Thursday, January 31, 2008

Walking in Memphis...

Well I'm on flight 1253 to Baton Rouge via Memphis now, having been dutifully cavity searched by the most thick-browed minions of the TSA, eagerly awaiting my Halal meal.
I actually used to order kosher- they are usually better than airline slop. I got a kickass cheese omelet once, but the unleavened bread was a bit much. I wonder if ordering Halal comes with a free secondary
screening at security.

I had my mandatory Smithwick's and now we're taking off- see you later!


Okay a few hours later and now I'm in Memphis airport. Flight's been delayed an hour. It's 8pm and they're already closing their Elvis themed restaurants. I didn't peek in to see if they had Fool's Gold Loaf or peanut butter 'nanner sammiches. Hyeah, I could use one of them bout now....
Sarah (the dame in the film noir that is my life) called her folks and we were supposed to go to a Mexican joint called Nympho's. Or Ninfa's. I'm not sure I'd want to eat a burrito from Nympho's, who knows where it's been. Well now they are probably closed so we'll have to go to Sonic's, oh the humanity. Sarah's been pining for Sonic since the day I met her, so we have to go there. They have the unmitigated temerity to advertise in the NJ area when they have no damn restaurants except for deep in the forests of Pennsylvania, from whence no civilized man has returned.

But enough of that shit, what kind of "major" airport closes its restaurants at 8pm? I am a red-blooded American and I require beer to fuel a constant rampage of mayhem. That Smithwick's wore off days ago, and I am reduced to watching basketball on a seat that is being unkind to my chiseled Greco-Roman ass.

Hopefully my next report will be from the RV to which I will be confined, as an unruly Yankee in Confederate territory, and I will report on the greycoat troop movements in code, so you can get the precious information to the brave young men fighting to preserve the Union.

Led Zeppelin: The Song Remains the Same

The 70's Were a Hairier Time...

Yes, Mr. Samson, I like the Zep. That's partly what makes this concert documentary somewhat disappointing; they didn't choose a particularly energetic concert, and the bookends are somewhat pretentious and boring. Apparently the "How the West Was Won" DVD is a better sampling of their live performances.
It starts out with a scene of the band as gangsters shooting up a cottage where Nazis and also, the Wolf Man, happen to be holed up over invasion plans. It would have been great if the entire film were this bizarre, but from there it cuts to the band living their idyllic lives, before they are called forth to perform at Madison Square Garden.
Robert Plant and wife are sitting by a stream, watching their two young children cavort in the nude; John Bonham is cruising in a 30's roadster; Jimmy Page is sitting in the woods playing a hurdy-gurdy or something. And John Paul Jones is hunting unicorns on a hang-glider with a crossbow. Okay, not really. I can't remember what he was doing, except that he says "what, the concert's tomorrow?" and ends the quiet interlude.
So they open their shirts and are herded to the limousine, and then the jumbo jet. It's a hard life, and I'd hate to be the make-up gal who had to trim and primp their happy trails, which are on full display from hereon in. As my friend John remarked, "the 70's were a hairier time." Their band manager Peter Grant looks like he escaped from the gorilla exhibit, perhaps he was inspiration for the Nazi werewolf they perforated with tommy guns.

The concert is the meat of the film, and sounds incredible in TrueHD. If you can find the HD disc (eBay and xploitedcinema would be good places to start) it is well worth the $25 if you're a fan of the band.
They lean towards the slower bluesy songs rather than balls-out rockers, beginning the show with "Rock 'n Roll" and forgoing "Immigrant Song," to my immense sadness. They do long versions of "Moby Dick" and "Dazed and Confused," with good solos. In between some tracks there is footage of crashers being arrested, the crew letting a few people backstage, their manager talking about how $203,000 of ticket receipts were stolen from a safety deposit box, and stuff that's meant to give a hint of the Personality of the Rock Gods, but after seeing This is Spinal Tap, it is clear that this film was one of the inspirations. In fact, the Tap guys sometimes sound too intelligent to be rock stars.
The more fun interludes are some sword and sorcery shenanigans with Robert Plant following a doped-out blonde on a white horse, and Jimmy Page climbing a mountain to confront the robed man from the cover of Led Zeppelin IV. Under the hood is... Jimmy Page! In old man make-up. I get it, seek thyself! Don't bogart that jay, man, pass it over to me.
The end of the concert gets the psychedelic treatment with split screens and posterization, so if it takes you 2 hours and 10 minutes to get high, this is the point where you will officially Freak The Fuck Out. It's kind of funny now. As stuff to watch as they play, it's just fine, and looks great on the HD transfer. After all, it's about the music. It's much better than watching Robert Plant's bulging moose-knuckle aimed at you like a boil about to burst from his jeans. Where are studded leather codpieces when you need them?

The horror...

It's hypnotic, isn't it?

In other news, Lez Zeppelin, the all-female Led Zep tribute band, has a concert on March 29th. Tickets are only $20, and Robert Plant sounds so much like a girl that I bet they sound great.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

funny headstone

Okay, it's good to know that emailing photos directly will work.

Even if they're kind of corny.

preview: Live from Mardi Gras!

Just testing the blog via email feature. This weekend I'll be at Mardi Gras in New Orleans, hopefully I'll be able to get some live blogging and photos too. We'll see!
Watch this space, and all that.

Not sure how blogspot handles photos that are emailed. I'll test that next!

I'm planning on visiting the Louisiana Music Factory to pick up some New Leviathan Oriental Foxtrot Orchestra vinyl, and trading beads with the local natives for swills of their grog, and to see their sordid rites.

The Last Starfighter and Harrison Ford among the Amish

The Last Starfighter (1984) directed by Nick Castle. 3 of 4

Greetings, Starfighter. You have been recruited by the Star League to defend the frontier against Xur and the Ko-Dan armada.
I was reading some discussion of The King of Kong, when I remembered one of my favorite movies about video games. My enjoyment is shrouded with nostalgia, since I saw this when growing up, and we all wanted a video game to transport us to a fantasy universe where we were the hero. This movie succeeds (and only barely) because it is tongue in cheek, and run as light comedy first and action second.

Lance Guest, a sort of low-rent Judge Rheinhold, plays Alex, a teenager working as a maintenance man at the Star-Lite, Star-Brite trailer park in the middle of nowhere. Like any teen movie set in podunk-ville, one of the first phrases out of Alex's mouth is how he is going to leave town and be somebody. How little he knew...

Like many of us did in the 80's, when Alex isn't working or trying to get to the make-out spot with his girlfriend Maggie (Catherine Mary Stewart), he's planted in front of an arcade game working out his frustrations, eager to beat his top score. One night after missing out on a trip to the lake with his lady, he manages to roll over the machine (breaking one million, for those not used to games with numeric scores). The whole trailer park has gathered around him at this point, vicariously living through Alex's minor triumph. It made me nostalgic for the times when people like Billy Mitchell made TV and the papers for doing this sort of thing, and the films would make a fine double feature.

Later that night Alex meets a strange man named Centauri, played by Robert Preston (The Music Man) who claims to be the game designer. He's amazed by Alex's prowess with the game and lures him into his car for a surprise. Even in the 80's we knew better, but this is a really cool car, a star-car, so you can forgive Alex this lapse of judgment. Soon they are taking off to a far-away planet, where Alex learns that the video game is a recruiting tool for fighter pilots in the war against Xur (Norman Snow) and the Ko-dan Armada.

He has second thoughts, but it wouldn't be much of a movie if Alex just went home to fix TV antennas on double-wides. So it's safe to tell you that he indeed fights the armada against incredible odds, and I dare say he may even defeat them, but that's for you to find out. Either way, he meets his navigator Grig, a scaly but amiable fellow played by Dan O'Herlihy. With an infectious, hiss-like laugh and good nature, he's Alex's guide on their last-ditch attempt to save the Frontier from the betrayal of Xur and the onslaught of their space fleet. He holds the film together, giving us comic relief and exposition without being as obvious as let's say, C3PO. Nothing against the copper-jacketed know-it-all, but you know what I mean.

You can't see The Last Starfighter without recognizing how similar it is in some scenes to bigger movies, like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Alien. When the Rylan leader describes the Armada, there's a spinning globe that looks a lot like, a Death Star. Alex's disappearance from home is covered by a "beta unit," or clone robot that takes his place, but has to deal with an "interstellar hitbeast" known as a Zandozan, eerily reminiscent of a fleshy Giger Alien, shooting up the trailer park. The fact that the movie plays it for laughs helps a lot, and that it's not trying to establish a franchise, and riffs off of ones dear to our hearts, that makes it so endearing.

At the time, the special effects were groundbreaking, and many of us went to see it just to see them. They don't stand up so well today, now that even a Sci-Fi Channel movie can do better (though they usually don't bother). They're not especially jarring, because the filmmakers were smart not to mix CG and models too much. When Centauri's star-car suddenly changes from a DeLorean-esque prop to CG, we notice. It's too clean. But when we see the hangar full of Gunstar fighters, they look pretty real, especially for 1984. The space battles look pretty good, and they were wise to make the arcade game graphics look worse than they could have been, so the real thing looks a lot better. The huge explosions are not CG, so they clash with the spaceships sometimes. It's not laughable, but you definitely know this isn't a modern movie. Because nostalgia is its biggest draw, the effects shouldn't be an issue.

The movie is better than a derivative space adventure has any right to be. The trailer park denizens are something out of a musical, thankfully without show tunes. The first scene, of a bloodhound sleeping on a park bench, immediately tells us nothing happens in this town. Robert Preston and Dan O'Herlihy uplift the film from what could have been a formulaic exercise into an endearing piece of comedy. Preston's Centauri is played straight, as an interstellar huckster trying to shanghai recruits into the starfleet, and while it's not a big jump from his famous role as the salesman fleecing River City, he can say things about communo-crystals and Galloca saving the Ooloos without us doubting his sincerity. Dan O'Herlihy's performance is pretty amazing, considering that a year later he's "The Old Man" in the Robocop films, a completely different sort of role.

It may not be a great movie, but it's heart makes it a good one, and one of the more memorable films of the mid-80's. Amusingly enough the star-car came before the Back to the Future DeLorean, and Grig looks a lot like the Dracs from Enemy Mine, a year later. Who's derivative now?

Witness (1985) directed by Peter Weir. 4 of 4.

This was a movie I never managed to see in its entirety, despite its popularity on cable in the last 22 years. In fact, I finally caught it on the old DVR, and the recording messed up at a critical point, so I threw it in the NetFlix queue. The DVD is a little soft but still looks good.

I've always liked Peter Weir. Picnic at Hanging Rock is one of my favorite films, for its quiet contemplative shots to its lack of explanation. This movie is more of a Hollywood plot, but handled by Weir it works terrifically well. We begin in an Amish community where a widow and her boy are planning to visit the big city. The camera lingers on the people and we sense their close-knit relationships. Soon after arriving at the train station, the boy is sole witness to a murder.
At the police station, detective Harrison Ford works with them to identify the killer, who turns out to be more dangerous than first expected. He ends up hiding out in the Amish village to protect the witness and himself.

This is one of Ford's better roles. It's similar to his Deckard in Blade Runner a few years earlier, but has more of the hard-bitten Philly cop without any of Deckard's humor. He slowly meshes into the Amish society and we get a good look at the pleasant side of it. I recommend finding the documentary The Devil's Playground about the practice of Rumsprigga, when youths can be unfettered of the rules for a while to decide whether they want to commit to the Amish life, for a closer look. There's the famous barn-raising scene, and Ford gets to milk a cow. The country style ribald humor of the Amish is there to humanize them. Their pacifism is exemplified, for it separates the gun-toting cop from them. Soon he is fitting in, and then the trouble finally finds him.

For a quiet film, the end fight is quite thrilling. Ford is unarmed, and he's got 3 men with shotguns to deal with. We've seen this before and it's never very believable. Guns jam, and so on. Not so here. He has to dispatch them using his brains, and he's up to the task. The ending is quite satisfying, not giving us the typical Hollywood revenge rush.

There's also a muted love story here, and it's to Weir's credit that it doesn't interfere with the rest of the movie. The movie holds up well all these years later and really hasn't become an anachronism like the Amish themselves. It's still quietly gripping, and worth seeing.

The Sushi Police, are inside of my head...

From this London Times article.

Soon you will know if your wasabi was grated on shark skin from the root or if it's the dyed stuff from a tube, and whether the uni will be fresh enough to be worth trying.

Japanese officials are offering a Michelin-star like service to rate the authenticity of Japanese restaurants in other countries. Not coming to New York yet, but this year it will arrive in Los Angeles, so they get snob rights first.

The seal’s design, displayed yesterday, resembles a coat of arms, with chopsticks, a Rising Sun background and the petal of a cherry blossom. The award will go to restaurants that meet five criteria of authenticity and can show that they have mastered the classics of Japanese cuisine.

No news yet on what the "5 criteria" will be, or if you will have to follow the rules of "How to Eat Sushi," if they will raid the cupboards looking for forks or look down their noses at rolls with eel and peanut butter like they have at Ginger.

And unfortunately the best I can find of Apu from the Simpsons singing "Dream Police" is a sound clip, not a video.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Run, Fatboy, Run! -- The new Simon Pegg movie (trailer)

This looks like it will be good fun, a romantic comedy without zombies. Simon Pegg plays Dennis Doyle, who is about to marry his pregnant fiancee Libby (Thandie Newton) when he gets cold feet and runs away during rehearsal. 5 years later he finds out she is about to marry Whit, an athletic yuppie played by Hank Azaria, and realizes he was wrong to ever leave her... and wants to win back her heart. To prove himself to Libby, his friends, and himself, he decides to run against Whit in a London marathon. With the help of his unlikely coaches Gordon (Irish comedian Dylan Moran) and Mr. Ghoshdashtidar (Harish Patel) he's sure to trot his way into our hearts and a few unyielding objects.

At first glance it looks like Pegg is going to be the British Ben Stiller, but he's more sympathetic than pathetic, so I was drawn in by the trailer. While his pal Nick Frost would be welcome, he has good chemistry with Dylan Moran. Hank Azaria is always good, and I'm glad he's getting some exposure here. He was the best part of The Birdcage, and up against Robin Williams and Nathan Lane no less.

The only concern is that David Schwimmer is directing. The trailer looks decent enough, and if he can avoid the "sitcom feel" after only directing episodes of "Friends" and "Joey" he should be fine.

Official Site


IMDb page

Shaun of the Dead

Shaun of the Dead (2004) directed by Edgar Wright. Rewatch.
3.5 out of 4

I like this movie a lot, but can't give it the unadulterated love that the internet's horde of zombie fans do. It's quite imaginative and clever, especially in how it teases us and plays with expectations, but some of the characters we get locked up with are underdeveloped and drag the story down.
Let's start off with the good parts. Simon Pegg and Nick Frost are terrific, very comfortable in the characters they built for the film, and always amusing when they are on screen. The film plays a lot of clever and subtle jokes on zombie fans, and the romantic comedy genre. This makes it rather unique, as the only other self-referential rom-com I can think of at the moment is The Baxter, which was above average and somewhat memorable, but nowhere near as entertaining as this film is.
The story begins with Shaun, his girlfriend Liz at their local pub, the Winchester. Liz and her friends are bored with hanging out there every night, while Shaun's slob friend Ed plays video games. Shaun and Ed are also roommates, and he's a terrible one. When he's not behaving like a methane-producing Xbox attachment, he's forgetting to tell Shaun when Liz calls, which leads to them breaking up. Now this romantic comedy plot is funny as it is, but all the while in the background the world is slowly falling apart. The best joke is that his neighbors aren't very different in zombie form, except for the flesh eating problem.
When Shaun and Ed finally realize what's happening, their reactions are quite believable and that's what makes it so funny. What are you going to do when there's a zombie in your yard? While chainsaws and shotguns make for great entertainment, not everyone has one or two under the bed. Once they find out that a good knock in the head takes care of the walking dead, they hatch a rather hasty plan to gather everyone Shaun cares about and hole up at the Winchester. So they go to rescue Liz and Shaun's mother; he hopes rather wistfully that his stepfather is a zombie so he can dispatch him.
The film manages to make the relationships sentimental and charming, comparable to a Judd Apatow comedy. The writers and director remember that it is important for us to care about the characters if there's going to be any tension over whether they become zombie chow, and there are a few somewhat emotional scenes as the horde descends upon our little friends. They manage to ratchet up the excitement and for a moment you forget this is a comedy, but they end it masterfully in a way that doesn't betray its mood.
The end, and how the world deals with the zombie menace, is entertaining enough to merit its own film. I'm told Fido is as close as we'll get to such a thing, and that movie would probably made a good double feature with this one. I enjoyed Hot Fuzz a lot more than this, but this deserves credit for bringing a refreshing twist on two genres that should never be mixed again.

On another note, this HD-DVD was defective and I sent it back to Amazon, the third bad one I've gotten from them. The other two were Planet Earth sets, which both had defective first discs. I didn't watch the extras but I will when the new one comes.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Michael Clayton

Michael Clayton (2007) directed by Tony Gilroy.

We've seen a lot of legal thrillers. It's always obvious from the outset who to root for; stuff like Erin Brockovich may entertain, but the heroes aren't always so cut and dried or squeaky clean. The Insider was another good film, with a less likeable protagonist, but it's rare that a movie goes so far as to give us a Michael Clayton. George Clooney plays the titular role, as a fixer for a big law firm who doesn't seem to get much happiness out of life. He's divorced and his kid lives in a fantasy novel, he's a poker table gambler who doesn't win often, and he has to deal with entitled rich monsters who want him to make it all better when they crush one of the little people, who have the temerity to want justice.
The story is told in flashback. We meet Clayton when he is called on to cover for a vacationing lawyer. He's supposed to be a "miracle worker," but he describes himself as a janitor. Cleaning up other people's mess. A big mess gets created by lawyer Arthur Eden, played by Tom Wilkinson, when he has a mental breakdown during a deposition, and Clayton is called in for damage control by his boss, Sydney Pollack. Like his role in Eyes Wide Shut, he is utterly believable as a powerful man who tells people how it is.
In the process of cleaning up Arthur's mess, Michael nearly loses his own son, begins to see the method to Arthur's madness. He may be unhinged, but he certainly has his faculties. He's also up against Tilda Swinton as the lawyer from the company Arthur was supposed to be defending. She's as ruthless as any of them, and has her own fixers. There's a particular clever scene that intercuts with her perfect performance at a deposition with her rehearsing at home while she dresses, that captures the character. Tilda Swinton has always been one to watch, from her childlike role in Thumbsucker to the wounded woman in The War Zone and the desperate mother protecting her wayward son in The Deep End. Here she stands alongside some major players and even surpasses them.
Like Gone Baby Gone, the film does not go where you expect it will go. There are men beyond redemption, and sometimes it takes a devil to do a good deed, for the wrong reasons, for justice to be done. The final shot shows Clayton in a cab to nowhere, being eaten alive from the inside. Clooney has given us a real and unsavory character who deserves to have a movie named after him.

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Gone Baby Gone (and a few great oldies)

Gone Baby Gone (2007) directed by Ben Affleck

Another gritty tale from the neighborhoods of Boston, again based on a Dennis Lehane novel. I think this is better than Mystic River, actually. It's as heartwrenching, and it handles its precarious subject matter deftly. A child, Amy is missing. Her aunt and uncle, well played by Amy Madigan and Titus Welliver, approach skip tracers Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan to help with the investigation. They don't want to, it's a big media mess and every cop in the city is on the case, but once they meet the eerily calm mother played by Amy Ryan, they take the case.
What leads from there is a twisted tale of deceit in the Boston underworld, where the child is ransom for stolen drug money, and of course the swap goes horribly wrong. It happens so early in the film that no good can come from it, and it besmirches the careers of Police Captain Morgan Freeman, who himself lost a child to abduction years ago, and Ed Harris, a hard-nosed detective who made his bones protecting kids in the rough places his beat took him. That wouldn't be much of a story, and Affleck's P.I. can't let it go. It's one of the cases that haunts him, and he begins unraveling the real story.
Amy Ryan is the one up for awards, and it is well deserved. She has the thankless job of playing a neglectful, drug-addicted mother, someone we're hard-wired to hate. She brings empathy to the role, but manages to never make us feel sorry for her. It's a hard line to walk. She loves her child but is simply incapable of raising her properly. The situation leads Affleck to a moral quandary, and the ending is not what we expect. That, and the strong supporting cast, are what give the movie its power. With a quiet final shot that is a sucker punch to the gut, we share the feeling of regret that comes with making a difficult choice that we can never unmake. A notch above the typical thriller, this is one of the year's best films. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monghan may not play the most memorable roles, but they holds their own against Freeman and Harris, and even seasoned character actors like Amy Madigan. Jill Quigg, a newcomer playing Amy Ryan's friend, gets kudos for being the character I've wanted to strangle most in the films of 2007.

Blazing Saddles (1974) directed by Mel Brooks

I rewatched this classic spoof comedy this weekend with my girlfriend Sarah, who'd never seen it. I was raised on it, and part of me still yearns to see Cleavon Little posthumously awarded an Oscar for his perfect performance. Originally his role was written for (and by) Richard Pryor, and you can imagine the great comedian reading some of his lines very easily. He glides gracefully from shucking and jiving to dignity, and is so instantly likeable that he easily drives the story. It's unfortunate, and to our loss, that this was the high point of his career.
Mel Brooks practically invented the spoof film. He began with creating the "Get Smart" TV show, spoofing James Bond, and then took on the western. A little Rio Bravo, a little Destry Rides Again, a little Stagecoach and High Noon and throw the monkeywrench of having Black Bart actually be black, and the sheriff! The racial jokes are not softened one bit, and the film wisely assumes we don't need to be told that racism is bad. I saw a revival of this film during Warner Brothers' 75th anniversary movie festival, and was surprised when people (all white) walked out. Sure, the "N" word ("nigger," if that wasn't clear) is thrown with wild abandon, but it's pretty obvious that when Slim Pickens and his rowdies say it, that Bart and his railroad worker pals will give them their comeuppance, and humiliate them. The film is clever enough to open with the workmaster teasing the black workers and demanding that they sing a spiritual. We're introduced to Cleavon Little's Bart when he obliges them by breaking into a classy rendition of Cole Porter's "I Get a Kick Out of You," and like Bugs Bunny, his obvious mentor throughout the film, he tricks them into singing "Camptown Ladies," as they are in the Yosemite Sam role. Later he defeats the brute Mongo with an exploding Candygram, another brazen theft from Looney Tunes. Was this the first film to mimic the old Merrie Melodies cartoons? I'm not sure, but it's still one of the best.
He eventually clobbers Pickens with a shovel and is sent to the hangman, but gets a reprieve when Harvey Korman, the amusingly named Hedley LaMarr, needs to bust up the town of Rock Ridge so he can buy the land cheap, and make a killing when the railroad comes through. Korman makes him the new sheriff, hoping the town will flee. When Bart walks in, they prepare to shoot him, and we get another taste of how well he channels the wascally wabbit to extricate himself. From there he meets the drunken Waco Kid played with masterful subtlety by Gene Wilder. Korman sends Lili Von Shtupp, Madeline Kahn's hilarious take on Marlene Dietrich, to break his hard. Her dance routine is reminiscent of "Springtime for Hitler," from his earlier success The Producers, but different enough to keep us laughing.
The finale doesn't just break the fourth wall but crashes through to the other side. Endlessly mimicked but never topped, the final battle for Rock Ridge is fought on the Warner Brothers backlot and finally in the movie theater the film is playing at. So brilliant that it's been copied a hundred times in a myriad of ways. The film doesn't have the breakneck comedic pace of later spoofs by the Zucker Brothers who gave us Airplane!, but it has charms that they do not. Bart and the Waco Kid are memorable characters, Mongo is the iconic galoot, and Madeline Kahn's performance is so good that anyone spoofing Dietrich nowadays is spoofing her. The film's judicious use of profanity doesn't work as well today, because it's no longer shocking. But it has entered popular culture enough that when we call someone "Mongo" people know what you mean. It paved the way, and I try not to hold it accountable for the sad state of spoof movies like Epic Movie and its ilk. Even Mel Brooks ran out of steam, and maybe the mockumentary is all that's left for spoofing. But his first is still arguably his best, and here's hoping they make a Broadway musical out of it. The possibility of Bart singing about Schnitzen-Grubens, or a chorus of prospectors singing "The Sheriff is Nearer!" is too hilarious to ignore.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) directed by Amy Heckerling

The high school movie is another Hollywood staple these days, and when my favorite came on, I had to watch it again. While I may love Ferris Bueller's Day Off, it's a fantasy; the closest the 80's came to this was Say Anything, and the 90's had Clueless (also by Heckerling). Dazed and Confused is the other 70's nostalgia high school film of note, and Cooley High (which "What's Happenin'"? was a spinoff off) is worth seeing.
Everyone remembers Sean Penn's iconic Spicoli and Ray Walston's Mr. Hand and assume it's just another 80's comedy, but the drama is what drives the film. We get Judge Rheinhold's terrible luck at keeping horrible minimum wage jobs and Spicoli in between to ease the pain of Jennifer Jason Leigh and Brian Backer's clumsy attempts at relationships. Hell, the movie has an abortion, it can't be just a comedy. Sure it's nostalgic, and seems aimed at the mid-70's with the music and cars, but it doesn't gloss over the painful business of self-discovery that begins in adolescence. When Rheinhold picks up his sister, it's touching and we see their characters for more than the hot to trot gal and the goofy older brother whose girlfriend walks all over him. When Damone is shown as the cad he is, we cheer but it's bittersweet, since we were also taken in for a little while.
So many good actors came from this film that it seems crazy; not just Penn and Leigh but Forrest Whitaker and Nicholas Cage have small roles. Ray Walston is great in what is probably his most memorable role made an iconic character that has influenced so many since. Heckerling's direction makes the actors look and seem like high school kids even though most are 20 or more; her establishing shots of food, shoes, or other objects in close-up have been a staple of teen comedies since. There's not a bad scene in it, and while it cribs the "where are they now?" end titles from Animal House, it remains fresh and original, and the pacing makes the 95 minutes seem just long enough, even though we want more.

Panic (2000) directed by Henry Bromell

"The Sopranos" had a mobster seeing a psychiatrist; this isn't the first time a hitman has been to one, but this time it's not a comedy like Grosse Point Blank. There's dark humor, but this is a character study, with William H. Macy as the hitman undergoing a family crisis. He can't take it anymore, under the thumb of his overbearing father, played by Donald Sutherland. He runs the business, having trained his son at an early age, in a fascinating and realistic sequence in the woods.
This eventually ends him up at psychiatrist John Ritter's office. He meets a young woman named Sarah there in the waiting room, and thinks a fling with her might ease the pain. Macy is once again playing the put-upon and repressed fellow, as he did in Fargo and The Cooler, and the film rides on his performance, and Sutherland's. It is peopled with fine character actors, from Tracey Ullman as Macy's wife, to Neve Campbell as Sarah, the troubled young lady. She's allowed to be a real person and not just a sexpot for him to dream about, and she's more than she seems. Ritter is fine, similar to his role in Sling Blade.
It's not a happy movie; Macy's character is broken from an early age, and perhaps can't be fixed this late in the game. It ends the only way it can, and satisfies. The dialogue is never jarring, and it's one of the more believable portrayals of a contract killer's unglamorous job. Roger Ebert loved the movie, and gave it four stars. Macy's performance is one of his best, but the story is lacking. The third act seems rushed, and Sutherland goes a bit over the top, when he should have remained quietly cruel. It's certainly worth seeing, but another ten minutes might have made this a better story.

Black Velvet - the Ramstein Eisbock, and the lure of the Iron Door

We went to the High Point Wheat Beer Brewery in Butler this Saturday to try their amazing Ramstein Ice Storm Eisbock. It begins as their Winter Wheat, pictured above. Now that beer is a delight, chocolatey and heady, like a stout without the bitter. This is its 11.5% alcohol, black velvet smooth cousin. It goes down deceptively fast and has delightful aftertastes that linger, of vanilla malt. It's really a spectacular beer, and sadly they cracked the last sixtel when we arrived. The beer has to sit outside at temperatures below 25°F for 3 days to make it, so hopefully we'll have a cold winter and they have enough winter wheat to make another batch or two! Call the brewery and haul yourself down there for a taste.

After the brewery we went for a walk near Federal Hill, in Riverdale. This is the home of the infamous Iron Door, made famous by Weird NJ. Lost In Jersey has a good page on the door, its background and a nice photo. I'm planning a geocache run up that way and to take pictures of the door and other ruins of the camps of the American Bund from that hill, before they were raided by the FBI and shut down. It's an ugly piece of New Jersey history, and a fine example of urban exploration. The Hill, the site of a mutiny in the American Revolution, has been eyed as a condo site for a long time, so I want to get up there before it's destroyed. And this time I'll bring a camera!

Two geocachers near the Door:

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Beer is vegetarian, even though I'm not

No movie tonight! I did watch an episode of the excellent Planet Earth documentary while I was making hummus for a friend's party, though. If you haven't seen it, I highly recommend buying it on DVD or Hi-Def. It has some of the most amazing nature footage you'll ever see. Many of the shots were done from hot air balloons with huge zoom lenses, over every type of terrain. I'll give an in-depth review once I finish watching the series.

I also started watching Witness, the film with Harrison Ford as a Philly cop protecting an Amish child who saw a murder. It began very well, and I immediately picked up that it was Peter Weir directing. How's that for film nerdiness? The score, and his quiet, reflective shots were the giveaway. I enjoyed the first 35 minutes a lot, but then my DVR choked and jumped an hour ahead. Right to a spoiler, too. So, it goes to the top of my NetFlix queue....

So a friend of mine who's mostly vegetarian invited us over for dinner. I'm a full-bore carnivore myself- having just made a pilgrimage to The Spotted Pig for a Crispy Pig's Ear (the best pork rind you'll ever eat) and Calf's Liver, which was a transcendental experience- but I do enjoy vegetable dishes, and to her credit she eats fish, but another guest is pure vegetarian... so no shrimp or salmon tonight.

I love hummus and have made it before, usually strong on the garlic. My recipe follows. It was a big hit.

3 15oz cans chickpeas or garbanzo beans, juice reserved
1 12oz. can Tehina dip or tahini sesame paste
1 lemon's juice
4 large garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 tbsp ground cumin
1 tbsp paprika
1 tsp dried mint or minced fresh mint
1/2 tsp ground cardamom
1/2 tsp allspice

I used a hand blender, but a food processor or blender can work. Mix all the ingredients except the juice from the canned beans, and blend until smooth. Add the liquid as necessary to make the dip smoother. Add more oil (twice as much, if you like) if you want it creamier. I like mine spicy so I used half a head of garlic and a lot of tahini. Scrape out to a bowl and sprinkle a little oil and spices on top and swirl it with a spatula if you want it to look purty.

Serve with apple slices, carrot & vegetable sticks, or toasted pita. This makes a big bowl, enough for a party of 12 or more. It went over real well.

Another guestbrought some Abita Jockamo IPA and Anchor Steam Liberty Ale, which were quite good. The IPA was one of the best I've had, and that includes Dogfish Head's 60 Minute and 90 Minute IPAs.

It has a great smooth and fruity start like a good wheat or Belgian white, and a standard IPA bitter finish, nice and crisp, it would be better on a hot summer day but they go down easy in the winter too.

Right now I'm watching The Fountain in HD, a movie suited to the format. It looks gorgeous. The movie itself is a dreamy triple tale of a research surgeon trying to cure brain cancer, which his wife is afflicted with; it is expertly dovetailed with that of a conquistador looking for the Tree of Life in Mexico, and a man traveling in space with the Tree of Life. The men are all Hugh Jackman, the wife and queen are Rachel Weisz. It's not a perfect film but it is incredibly ambitious and succeeds on many levels, making for an immersive viewing experience and a heart-wrenching tale of love and loss. Full review later, but this is a highly recommended film from me to you.

Friday, January 25, 2008

You're a mean one, Mr. Brooks

I watched two movies last night, both were enjoyable and somewhat overlooked. The first is A Good Year by Ridley Scott, starring Russell Crowe, which is a cute little comedy. Second up was Mr. Brooks, by starring Kevin Costner. I'm not a big Costner fan, so this sat at home clogging my NetFlix queue for nearly a month before I watched it, but I was surprised, it's worth a viewing if you like a good thriller.

A Good Year (Ridley Scott)

We've seen this before, but it's amusing to see Ridley Scott, who usually makes action films, return to simpler stuff. Russell Crowe plays a high octane stock trader in London who inherits a vineyard in rural France. The uber yuppie forced to embrace simpler things, come to terms with his past, and realize what a jerk he is? If you haven't seen such a story before, good for you. The film will be startlingly original. What it lacks in originality, it makes up for in performance and joy. Early on, Crowe runs a woman on a bicycle off the road while fumbling for his phone, and it's predictable that he'll fall for her later. Especially when she's played as a fiery restaurateur by Marion Cottilard. Who can blame him? The vineyard is a shambles, and as he wanders it, we see flashbacks to a childhood with his curmudgeonly uncle, played wonderfully by Albert Finney.
Of course we see the difference between the joyful, clever child and the selfish, workaholic adult and hope he can somehow recapture his happiness and maybe find "Rosebud" the sled too. But put all that aside, and enjoy the performances and gorgeous landscape, and you have a pleasant film with some biting humor as the snippy London power brokers collide with the people of the French countryside. There's a bit of romantic comedy here, but it manages to be its own film and not follow any formula. Sometimes it's a bit pedestrian, as when the terrior expert comes to inspect the land, or when Crowe and his vintner have out their differences over a game of badminton, but overall it's a nice change of pace from what Scott and Crowe usually do, together or not.

Mr. Brooks (Bruce A. Evans)
I can take or leave Kevin Costner; when he's good, he's very good, but often he coasts and plays himself, because it's served him so well. Here he chooses a role unlike any he's done since the excellent No Way Out, early in his career. Normally this would be a spoiler, but it happens so early in the film that you can't discuss it otherwise; Mr. Brooks is a man of the year in Portland, but he has a dark secret; he is also the Thumbprint Killer, a cunning serial murderer. His dark side is hidden to the outside world, but for us he's played wonderfully by William Hurt, so well that you actually imagine that he is a living internal monologue. There are many clever shots with them mirroring their motions all the while the main conflict is between them. He doesn't want to kill anymore, but his addiction is too great. Obviously, it wouldn't manifest itself as William Hurt, as good here as he was in Body Heat.
Written and directed by Bruce A. Evans, who wrote Starman and Stand By Me before bombing with Cutthroat Island and slumming with Jungle 2 Jungle, the film sometimes tries to juggle too many plotlines. See, not only is Brooks in conflict with himself, but a voyeur (Dane Cook in one of his least annoying roles) catches him in a photo. And a famous cop, played with acerbic glee by Demi Moore, is on his tail, in between getting a divorce. And his daughter comes home from college with some personal issues that balloon into a bigger problem. It's to Evans' credit that he manages to keep us interested and not confused with all this, though when one of the bad guys Moore put away comes after her for revenge, it gets to be a bit much. There's a gunfight that goes on too long, though the sound mix makes the shots as realistic as I've heard in a film. Some complain about the tidy ending, but can it be any other way? He's the spiritual successor to Hannibal Lecter, with a totally different modus operandi, but the same smarts. We like seeing him play people like a cheap harmonica, and slither out of all these situations he winds up him. It's quite compelling, and Evans is wise to keep the killings from being too grisly, because we might find it hard to root for Mr. Brooks if he was a compatriot of Ed Gein. As it stands, it works and is one of the better thrillers of its kind to come out in recent years. It will stand with minor classics like The Last Seduction with Linda Fiorentino, instead of The Silence of the Lambs; Mr. Brooks is charming but his dark side is almost too cool, and his good side is of course a little bland. Supposedly there's a trilogy planned, and I'd like to see where it goes next, but I doubt it will ever have the appeal of Anthony Hopkins' Lecter.

Last night I forwent the Apricot Ale for my old favorite, Ramstein Blonde Hefeweizen. It's a smooth and tasty Bavarian style wheat, silken in texture and somewhat complex in flavor. Greg Zaccardi, the founder of the brewery, trained in Germany before coming to brew home in America, and they have an exclusive contract to import a Bavarian yeast they use in their beers. It certainly shows, and this beer challenged and exceeded many that I tasted in southern Germany when I visited. I urge you to stop by their brewery for a six pack or growler. They have open house starting in March, but I believe you can drop by if you call first.

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Cruising for a Bruising

If you haven't seen the crazy Tom Cruise video, well, the cult of Scientology is using their lawyers to get sites to remove it, but it's been on youtube under "cruise scientology" if you can imagine that.

Now it is the right of everyone to believe whatever the hell they want no matter how batshit insane it is, I mean some people think pizza is supposed to be dipped in things. But on the other hand it is also our right to point and laugh at stupid celebrities, and my buddies didn't die facedown in the mud so that some cult full of people holding cans and handing out surveys could tell me what I can watch on the internet.

The guys over at Funny or Die made their own hilarious version:

Amusingly enough a whole bunch of internet goofballs and hackers have declared war on Scientology websites, posting their secret wacky alien documents, spamming their phone and fax lines, and setting bags of dog poop on fire and ringing the doorbell, I hope.

Hopefully this will become increasingly entertaining and explode. Like a bag of dog poop.

Less Miserable

I finally finished the unabridged edition of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo. Wow, it feels like an episode of my life, I was slogging through it for so long. Not to say it's not a great novel. It is rather amazing in its scope, from its retelling of the events of Waterloo to riots long after, and the trials and tribulations of Jean Valjean, Fantine, and Cosette. I enjoyed Jean's tale the most, and that of young Marius the least. Gavroche the gamin was somewhat interesting, and there are long asides on the nature of religious orders and that of argot. I took the book to Paris with me and managed to crack the first 350 pages on flights, but the remaining 1100 pages were a long journey. Hugo writes as if you are sitting across from him at a cafe, and he is mostly an easy read. His characters are often in broad strokes but they are very much alive. This is a classic worth reading, and Valjean is a character I will not soon forget. His redemption is one of the great stories of literature, and if you're a faster reader than me (I began this in October!) you might not consider it the leviathan I did.
The only caveat is that he makes long tangents on several subjects that veer far from the main tale, and you'll get history lessons on Waterloo, the construction of the Paris sewers, and many other subjects. If this interests you, the book will be a wonder. If not, the abridged version may be more to your taste.

It makes me want to see the musical, which doesn't seem to be on Broadway anymore. I think it's playing in Philadephia, which would make for a nice day or weekend trip.

The beginning of a beautiful friendship...

I avoided blogging for a long time. My first introduction was on Livejournal, which has some pretty insipid content. So, I decided I'd only write when I had something I considered interesting. For a long time now I've been reviewing movies on forums and social networking sites, so I figured, why not blog about them? I manage to travel a few times a year and sometimes get interesting photos of places that not everyone would think to go to or see. So I decided I ought to share some of this and see if any kindred souls came out of the woodwork.

Yesterday wasn't quite that exciting, but I watched two movies and enjoyed a glass of Brooklyn Brewery's amazing seasonal Black Chocolate Stout, so I'll begin with my thoughts on these. I'll use 4 stars just like Ebert.

Dead Silence (James Wan)

Now this was surprisingly good. I went in with lowered expectations, since the team that brought us the gimmicky Saw was behind it. It begins with a happy couple, Jamie and Ella Ashen in their new apartment, getting the gift of a ventriloquist's dummy in the mail. Not something that happens every day, and of course it ends in tragedy. The husband (Ryan Kwanten) tells the detective (Donnie Wahlberg) that where he comes from, they are considered a bad omen. Then why did he leave his wife alone with it? Never mind. If you get past that, the movie manages to redeem itself as he travels to his creepy hometown of Raven's Fair.
There we meet his estranged father (Bob Gunton, the warden from The Shawshank Redemption) who had a stroke and is confined to a wheelchair. The patriarch of the Ashen family certainly lives up to the name, being a healthy tombstone grey. His new wife at his side, they tell him a little about the legend of Mary Shaw, who "if you see her in your dreams, do not ever, ever scream." She was a famous ventriloquist who laid a curse on the town for some reason only the undertaker knows. When he sees Jamie's wife on the slab he suddenly remembers the generations of families found in Raven's Fair with their tongues ripped out, and has a collection of photos to show Jamie. They conveniently look like old family photos badly photoshopped to have grisly rictuses where their tongueless mouths should be, but once again, never mind.
Jamie finds out what happened to Mary Shaw and visits her crumbled mansion on the lake, with some of the best visuals of the film. It has a true-to-life abandoned feel, as someone who's done urban exploration, looks like someplace you'd find in Weird NJ magazine. The detective follows him home and they delve into the town's dark secret, with a thrilling ending and a twist or two that might bother some, but worked for me. The downside here are the subpar gore effects; when your tagline is "You scream. You die." I expect to see some tongues ripped out at the roots, not just the bad CG aftermath of such. Even a rubber tongue like in Kill Bill vol. 1 would suffice. The movie manages to redeem its weak opening, and is a pretty good recent horror film, on par with Dead Birds, which I also recommend.

Domino (Tony Scott)

Tough heroine in a man's profession? I'm sold, usually. But this isn't just a tale about a bounty hunter, it's based on the true story of the daughter of Laurence Harvey (The Manchurian Candidate) who began modeling and then became a bounty hunter, got on a reality show, and eventually died of a drug overdose in a bathtub while this film was being released.
She sounds like an interesting character, but the combination of Kiera Knightly's unimpressive performance, the disjointed script, and Scott's cut-happy directorial style, I couldn't stay interested for more than a few minutes. It's really a shame, because I wanted to like this movie. I can enjoy Tony Scott's frenetic editing style, but I'm beginning to think that Man on Fire was the last good movie he'll make.
When Mo'Nique shows up on The Jerry Springer show with a flow chart explanation biracial combos with "Blactino" and "Chinegro" I was wondering if I was in one of the Scary Movie spoof films. Jerry Springer, really? In 2005? It was barely funny when Austin Powers did it in 1999, but six years later it's embarrassing. Richard Kelly wrote the script, and it says something that Scott hired him after reading the script to Southland Tales, which I actually enjoyed to some degree. It says a lot when I can sit through 150 minutes of that movie, but couldn't bear to finish watching this one. Now, maybe I'm not qualified to review the movie because I deleted it at the 45 minute mark or so, but I can tolerate a lot. This was so oppressively mediocre, with Scott trying and failing to amp up the unfortunately boring story of a model who became a bounty hunter, that I could take no more.

But more importantly, I'll review Brooklyn Brewery's Black Chocolate Stout, which would be The Wind That Shakes the Barley if it were a film. Beautifully filmed, full of character, with a tasty finish. Even my girlfriend, who loves wheat beers and usually hates stouts, enjoyed the flavor. It pours slow and looks black as tar, but is smooth with no bite, and a lovely smoky chocolate aftertaste. The head looks like a chocolate milkshake. It really must be tried, and I'm told it goes well with vanilla ice cream. I bet it would make a lovely cheesecake, like the infamous Guinness cheesecakes.

This is one of my favorite seasonals, and I try to get it ever year. Brooklyn Brewery has never ceased to impress me, and I'm going to try for a tour soon. However, High Point Brewery just announced their Ramstein Eisbock is available at the brewery for pickup in growlers. That takes precedent, and I plan to visit this weekend to fill my growlers up. High Point in Butler, NJ has consistently made spectactular wheat beers, and their Ramstein Blonde Hefeweizen and Winter Wheat are two of my all-time favorites. I have both in the fridge right now, and it's hard to pass them up for the Stout. I'll post some photos from the Ramstein Brewery when we go. It's worthwhile to visit their website and sign up for e-mail notifications of their events. They have beer tastings once a month (except January and February) and often have German food buffets.

Tomorrow I'll have a few new movie reviews, and a review of Sea Dog's Apricot Wheat Ale. Later today I might post some thoughts on reading the unabridged version of Les Miserables by Victor Hugo, which I finally tackled after beginning it on the plane to Paris last year. 1462 pages, I tell you, being a (former) English major ain't all fun and games sometimes...

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