interviews with composer Alan Howarth, actor Joe Unger, still photographer Kim Gottlieb-Walker and filmmaker David DeCoteau, as well as a previously released featurette and the original opening bank robbery sequence.

FINAL VERDICT: RENT

  

Drink of the Week: The Countess Tracy (TCM Fest Salute #3)

The Countess Tracy.If you head over to Bullz-Eye’s James Bond Fan Hub, you may notice that the writer behind the painfully in-depth explorations of the Sean Connery 007 films is the same guy bringing you these beverage recipes week after week. So, of course, when I attended this year’s TCM Fest, I was going to make it a priority to finally check out the 2012 restored version of “On Her Majesty’s Secret Service” on the big screen.

Though originally regarded as something of a disappointment largely due to the replacement of Connery by George Lazenby, an unknown whose performance remains controversial (I’m not a huge fan), there is a small but growing community who argue it’s the best film in the entire series. My position is that it’s pretty great and very likely would have topped even “Goldfinger,” if only Connery had, in fact starred opposite the film’s actual leading lady, Diana Rigg, who very definitely is the greatest of all Bond girls.

Lazenby aside, OHMSS remains a mighty entertaining piece of work and by far the most faithful to any of the 007 novels, a most romantic and strangely melancholy tale for all its Bondian absurdity. (For more background information, feel free to check out my brother in Bondage Ross Ruediger’s fine ONHMSS exploration for Bullz-Eye.)

Today’s drink is devoted to easily the most complex and affecting leading lady in the Bond cannon so far. Teresa Draco, later the Contessa Teresa di Vicenzo, and ultimately simply Tracy Bond. Especially as played by Diana Rigg, Tracy is no mere Bond girl. No, for all her girlish beauty, she’s really a full-fledged Bond woman who is more than capable of saving a superspy’s life after he saves her from death by suicide in the film’s opening.

My liquid take on OHMSS and Tracy Bond is an homage and update to the Vesper, Ian Fleming and bartender Ivar Bryce’s tribute to the first of Bond’s lost loves from “Casino Royale.” And, yes, the Countess Tracy features bourbon, not gin. In the novels, Bond drank it probably more than anything else, and that meant he drank an awful lot of it.

The Countess Tracy

1 1/2 ounces Basil Hayden’s Bourbon
1/2 ounce Campari
1/2 ounce Lillet Blanc
1/2 ounce Smirnoff 100 proof vodka
1 orange twist (desirable garnish)

Combine all the liquid ingredients in a cocktail shaker with plenty of ice and, yes, shake this drink vigorously and never, ever, stir it. Ian Fleming hated ALL stirred drinks and his smirky, snobbish ghost will haunt you forever should you ever consider stirring any drink remotely related to him.

Anyhow, once you’re done shaking your drink as if being chased by the nefarious twosome of Ernst Stavro Blofeld and Irma Bunt, strain it into a chilled cocktail glass (coupe or standard martini style). Add the orange twist and toast Diana Rigg. The adorable and entirely first-rate actress who played Tracy and also, of course, the greatest of all filmic female superspies, Emma Peel.

****

I selected Basil Hayden’s bourbon because A. I had it in the house and B. It’s a damned fine bourbon of which I’m sure Bond and Fleming would have approved. Though named for an 18th century distiller, the brand wasn’t introduced until about three decades after Fleming’s untimely death. It was nevertheless featured, I understand, in the 2011 James Bond novel by Jeffery Deaver, Carte Blanche.

My selection of Campari was directly inspired by the choice of beverage of Tracy’s beloved father, benevolent criminal mastermind Marc-Ange Draco. In the movie (and the book, if memory serves), he drinks the very sweet/extremely bitter liqueur straight while serving Bond one of his shaken martinis.

Finally, the Lillet Blanc and the 100 proof vodka are pretty obviously ripped off from my explorations of the Vesper. I believe David Wondrich assumed the original Vesper used 100 proof Stolichnaya. I used Smirnoff because, well, it was in front of me. Today’s Lillet is apparently a fairly far cry from the Kina Lillet of Fleming’s day, and is one of the many reasons a modern-day Vesper needs to be modified a great deal to work properly. However, Lillet Blanc is a very lovely product in its own right, and it adds needed sweetness and light to the Countess Tracy.

As for the drink as a whole, I think I did good this time. It’s a bittersweet and very tasty tribute to the only woman, save Moneypenny, James Bond ever truly loved. Like Tracy, it’s refreshing and bold, with more than a hint of darkness. It’s a drink for which, you might say, I have all the time in the world.

  

Movie Review: “Unfriended”

Starring
Shelley Hennig, Moses Jacob Storm, Will Peltz, Renee Olstead, Jacob Wysocki, Courtney Halverson
Director
Levan Gabriadze

Technology has become so integral to our daily lives that it was only a matter of time before someone made a movie that unfolds entirely on a computer screen, and though “Unfriended” isn’t the first to use this gimmick (Nacho Vigalondo’s “Open Windows” employed a similar premise, as did a recent episode of “Modern Family”), you can be certain that it won’t be the last. But for as miserable as that viewing experience may sound, Levan Gabriadze’s “Unfriended” actually does a surprisingly good job of holding your interest. Where Gabriadze fails is in creating a horror film that isn’t plagued by the same poor writing, tired clichés and shallow characters that commonly exist within the genre, making this supernatural slasher movie for the social media generation a lot less enjoyable than it could have been.

The film takes place over a Skype call among a group of high school friends who apparently spend their nights chatting with one another from the comfort of their homes instead of socializing in person, because that’s what kids do these days. When an anonymous user enters the chat without an invitation, they initially think that they’re being harassed by a trolling hacker, only to discover that the stranger is posing as Laura Barns, a former classmate who committed suicide exactly one year ago after being cyberbullied due to an embarrassing video posted on the web. Blaire (Shelley Hennig) believes that it might be the vengeful spirit of Laura punishing them for what happened, but she swears they had nothing to do with it. When the stranger begins revealing dirty secrets that turn the friends against each other, and then gruesomely kills them one by one for their apparent role in Laura’s death, they realize that this isn’t some sick prank, but something much worse.

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