Thursday, July 31, 2008

80's Trash of the Week: The Gate

When I was a kid, I would have loved it if a Gate to Hell opened up in my yard. Especially under a spooky tree. That's the premise of The Gate, a late 80's horror film starring a very young Stephen Dorff. One weekend when his parents are away, with only his dog, his older sister Al, and his metal-head buddy Terry for company, Glen will have to battle a horde of demons infesting his yard, and find a way to send them... back to Hell!

You violated our hole

The story begins when akes up from a nightmare about his treehouse falling down in a freak lightning storm, and finds that the tree really has fallen. His father has already gotten some workers to start filling in the hole, but they find a geode full of purple crystals and give it to little Glen; this leads he and Terry to dig up the hole looking for more, and they find an even bigger one that they can't split open. When his sister is having a party against her parents' wishes, he and Terry manage to crack it, and it releases spooky vapors. And of course, creepy stuff starts happening. At first, it's pretty innocuous.
I wish my geodes summoned demons.

The party's over when they play "light as a feather, stiff as a board" with Glen, and he actually levitates into the air and breaks a lamp. But of course, that's just the beginning. His aging dog disappears... Terry sees his dead mother walking out of the mist, in a frightening hallucination. Moths they caught flying out of the creepy hole keep coming back to life. The movie doesn't always make sense; it's like a child's dream. a mirage of Glen's parents appears, and the worst thing they can say is "You've been BAD!" as if the demons are plumbing the kid's thoughts.
The glorious 80's

It takes a long time for the little demons to show up, but when they do, they are surreal and creepy. They first appear in that childhood staple, Under the Bed. Drooling monsters were segregated into three neighborhoods in my child: Under the Bed, In the Closet, or worst, The Cellar. There was always the chance that Something Under the Bed might grab your foot if you weren't properly covered. There's a great scare here when a huge arm comes after Al, but sadly, the giant hands only have one scene. They burst into a horde of little baby-sized demons, which are even creepier.
Somebody get a broom.

Their job is to catch you and take you back down the hole, but luckily they make it through the first night. Terry, the nerdy pal, lives in a room full of metal posters, including a bedsheet with "metal" spray-painted in red. At first it seems hilarious, but then I remember pinning up Iron Maiden albums with "Eddie" on them, and a "metal" bedsheet would have been the piece d'resistance of my shrine to Ronny James Dio in 1983. One of Terry's metal albums, by Sacrifyx (great name), tells him all about how to deal with demons, so they have a fighting chance. But just when they think they've closed the gate to hell, hell really breaks loose.


Terry jamming to Sacrifyx.

I wish my metal albums were by bands who disappeared after printing knowledge from The Dark Book. Sadly, my adventures with Satan began and ending with prank calls to 666-EVIL, or ringing the doorbell of 668, the Neighbor of the Beast. The movie does a great job of combining so many childhood fantasies- the creepy rock album with backwards messages, a hole in the yard being a gateway to adventure, silly party games turning real, and having scary stories you made up turn out to be true.


Sacrifyx and the Dark Book

Benefits of listening to metal

In Terry's case, he made up a story about a workman on Glen's house dying on the worksite, and being buried in the walls; after closes the Gate by reciting Bible verses, and a harrowing adventure down the rabbit hole, the scares begin anew when the wall bursts open to reveal a zombie workman conjured from his fears. In the end it is up to Glen to defeat the huge demon who bursts from the floor of the house after his friends are captured. One of the most memorable scenes is when the demon touches him and puts an eye on his hand, which he stabs with a pencil.
I thought my palms were supposed to get hairy!

The story takes a long time to build, and feels a lot longer than its 85 minutes, but it's pretty entertaining along the way. The actors aren't great, but they are very natural and become endearing. The movie is a lot of fun at points, and but it has very dated effects, and sometimes just gets a little too silly. I would have loved this as a kid, though. Apparently they are making a sequel or a remake; it'll never be an American Pan's Labyrinth but it could be great PG movie if done right. But we're not allowed to scare kids anymore no matter how much they might like it. That's a damn shame, because the most memorable movies to me have always been the ones that scared the living shit out of me. The chestburster from Alien; the clown, and the tree from Poltergeist, and every damn scene in The Thing. Well, there's always this:
There's extra fun if you have a pause button.


Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Unseen DVD Blogathon: Steel Magnolias

I hate family comedy-dramas. I'd rather put my balls in a waffle iron than watch stuff like Dan in Real Life and The Family Stone again. So when I was invited to partake in this blogathon where I would have to watch something I'd normally pass on, I went to Firecracker for advice. We'd already conquered the Romantic Comedy; there are plenty of good rom-coms out there. I'll even admit to liking Bridget Jones' Diary enough to watch it twice. (Maybe I'm a little gay for Hugh Grant; note to self: never dress like a transvestite prostitute around Hugh Grant) So that left the family comedy-drama, where laughter and tears meld into a melange of happy misery.

Where women go to curl up and dye.

I like me a good sad film. Like any boy raised in the 70's, one of the first times I cried was at the end of Brian's Song; but show me a Hollywood family, who all seem to be Kennedy-fetish New Englanders in big sweaters with huge summer houses on lakes, and so much money that they need to invent their own misery by falling in love with married people, or boating in bad weather, or playing Krokeno, and I just can't be bothered to care about them. I thought Steel Magnolias was the same sort of story transplanted to the South; boy was I wrong. It is certainly tailored to be a laugh-a-minute, down-home comedy tempered with tragedy, but it fits so comfily you don't seem to mind.


Gen-u-ine Cajun Dancing

The story centers on ladies who meet at through Truvy, the town beautician. You've got insanely crabby 'Ouise (Shirley MacLaine); gossipy and demure Clairee (Olympia Dukakis); straitlaced mom M'Lynn (Sally Field) and her soon-to-be-wed daughter Shelby (Julia Roberts); Dolly Parton as Truvy, and Daryl Hannah as Anelle, her jittery new employee. The movie begins on Shelby's wedding day and traverses the seasons as we slowly learn that she has a dangerous form of diabetes; Daryl Hannah's husband is on the lam and has left her penniless; and Dolly's hubbie Spud (Sam Shepherd) is a depressed lump who barely talks when he's not away on the oil rigs. Sally Field's husband, Tom Skerrit, is a bit wacky- shooting fireworks into the trees to rid the yard of pigeons, for a birdshit-free wedding day- but he's an okay guy, when he's not tormenting Ouise's dog. The men aren't bad, just... slight. You know, like the women in most male-centric movies. Shelby's new husband Jackson (Dylan McDermott) is a smart-ass, but decent enough; he wants kids, and marries her pledging they'll adopt- since the docs say it's too dangerous for her to have kids; but of course, she decides to anyway.
The gals

So you can see where this is going; the movie picks up a year later when little Jackson Jr. turns one, and the fiery and funny ladies' personalities collide like pinballs, with witty lines aflutter. It's based on a stage play but only the device of measuring time by the seasons in the set decoration really carries over, and perhaps the preponderance of sharp dialogue, which can hardly be held against it. If the film has one flaw, it's that when the inevitable tragedy finally occurs, and M'Lynn gives a heartfelt and painful speech, asking God the always unanswered, single-word question, "Why?," we are given too little time for the ache to sink in before the laughs resume. The characters are eternal, well-written and well-played; we see each woman's life move on; a grandson here, a crabby lady finding that her dog isn't company enough, there; Truvy coming to terms with her husband, and Anelle finding someone who's not perfect, but will at least be there for her. In the end, it's a satisfying movie, and the predictably painful ending is deftly shrouded so we forget that we know it must occur.
M'Lynn's speech

There's plenty of humor throughout the film- we get to see Shirley MacLaine bluster through scenes like a force of nature, and insert herself into a football locker room scene so she can peer in her compact; watching her spar with M'Lynn's husband Drum (Tom Skerritt) never gets dull. What they lack in wit they make up for with sharp tongues. The witticisms fly plenty, and we know Anelle is fully inducted into the group when she finally makes a smart-ass comment.
Shirl eyeing the boudin

The film was based on the playwright's sister's life, and set in the small town of Natchitoches in Louisiana. They try to keep things authentic, and include a local Christmas festival, Cajun dancing at the wedding, without overdoing the accents or heaping on too much lagniappe as is Hollywood tradition. I've heard it compared to Fried Green Tomatoes, and while it doesn't have the same story structure, it does have the same homespun feel, like The Shawshank Redemption; we know what will happen, we know it will be satisfying, but the storytelling and characters are good enough to distract us along the way. There's not a lot for guys to relate to her, but it's a good story; and it had me wanting to scare birds out of trees by shooting fireworks into them with a crossbow, which is a definite plus.
Something I must try.

P.S. I cried, and only found my balls later, under the couch, where the cat had been playing with them. I had to watch Scent of a Woman and a few 70's crime films to reattach them.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

This Film is Not Yet Rated

You wouldn't be reading this blog if you don't like movies; have you ever wondered why they are rated, and how they get their ratings? This Film is Not Yet Rated will help explain that, despite the secretive nature of the Motion Picture Association of America and their ratings board. This documentary by Kirby Dick (Sick: The Life & Death of Bob Flanagan, Supermasochist) was sponsored by the Independent Film Channel, and seems mostly concerned with how indie films get screwed, because they are about gay cowboys eating pudding, instead of ripped superstars shooting people in the face.

America has a tortured relationship with sex; we are a nation settled by Puritans, a bunch of prudish tight-asses that were so fucking annoying that Europe kicked them out. By the time we got over Puritanism, movies in the 30's were openly talking about divorce, Hedy LaMarr was swimming naked, and we saw a scandalous amount of leg on flapper girls. Life was good. Then a hard-drinking actress died after partying with Fatty Arbuckle, and Hearst publications ran with it like Fox News does with a missing white girl. Though never proven, it was intimated that Fatty stuck a champagne bottle in her cootch, or merely ruptured her bladder through exertions not unlike a sex-starved walrus upon her slender frame. This outraged the American people, who were not yet jaded toward sexual behavior of walruses, since this was before Animal Planet.




This led to the Hayes Production Code, which is why you see the back of people's heads during kisses in movies from the 40's and 50's, and also why beds continue to have an L-shaped sheet that goes up to a man's waist, but up to a woman's shoulders on the other side. It is a known fact as proved in John Waters' movie Pecker that pubic hair causes crime, so they are just doing what's best for society. The MPAA ratings have changed with the times; Planet of the Apes was rated G, and had violence, nudity, slavery, and so on; Midnight Cowboy was famously rated X for showing Jon Voight's ass and suggesting homosexual sex. Melvin Van Peebles' classic Sweet Sweetback's Badasssss Song was "Rated X by an All-White Jury!" and my generation remembers the PG-13 rating coming about in part thanks to Mola Ram tearing hearts out in Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom. NC-17 came about shortly after Peter Greenaway's excellent The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover was refused an R rating for its scenes of sex, violence (fork in the cheek!) and um, "try the cock... I hear it's a delicacy."

This has led to a shaping of movie values, in what is tolerated and what is not. In the 80's, when teen movies were rated R, we came to expect a generous helping of Gratuitous Boobies if we plunked down our dollars for a ticket. Around 1985, this was replaced by the Side Boob, and soon vanished altogether. There was a great Boobie Drought in the 90's and ever since. This was of course replaced by the violence that the PG-13 rating was supposed to protect us from.

This Film is Not Yet Rated
is best when it interviews several directors who ran into problems with the MPAA. The problem is not censorship; the MPAA merely rates the films; it is the studios, distributors, and media resellers like Wal-Mart who do the actual censoring. Many contracts demand a R rating or lower; if the director won't provide a cut that pleases the MPAA, the studio will cut it for them. Thus the glut of "Unrated" DVDs, which allow the studios to double-dip into your wallet if you want to see what the director intended. Even if the studio allowed it, some theaters would refuse to show an NC-17 film; and shtiholes like Wal-Mart wouldn't carry the DVD's. So the NC-17 rating exists only for independent films, really; and they get branded with it all too easily.

Still the King of Bad Taste.

The interviews with directors John Waters (A Dirty Shame), Kevin Smith (Jersey Girl), Kimberly Peirce (Boys Don't Cry) and Wayne Kramer (The Cooler) are the best part of the film; we learn the trials and tribulations they had making those movies, and how they eventually came to be released. You see, the MPAA isn't supposed to tell you specifically what's wrong; that would reek of censorship. They also didn't used to allow the defense of prior use, so if you got an NC-17 for beating someone with a rubber dildo, you couldn't say "You gave Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels an R, douchebag!" in your defense. For example, in Pecker, Waters shows a naked butch lesbian's bush, and got an R. To quote the man, he was amazed, but then figured it was "a happy pubic moment." In A Dirty Shame, he shows nothing, but talks about all sorts of vile practices, which used to be the staples of shock jock radio before they all moved to Satellite. Sure, the movie is disgusting, but no more than Clerks 2 or Superbad.



What's more offensive is when we get to The Cooler; sure we get subjected to William H. Macy's dingus, but they really objected to a scene where he goes down on Maria Bello. When it comes down to it, there was a more shocking oral sex scene in The Doors; but the camera lingers too long on Maria's pleasure, and seeing her enjoy sex is much more offensive than lets say, seeing someone ravaged with a chainsaw, at least according to the MPAA. Boys Don't Cry dealt with lesbian sex as well, and needed a lot of cutting. It's one of the more brutal films I've seen, but it tells a true story, one that deserves to be told. It would be like making United 93 without showing the planes hitting the towers, if we watered down the vicious murder of Brandon Teena. The MPAA objected to the rape; we'd seen similar in The Accused, a big studio piece with a well-known star. Even the sex scenes were rather less licentious than The Hunger from the 80's.


Kirby Dick wanted to know what kind of people rendered these decisions, so he hired a Private Eye to out the MPAA ratings board. This part of the movie is fun, but has a reality show feel at times. P.I. Becky Altringer is on the case, and with some spying she locates the "average parents" who are supposed to comprise the group of raters. This part made me a little uncomfortable, since I don't know if it's the raters' fault for all this. But they did find that only one of them has children who would still be going to school. The rest are much older and have kids in their 20's and 30's; hardly "in tune" with what might scar today's kids for life. Besides, my favorite films like Poltergeist, Alien, and The Thing all scared the living shit out of me as a child; it builds character. It sure made a character out of me...

So while This Film Is Not Yet Rated may feel like it was made for TV to play on IFC at times, it should be required viewing for all moviegoers, if only to see the sausage factory that is our rating system. It's driven by money more than anything else; One quote I liked (Kevin Smith, I think) was about how bloodless violence, without consequences, is less suitable for children than shocking violence. But cartoon violence sells. The movie did manage to make a difference; the MPAA now accepts other film's ratings in defense. That might help indie films against the immense power of the studios, who seem to have fewer problems with NC-17 being slapped on their films. Maybe we don't even need an NC-17; shouldn't R be enough?

Monday, July 28, 2008

Mad Men - Far from Heaven, the series?

The highly anticipated return of the series Mad Men finally pulled me in- the show is set in the early 60's in the legendary era of the martini lunch. Set in a high-power ad agency, it reminds me of the Billy Wilder classic The Apartment, with the subversiveness of Douglas Sirk, and 20/20 hindsight of Todd Haynes's Far from Heaven. "Mad Men" was the self-imposed nickname that the Madison Avenue crew gave themselves, and they live up to the title.

Joan has wits to match.


The series concentrates on Donald Draper, a top ad executive working in New York City in the early 60's. The show has gotten many accolades for its realism in recreating the look and feel of the era, from the skinny ties and slim suits to the well-coiffed women in office and home. Everyone smokes and drinks like mad, office liaisons are commonplace, every man is a cad with a piece on the side, and woman chafe at the societal boundaries that still corral them.
You've come a long way, baby.

Don is in his mid-30's and has younger men nipping at his heels, but he is still the big dog; though he often lies tortured on the couch before getting a brainstorm that comes up with the perfect ad campaign. The ad industry was just on the cusp of using known psychological concepts to market products as a lifestyle, and Don rejects it, though when he comes up with concepts on his own, they are certainly crafted as if by a head shrinker; he just doesn't link the two yet.
Peggy smiles like a shark.

What reminded me of the excellent Todd Haynes film Far From Heaven was not only the technicolor look of the show, but the update to Douglas Sirk's brilliant subversiveness. In Sirk's classics All That Heaven Allows, Rock Hudson is the artistic and freethinking bachelor who Jane Wyman falls in love with, to the disdain of society and even her own children; in his remake of Imitation of Life, two single women, one black and one white, meet and manage to succeed; the black woman's daughter passes for white and is ashamed of her mother. He skirted what was considered acceptable and there was always the suggestion of things still labeled taboo; in Far From Heaven, Haynes goes that extra step and lets us see what Sirk might have done, unfettered.
Do I want a child? Oh, the irony.

In "Mad Men," society still has taut reins of conformity around its neck, and we see even the paragon of 60's manhood Don Draper (Jon Hamm) chomping at the bit, though he hides it quite well. The women are more fascinating than the men, in how they consolidate what little power is left to be had. Joan (Christina Hendricks) the office manager, a buxom redhead with wits to match her ... wiles, is the de facto alpha female; Peggy (Elizabeth Moss), the newcomer in the first episode, has clawed her way into copywriting by the beginning of season two, after some trials and tribulations I'll leave you to discover. The men have their own problems; they live hard and it affects their home life. Super-cad Pete Campbell (Vincent Kartheiser) doesn't think he makes enough to support a child yet, and his new wife is tortured by the bouncing babies throughout their social circle.

"Mad Men" is able to show us a side of the mythical 50's and 60's that even Sirk couldn't allude to, and it makes for riveting viewing. The first season is available On Demand with some cable providers (even in HD) and the show plays Sunday nights at 10pm EST for the DVR-deprived.



Shia LaBeouf DUI - shitty drunk driver as well as shitty actor

TMZ.com has cell phone pictures of Shia LeDouche's drunken car crash. Looks like "Mutt" Jones forgot he wasn't a stunt double and made a hard left turn in front of another car, and flipped his truck. Looks like his celeb status has saved his ass from DUI charges, since the Hollywood elite aren't subject to the same laws as you or I.

So if you didn't hate him for his whiny voice and pale Vince Vaughn meets Woody Allen imitation, you can hate him because he drives drunk. You can also hate him because he'll get away with it.

He's in surgery for a busted flipper, maybe he was hoping he'd get an iconic chin scar like Harrison Ford- who got his off the hard plastic steering wheel of a 60's Mustang, sliding off the road in the rain. Having had a '65 Stang ragtop myself, I can vouch for them being easy to slide off the road in the rain even while sober.

Shia apparently forgot this interview from a while back.

Three days before his 21st birthday, Shia LaBeouf has made a life-altering decision. From here on out, he's promised himself, no more mistakes. These days, as he sits perched at the edge of megastardom — and at a table at an outdoor café in Burbank — he can't afford to do the stupid things guys do when they have too much money and time on their hands. This year alone, LaBeouf has starring roles in no fewer than three big Hollywood pictures (showing his range by playing a voyeur, a penguin, and a robot-battling kid). And then there's that role Steven Spielberg just tossed his way — presumably as Indiana Jones' son. ''My life's got to be flawless,'' LaBeouf says, firing up a Parliament. ''It's pretty simple when you think about it: Just don't f--- up.''

Drugs, alcohol, fancy cars, mansions, and public displays of dumb fun of any kind are also forbidden. ''It could all go away tomorrow if I'm at a club drinking like an a--hole,'' warns LaBeouf, who drives a nondescript Nissan and lives in a two-bedroom house in the Valley. ''Someone like Lindsay Lohan's personality is [more] famous than her performance. You've got to maintain some mystery.'' But doesn't he worry that all work and no play might make Shia a dull boy? ''Part of me wants to go out and see my peers. But if I go to a club and get my picture in the press, then I am that young Hollywood a--hole. That would shatter my world.''


from here: http://www.ew.com/ew/article/0,,20043390,00.html
And here's video of his fucked up truck.

Oh, and a mugshot of when he was drunk and wouldn't leave a drugstore last year, from the Smoking Gun.
Drunken DUI douche.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

The Waterfront Alehouse

A dozen or more great beers on tap, ranging from Belgian whites to local crafts or rare foreign delights, home made Granny's Apple Pie vodka and rum punch, and a blackboard spread of daily specialties with a Southern flair, this is not your average gastro-pub. Smack on the corner of 2nd and 30th, between Kip's Bay and Murray Hill, this neighborhood gem of a saloon was a random find when Firecracker and I met up with my stepsister, Mitch Bitch. MB was in town for a conference and as a blonde out-of-towner, she is doubly handicapped when attempting to use the subway, so we had to find someplace close.

The Waterfront Ale House seemed a likely candidate for a bite and a beer, and despite a harried waitress having trouble seating us at first, it was a fine time on a Friday night. The blackboard listed their weekly beer selections and daily meal specials, which all sounded quite tempting. For meals we had a crabmeat, spinach, cheese and crawfish dip with toasted baguette, a fried oyster po'boy with wasabi mayo, and a grilled veggie sandwich with fresh mozzarella on focaccia, with sweet potato fries. The decor is old woods and snug tables, with dozens of sauce bottles rimming the walls, including HP Fruity, which would go perfectly on one of their signature wild game burgers.

The food was excellent- the crab dip was warm and cheesy, a bit salty but thick and chunky with white lump crab, served in a crock so you could scoop out every bit. The oyster po'boy rivaled some I had in Louisiana- the oysters were succulent and just cooked through, dusted with cornmeal for a crispy bite and a juicy center. The baguette was just chewy enough with good crust, and there was just the right amount of tang in the mayo. It came with house-made mustard cole slaw that was light and unique, with big chunks of crisp cabbage. MB's veggie sandwich was quite good, cooked in olive oil and still fresh-tasting- portobello, eggplant, squash with a nice melted slice of fresh mozz and good focaccia bread that wasn't too greasy. The sweet potato fries were excellent, some of the best I've tasted- full of flavor, just crisp enough, with no soggy ones to be found. The sweet potato flavor really came through, you could tell they were fresh made.

Milan the Bartender is happier than he looks.

The menu board had many other temptations- wild game is a specialty, and a buffalo burger with house-made ketchup was the night's burger; they also had venison chili, and venison sausage, pork chops in a blueberry bourbon sauce, and others. Their regular menu leans more toward standard bar fare with a tilt at wild game, bratwurst and barbecue. The beer selection is one of the best I've had at a restaurant, including the infamous Spotted Pig, which has a more daring, hedonistic menu and casked ales. I sampled 5 or 7:

Flying Dog Doggie Style pale ale, the beer of the week, was a hoppy IPA with good flavor, amber color and malty notes. Weihenstephaner Hefeweizen was on tap and is always a classic, but my faves were the Palm Amber and Brooklyn Helles Keller. The Palm is a fine dark Belgian, a hoppier brown. The H-K is a real find, but it seems that Brooklyn Brewery made it special and won't be making it again. It's worth a visit to this alehouse to try, if you like their beers. It's like a punched-up pilsner, reminiscent of the superior Keller Pilsner that High Point Brewery also made as a one-shot. Let's hope this style garners popularity and both breweries add these to their rosters permanently. Other Belgians I had were the Gruut Amber and an excellent white that was similar to Delirium Tremens.
Many drinks later...

The gals had vodka-cranberry and Stoli Blackberry as usual, but did try shots of the house-flavored Granny's Apple Pie vodka, which was a bit strong but very tasty for a straight vodka shot. It reminded me of homemade cherry vodka I've had a the Metropole Russian restaurant in Minneapolis. They steep apple slices and spices in it, imparting a golden color and lots of flavor. The homemade Caribbean Rum Punch was fantastic and potent, too. Lots of fruit juices and a hell of a kick. Our bartender was Milan, a friendly guy who we closed the joint with. He was drinking anejo with a chaser, and we talked for a long while. It's a place we'll definitely visit again. 3 meals and drinks all night was about $55 each, and we drank a lot.
So much that on the way home we accosted two gals visiting from Australia, and chatted them up for who knows how long.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Dead Man's Shoes vs. The Brave One

The revenge picture may owe its roots to The Count of Monte Cristo, but in Britain everything will be compared to 1971's excellent Get Carter. Dead Man's Shoes, written by and starring Paddy Considine (In America; one of the dick cops in Hot Fuzz) plays out like a grainy, arty version of that movie, where a man comes back to town to avenge his wronged brother. Here the brother is Anthony, a mentally retarded young man who was first mocked and then abused by the local small-time toughs.

Richard and Anthony

Paddy plays an Richard, ex-soldier who returns home a bit unhinged, and we watch his anger build as he first taunts them, then plays scary pranks; soon the pot is bubbling over, and it almost becomes a slasher picture. He begins breaking into their homes for his pranks, or stalking outside in a gas mask, reminiscent of Jason Voorhees in his hockey mask. The movie's genius lies in how it draws us in with these mild hints at genre conventions, and then pulls the rug out from us. First, revenge; then slasher, and finally we come to a bleak realization that changes things just enough to imbue the whole tragic tale with crushing guilt.
Confronting the leader

We see the past abuse of Anthony in grainy, home-movie style flashbacks; this reminded me of Steven Soderbergh's excellent film The Limey, where the flashbacks were of Terence Stamp in an early role, in Ken Loach's Poor Cow. Some of the abuse is quite hard to take; at first they toy with him, making him think they are friends, when he is really just a plaything. When we finally see the real motivation for his brother's revenge spree, the movie rises above genre. Like The Limey, both involve avengers who eventually decide what they really want, and what they thought they wanted, are two different things. The films have two wildly different endings, but the realization is what matters. Avengers have a lot of guilt to live with, and the audience-pleasing catharsis that comes with dispatching their enemies isn't enough to soothe the life-long agony that drives them to do it.
No clean kills

Dead Man's Shoes was dismissed as a slasher flick by the New York Times, and many other reviewers. Personally I found it much better than another recent, lauded revenge flick- Neil Jordan's The Brave One, with Jodie Foster. I like Jodie Foster quite a bit, and Neil Jordan, but despite the film's attempt at an intellectual look at vengeance in civilized society, it is entirely wish fulfillment, fantasy, and liberal feel-good fantasy at that. The movie has a bit of split-personality, which I can relate to; I consider myself politically liberal in social matters, but I am also a Lifetime Member of the NRA. The movie should be tailored for me to enjoy, but it just didn't ring true.
Jodie's got a gun

The Brave One rides on performances; with Ms. Foster in the Bronson Death Wish role, we can recall how good the first movie of that nose-diving series was. Bronson's character vomits the first time he dispatches a mugger, shivering as he aims the pistol at him, only empowered much later, after the sickness passes. Jodie's tale felt more like it was about the lure of the firearm's power; at the gun shop she seems like a fat kid in a pastry shop. In Death Wish, Bronson's wife is murdered but he never finds the killers; instead he metes out random justice and strikes fear into criminals who never know if a watching bystander might pull out a nickel-plated revolver and kill them.

In The Brave One, we are given a sculpted hate crime as the impetus that drives Foster's revenge spree. She and her fiancé (Naveen Andrews, Sayid from "Lost") are attacked by three tattooed thugs in Central Park, in a chilling and masterful filmed sequence. The helplessness and horror of an attack on your loved one is shoved in your face, and this feels quite real. Foster plays a radio celebrity, which gives her a unique forum to talk about crime in the city, justice, and vigilantism. To me, it felt like a story written for the NPR crowd. I felt like I was being pandered to; I already believe that if tested, trained citizens were allowed to carry firearms (like in a dozen other states) we would see a reduction in predatory crimes, so it felt too neat to me. How can you deny someone gun rights, when we're shown that even an enlightened liberal talk show host could avenge a hate crime by neo-Nazi trash if only given the chance?
The original

People who are strangers to guns imbue them with a quality not unlike the One Ring from Tolkien. They seduce you, they lure you, their power leads you to do things civilized people just don't do. Personally I the seduction is in the eye of the beholder; forbidden fruit is always seductive. I was raised with guns in the house, and was taught to respect, not fear them. Rather like a chainsaw, or other tool you wouldn't play with unless you have limbs to spare. The film portrays Foster's seduction deftly, but then goes awry by making her vengeance all too easy, both physically and morally. It gives her no guilt, no hard choices to make; leaving it a compelling thriller, but not much else. I found it fun, but empty. We want her to succeed, but she pays nothing for it. Vengeance almost always comes at a price.
Vengeance is not a pretty thing

In Dead Man's Shoes, Richard is paying for it from frame one. He is filled with deep regret for not protecting his brother, for being ashamed of him in childhood, and perhaps he joined the Army to get away from that shame. Is he punishing the thugs, or flagellating himself? His vengeful strikes aren't as clean and easy as sneaking up and shooting his foes, either. The first involves a hammer. His deep rage would not be sated by a distant shooting. It escalates into unthinkable madness before he is through, and the foes are not mere cookie-cutter targets painted as easy-to-hate stereotypes. Sure they are dumb backwater thugs, drug users and dealers, but we spend more time with them than the supposed hero; we feel their terror, and their own regrets over games gone too far. This movie speaks volumes about the true roots of vengeance, its costs, and its brutality. It does not take the easy route like The Brave One.

The one difficulty with the film is the DVD release, which lacks English subtitles. The strong accents are hard to decipher sometimes, and I had no problem with Trainspotting. It is definitely worth your time and a rental; Paddy Considine's intensity is hard to match. If you liked The Brave One, you might want to revisit its forebear, Death Wish. Charles Bronson's Paul Benjamin may not be as nuanced as Jodie Foster, and he may have turned into an action-hero cartoon, but he also doesn't get retribution served to him on a sparkling clean moral platter.



Thursday, July 24, 2008

NYC Restaurant Week at Delmonico's

This week and the next are Restaurant Week in New York. Dozens of popular restaurants are offering 3-course dinners for $35 per person, and lunches for $20 or so. Last year we opted for the excellent One if by Land, Two if by Sea, and followed it up with a tasting with wines shortly after- that's the "catch," really; after your bargain dinner you'll be back dropping $400 on a gastronomic gallivant through their menu.

Delmonico's is a historic restaurant that opened in the Financial district in 1837; they claim to have invented Lobster Newberg, Chicken à la King, Baked Alaska, Eggs Benedict, and of course, the Delmonico cut of steak. All have faded into culinary history but are still quite tasty if on the rich side, unless you're getting your Chicken à la King out of a can, which is possible these days. Their clientele included such luminaries as Mark Twain, "Diamond" Jim Brady and Lillian Russell, Charles Dickens, Oscar Wilde, Teddy Roosevelt and Nikola Tesla. Several dining rooms are named after them, and the place looks as it should- dark, elegant, with classic woods and papers, unassuming tables and white linen. Dining with history.

Nowadays it's more of a power broker haven than one for the cognoscenti, stuck on the corner of Beaver Street between William and South William, in the jumbled tip of old Manhattan. The building resembles the Flatiron in ways, and speaks of old New York. They may not be inventing the dishes bound to become future classics anymore, but they still run a fine kitchen of American standards, and still have a few cards up their sleeve.

They give you a good tease with their Restaurant Week menu; the choices aren't quite what you'd want, but we got a deal of a meal. We choose the tuna carpaccio and gazpacho appetizers. The soup was not cold, but rather lukewarm, tangy and given just a taste of lump crab and avocado cream. It had a rich tomato base flavor that didn't overwhelm the crab. My tuna was a delicate pink sliver that resembled hamachi and had a similar sweet flavor, well paired with some bitter greens. The thin cut of Parmesan cheese was forgettable, but I'm a cheese snob and expect reggiano to punch me in the face with flavor. This was mild enough not to stomp over the delicate tuna.

Second course, I'm afraid we both opted for the 8 ounce tenderloin; mine rare, hers medium well, which was more like medium rare. Sometimes the kitchen knows what's good for you. Firecracker ate her steak and enjoyed it anyway. Mine was a thicker baseball cut while hers was more of a standard tenderloin. Both had a decent crust and a rich beefy flavor, from good marbling. I would definitely try a full Delmonico sometime. It sat atop a rich slather of buttery garlic mashed potatoes, with nary a green in sight. Typical steakhouse- if you want to waste time on vegetables, get it à la carte.

Dessert is what really shined; the chocolate mousse and the caramel custard were both quite delicious. The caramel on my flan-like dessert had smooth buttery notes and great texture, though the custard was a bit eggy. Even after the tasty steak, it won over my tastebuds. Firecracker's mousse cake was quite good, with the rich chocolate on top of layers of smooth raspberry cream and milder chocolate cake. It was a bit difficult to eat easily, collapsing when you tried for all the layers, but it was worth the trouble.

Add two strong tonics- one gin and one vodka- and our bill came to $120 with a 20% tip. Not a bad deal for two 8oz filets at a fine dining establishment these days. If you love steak, you've got another week to try Delmonico's at a bargain price. Opentable will reserve seats for you free of charge, and around the corner on Pearl Street you can grab a brew at Ulysses, an Irish pub, if that's more your speed. They've got a bargain of their own- $95 for 2 lobster tails, 12 shrimp cocktail, and 20 each of clams and oysters for their raw seafood tower. But that's for next time. It's too bad Delmonico's couldn't put a Lilliputian Lobster Newberg cup in the appetizer column and a bit of Baked Alaska for dessert; though I suppose that's what they want you to come back for.

80's Trash of the Week: Night Shift



Love Brokers!

Michael Keaton might be best remembered as Batman, or Mr. Mom, or Beetlejuice, but he got his start in movies with Night Shift, with ex-Fonzie Henry Winkler. Directed by fellow "Happy Days" refugee Ron Howard and penned by 80's staples Lowell Ganz and Babaloo Mandel. This movie was on HBO approximately every 5 minutes in the 80's, and I watched it nearly every time. When it popped on Mojo+ HD- your cable source for movies even HBO won't play anymore- I decided to see if it lived up to my nostalgic adulations.
Batman 2.0 vs. the Fonz

Risky Business is probably the better-known killer pimp comedy, but Night Shift led the way. In the opening scene, we see two toughs throw a pimp out a window, comically landing in a basketball hoop. One of them is Richard Belzer, a comedian whose biggest role prior to this was in 70's skit comedy The Groove Tube. At first we're not sure whether we're supposed to laugh or not, and then one of the kids playing ball says that shot should count, so we know it's okay to chuckle at the pimp splattered on the pavement. New York in the early 80's was still a tough town.


Slam dunk!

Shortly after we meet Chuck Lumley, a doormat of a morgue technician who's getting stepped on by his boss, his fiancé, and the city. Back then it was a surprise to see "The Fonz" playing a nebbish, but he handled the role with aplomb, channeling Woody Allen but making the role his own. His boss bullies him into taking the titular graveyard shift, where he gets partnered with Keaton's Bill "Blaze" Blazejowsky, the hyperactive doofus who has so many wacky ideas he carries a tape recorder to save them all. Great ideas like feeding mayonnaise to tuna fish, so you don't need to add it to make tuna salad.


He's a schemer who starts using the hearses to chauffeur people around the city, like Ron's brother Clint Howard. This movie's so old that Clint had some hair left on that big melon of his. He's always a fine addition to a comedy in my book. Another 80's icon who appears is Shelley Long, as Chuck's neighbor Belinda- who just happens to be a call girl working out of her apartment, whose pimp was slam dunked in the opening scene. Now, I know the obvious joke is how the hell could Shelley Long make a living as a hooker? But she looked pretty good here, dolled up in sexy gear and acting appropriately perky. We meet her when Chuck goes next door to ask her to turn the music down, and gets roughed up by a huge cowboy in his underwear, a precursor to Times Square's naked cowboy.
Before Cheers, she was a total whore.

Later, when Belinda needs help getting bailed out, she calls Chuck during Thanksgiving dinner. Being the pushover he is, he goes and his fiancé (well-played by Gina Hecht as a henpecking nightmare) follows with her parents. Once they find out what his friend does for a living, there is considerable strain on the relationship. This gives Blazejowsky one of his signature ideas- why not run call girls out of the morgue? With his gumption and Chuck's financial wizardry, they could all be rolling in dough. Belinda gets her working girls in for the deal, and soon Blaze is rolling like a pimp in a Stutz Blackhawk luxobarge, and Chuck is getting ulcers worrying whether they'll get caught. Their success of course raises the suspicions of the two killers from the beginning, so the cops are the least of their worries.
Pros-Tit-U-Tion...

There are some good jokes in the movie, and Keaton had loads of comic energy back then. He plays well off of the Fonz, and Shelley Long plays the role completely straight, and is at least as believable as Jamie Lee Curtis's whore with a heart of gold from Trading Places, even if she couldn't fill Jame's bountiful brassiere with her ass cheeks. Gina Hecht has the thankless role as the frigid, neurotic fiance who disappears halfway through the movie, but she makes the most of it. It's also the film debut of Kevin Costner, who you can see in the frat party scene. Howard wisely shows us a decent amount of boobs; in a movie about hookers you'd feel cheated otherwise, and this one delivers.
Charming 80's New York hookers

The movie has a great tone, and its vision of New York has a touch of the sentimental- even though we get a tour of 42nd Street pre-Disney era, it feels more like They Might Be Giants than Taxi Driver. That's expected of a comedy, but it's a nice touch; it would be easy to make New York too smarmy, and thankfully there are no Typical Jewish Old Ladies, Brooklyn Policeman, Funny Black Homeless Guy or other 80's urban staples. The rude delivery boys (Vincent Schiavelli), the persistent buskers who stick their saxophone in Chuck's face, and the killer pimps never seem too cruel, even when they shove a fire hose down Fonzie's throat.
Who wants to drink from the fire hose?

The film doesn't glamorize prostitution, either- Shelly Long comes home with a black eye, so this is no Pretty Woman. Howard and the scriptwriters don't make the violent scenes very funny, but instead juxtapose them with a funny ending, like a bunch of Girl Scouts beating Chuck with their cookie boxes, or having a pimp shoot himself in the foot during a gunfight, in a believable manner- when pulling a gun from an ankle holster. The ending loses steam, but it's great to see Michael Keaton do his hyper dummy act, which would eventually be crafted into classic performances like Beetlejuice. The movie spends a little too much time showing us how Chuck grows a spine, but this movie holds up well. If you haven't seen it, you should give it a shot- I miss Funny Guy Michael Keaton, and wish he'd get another chance to do comedy.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? It would seem quaint
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: Low
High Points: Michael Keaton's antics
Low Point: Ending drags
Gratuitous Boobies: 4 distinct pairs to make up for Shelley Long's AA cups

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Sweet 70's Cinema: Over the Edge







No, not Over the Hedge with the talking squirrel. This is a serious movie about juvenile delinquency in the 70's, a warning cry like other fine films such as Foxes, River's Edge, and Bad Boys (the Sean Penn one). It's a cautionary tale that leans toward exploitation film, but since it was directed by Jonathan Kaplan, a student of Marty Scorsese, the film has a very realistic feel, almost verité. It's still good viewing today, has Matt Dillon's first screen role, and would make a good double feature with any 70's nostalgia film such as Dazed and Confused.

Young Matt Dillon
The film itself has a sordid story of its own. Supposedly based on true events that occurred in the planned community of Foster City California, it leads in with a lurid disclaimer about how it is based on true events, and how many acts of criminal vandalism by juveniles occur in the U.S. each year. Still, the movie was so controversial that it never got a theatrical release, and instead played on HBO in 1980. The action was moved to the fictional city of New Granada, a planned community that has been demolishing its few youth centers to make way for more profitable businesses, in the wake of 70's stagflation. The script was written by Tim Hunter, who'd later go on to pen the bleaker and better-known River's Edge, and Charles Haas, a journalist who wrote about the original events in an article called "Mouse Packs: Kids on a Crime Spree."


The Mouse Pack
Our first introduction to the town's kids is at the Youth Center, a hangar-like building where they hang around. It's painfully obvious that there isn't much to do in this town, and everything seems spread out so you have to drive or bike everywhere. Two kids are on an overpass with a BB gun and they shoot the windshield of a passing police car, who nearly crashes, then gives chase. As the cruiser flies toward the Rec center, two other kids, Carl and Ritchie, hide in the bushes. The cop arrests them on suspicion, and finds a switchblade in Richie's pocket. Matt Dillon plays Richie as the standard rebellious youth; what he lacks in depth he fills with anarchic energy. I didn't even recognize him in this early role, and it shows the promise he'd later realize. Carl is the smaller kid who's always getting dumped on- reminiscent of Ratner from Fast Times at Ridgemont High. He's played well by Michael Eric Kramer, who never saw stardom after this. It's unfortunate, he plays this part naturally, and we follow him throughout the film.

Mommy's alright, Daddy's alright
Later on their parents pick them up and they get the usual lectures, even though technically they did nothing wrong. The parents are more concerned with the weekend of visit of some Texas millionaires who might invest in the town and solve their financial problems. Carl heads to his room and puts on his headphones, blaring Cheap Trick's classic teen lament, "Surrender." The film's soundtrack is excellent, mostly peppered with lesser known late 70's classics from Cheap Trick and The Cars, with a few others like "Teenage Lobotomy" by The Ramones and "You Really Got Me" covered by Van Halen. Anthems of the era, which really puts you back in the time. It's unfortunate when teen films like this use older songs or covers of them; years later, they'll lose any possible nostalgic value.

Note the leaf on the blackboard
Back at school they are forced to watch an educational film about vandalism, but the principal just yells at their implacable wall of adolescent apathy, and announced a 9:30pm curfew. Later that night the kids go to a party, make out, drink beer, smoke pot, and pass around other drugs; at first it's shocking, especially when you see the tow-headed youngster Tip smoking and dealing. They culled some of the actors and extras from the local town, and this gives the film a documentary feel. As Ebert stated in his 1980 review, it almost feels like we're eavesdropping, or a kid is lugging around a camcorder. (We had them back then, but they weighed 50 pounds). Sometimes there's a gritty, small-time mood like in Scorsese's Mean Streets, and you can see the mentor's touch here. At the party, Carl meets his girlfriend Cory, and they smoke a joint; as he leaves, he gets ambushed by Mark the BB gun kid, who thinks he snitched on him. He and some friends beat Carl up and take his money.


The 70's classic, Destruction: Fun or Dumb?

Carl just can't get a break; back at home his parents are more upset that he got in more trouble than why he's getting beaten up. The parents are clueless but aren't played as idiots; they are just too caught up in their own lives and dealings, and seem to think that kids raise themselves. The next day, Carl lashes out at his Dad by setting firecrackers off underneath the Texans' car, setting the engine on fire, and of course, torpedoing the business deal. The parents then announce that the Youth center will be shutting down a while, since a kid was caught with drugs there. This gives the kids even fewer options to stay out of trouble, and after an argument with his Dad, Carl runs out to hole up in one of the unfinished condos with his girlfriend.

Aimed right at you
One of the girls in their pack stole a gun from her parents bedroom, and they practice shooting cans out in "the fields." They use all the bullets, but later decide to play a prank on Tip, who ratted out Carl to Mark the other night. Richie echoes Dillon's later role in The Outsiders by running around pointing an empty gun at people; this leads where you expect it will, and forces the parents to confront the problems of the town at a big meeting at the school. Who's watching the children during the meeting, you might ask?

Echoes of a Nuremburg rally
From here the film follows a more predictable track, but thankfully we are spared any tearful or overly insightful monologues by Carl or any of the other kids. Kaplan is smart enough to let us draw our own conclusions from the performances, and realize that these kids are facing a profound emptiness from both their parents and the community; we don't need a rehash of James Dean's emotional outburst in Rebel Without a Cause; this film follows that classic's arc closely enough, with Dillon channeling Sal Mineo sans the not-so-latent homosexuality.

Burn it down
Of course with the parents all in one location, the kids decide to lock them in. I was hoping that the film would veer towards the surreal ending of Lindsay Anderson's If... with them burning the building down, but it never gets that bad. The kids do go all "Lord of the Flies" in a matter of minutes, blowing up police cars with stolen guns and fireworks, stealing cars and wreaking havoc. It seems out of place, and spirals far out of control, with a finale that seems more at home in something like Vanishing Point or Crazy Larry Dirty Mary.

Lord of the Flies
What detracts from an otherwise excellent 70's mood film is the ending, and expository dialogue such as the Texan stating, "Seems like you were in such a hopped-up hurry to get out of the city that you turned your kids into exactly what you wanted to get away from." It's deserving of its cult status and succeeds when we're hanging with the kids; it brought me back to my early youth in the 70's, when we often had nothing to do except romp in our "fields," smash up abandoned cars, and cut down trees with tools we lifted from unminded basements. But our little "mixed use" community was tightly knit; we had legions of old ladies sitting on porches to keep us from climbing on the rooftops of disused factories, or other shenanigans. This was a neighborhood so dull that everyone would come out and look when the old greenhorn found a garter snake in his garden and cut its head off with a shovel; the only one of us who went wrong was a kid named Travis whose parents were never around, leaving him to cruise the area on his Huffy, and steal from backyard gardens to eat some meals. One day he decided to throw a cinder block at another kid's head, probably because that kid didn't have to eat raw tomatoes for lunch that day. New Granada in Over the Edge was a whole comunity of little Travises, so perhaps the ending isn't too unreal.

If you want more detail on the film, it has an extensive fan site.



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