Friday, August 29, 2008

Death Race vs. Death Race 2000

I remember hunting down Death Race 2000 on VHS in high school with friend Pita-San. We were nerds who played "Car Wars" and this was on the required viewing list for players of that old game; we were not prepared for its dark satire, or the crazy camp. It amazed us. We did not think such movies were made. We loved it. So I was sort of excited about a remake, which could be a lot of fun- cars exploding, over the top villains, and a dark satirical future. I was sorely disappointed.

Frankenstein's monster car

Let's begin with the original. In a post-apocalyptic future, America is led by a brown-shirt President who blames all our problems on the French (some things never change). The populace is kept distracted by a violent cross-country road race in which drivers gain points by running down pedestrians in their suped-up, blade-festooned vehicles. Frankenstein (David Carradine) is the favorite driver- so called because he's been in so many wrecks that most of him has been replaced. He drives a Godzilla-inspired Corvette with razor spines from nose to tail. His biggest rival is Machine Gun Joe (Sylvester Stallone), a gangster Guido with sadly inoperable tommy-guns and a huge Bowie knife mounted on his car; others include the Nazis Mathilda the Hun and Herman the German in their V-2 rocket-propelled Buzzbomb (complete with Prussian spike nosecone), Calamity Jane (Mary Woronov, Rock 'n Roll High School) a cowgirl with longhorns on her hood, and Nero the pretty-boy, who thankfully gets killed first.

I hate Illinois Nazis.

It's an utter campfest, as they plow through construction crews, guys playing chicken with them, and Rebels trying to sabotage the race. Frankenstein is saddled with a new navigator that he thinks is a government spy; he wants to win this last race so he can meet the President, and give him a handshake... with a "hand grenade!" Yeah, his metallic hand has a grenade built into it. There's fake red blood galore, but it's all well directed- the cars are sped up a little on camera, but they seem to be going pretty fast, and the stunts are decent. Whenever they aren't racing and things get a little slow, director Paul Bartel wisely makes the girls (even his wife Mary W.!) show off their boobies. So all in all, it's a slice of '70s delight.

Carradine was fresh out of "Kung Fu" on TV and needed to break away from his Kwai Chang Cane character; Sly was probably raising money for Rocky, and they both chew into the roles with relish. The newscasters who follow the race are a mockery of TV talking heads, with a Howard Cosell talk-alike and others who drip with insincerity as government stooges. The budget is all spent on the goofy cars, but everyone involved goes at it with gusto. The Arnie movie The Running Man has more in common with this than the Stephen King story it's based on, and while it's pacing is slow for modern audiences, there's nothing else quite like Death Race 2000. Name another movie where the doctors would roll out the elderly patients for "Euthanasia Day" only to be run over themselves. Paul Bartel knew how to make good trash, but this and Eating Raoul are his best. If you must see the "re-imagining" in theaters now, find a way to see the original.
Machine Gun Joe's murdermobile

Death Race is a another video game movie from that master of mediocrity, who should be banned from having a name similar to Paul Thomas Anderson's and Wes Anderson's. Like a dog wiping his ass across the white carpet of cinema, he's left a brown streak across the movie rack that cannot be ignored. I've seen Alien vs. Predator (the most boring of all the Alien films), Resident Evil (the worst of the trilogy), Event Horizon (probably the most overrated nerd-beloved film of all time, Hellraiser in space) and now Death Race, which mixes NASCAR, machine guns, and pinball in a prison movie. I'm told Soldier is saved somewhat by Kurt Russell, so I'll rent that the next time I've watched too many enjoyable movies and need a letdown.
Driving my career into the toilet

There's nothing surprising about Death Race. Ian McShane ("Deadwood," Sitting Target) and his gravelly voice manage to uplift his scenes, but Jason Statham coasts by, having cast off any emoting ability sometime after Cellular. I loved him in Guy Ritchie's movies, and as The Transporter, but he's really become Vin Diesel's grittier brother. Joan Allen (Manhunter, the Bourne Trilogy) must owe someone a favor; she's horrible as the steely warden Hennessy, who runs the private prison with a cool and ruthless demeanor. The problem is she only has one note. Angie Dickinson in Payback: Straight Up was believable; Hennessy is not. Hearing her say nonsensical vulgarities like "Okay you, cocksucker. Fuck with me, and we'll see who shits on the sidewalk!" is hilarious; you'd think McShane of the legendary Al Swearingen would have coached her on how to cuss!
Mad tite whip, yo

Crowd favorite Frankenstein died in his last race, so Hennessy frames ex-NASCAR driver Jensen Ames (Statham) for murder to get him to replace the masked marauder. Carradine voices Frankenstein in the opener, which was a nice touch (there are a few forgettable nods to the first movie). The rest of the drivers are all tokens- Machine Gun Joe is now a twofer, a gay black musclehead played by Tyrese Gibson (Four Brothers); 14k is the Asian nod to the ricer Fast and the Furious crowd, there's Pachenko the Russian, a nondescript Latino dude whose job is to yell vulgarities in Spanish, and an Aryan Brotherhood guy who'll be the bad guy among bad guys. I was hoping there'd be an obnoxious Guido driver so I could point up at the screen and say, "hurr! he's like me! I can now relate to this story!" They also bus in women prisoners so the gals have someone to cheer, but they are only allowed to serve as navigators- McCain must be president in 2012. The lithe ladies all have boomboxes in their cooches, which play riffs if they sway their hips in slow motion while they walk on screen. I must get Firecracker one of those. Natalie Martinez plays Frankenstein's navigator Case, so maybe it's just something hot Latinas are born with.
We need more uniforms like this in women's prison

This movie is all about the action, but it's mostly boring. Armored cars with machine-guns, flamethrowers and rocket launchers hammer at each other as they lap the track, which has Power Ups (they're actually called this) scattered around it, like Mario Kart meets Twisted Metal. The guns barely seem to hurt the cars' armor, and most kills are of the crash & explode variety. PWSA tries to up the gore factor now and then, but it's bad CG the few times we see a pedestrian get plowed. We actually see a guy explode as soon as a car touches him, for example; I'd rather have fake red blood on an actual stunt man, thanks. During the final lap, Hennessy releases "the Dreadnought," a tricked out semi with a tank gun, and its wheels have those spinning blades we've seen a dozen times- the token Asian's navigator gets chewed up by it, which involves her jiggling in her seat with her tongue hanging out. The driver doesn't even get blood on him. It would have been funnier if we just heard her scream and see him get splattered with her innards, but you can't expect clever from this Anderson.
The infamous hand grenade!

The ending seems like an afterthought and I think PWSA (pronounced Pwissa) wrote it on toilet paper in between grunts. It's as if they ran out of time, needed a prison break, and then forgot that they didn't kill the evil warden. When they do escape in their death cars, try not to roll your eyes when the guards chase them in regular old police cars, as if escape never crossed their minds; the cars are all rigged with kill switches on the weapons, but Hennessy never imagined they could be bypassed. They chase them with helicopters across the only bridge off the prison island, which is protected by ... a chain link fence. Even prisons that don't hold death races have better security than this. But we ran out of time, so they need to escape easily. So much for finales.
How the remake feels!

Jason Statham, what's gotten into you? It's an easy paycheck, I know. I really liked The Transporter. If you can't tell what made that more fun than the latest string of movies you've made, fire your agent before you lose any remaining cred. We'll always have Turkish.

And as a bonus here are two photos from Death Race 2000 that look like they're from an S&M movie, or a Batman porno.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

80's Trash of the Week: Lifeforce (Space Boobies)

A modern Hammer film with gobs of nudity, this is one of the most expensive B-movie productions ever made. It never rises above vulgarity, but it manages to be an entertaining diversion. It begins as 2001: A Boob Odyssey and ends up part Sexorcist, part zombie apocalypse, with a touch of Highlander.
Originally titled "The Space Vampires," based on the book by Colin Wilson, it was given a high-concept title for U.S. release and re-cut to be more of a blockbuster sci-fi flick. It was trounced by Cocoon of all things, and its failure helped put the final stake in the heart of Golan-Globus films. (Sorry. Cold iron. Through the abdomen, the old way). It's a shame, really- for while it is awful, it is a good sort of awful. Directed by Tobe Hooper with incredible effects by John Dykstra, with Mathilda May (The Tit and the Moon) walking around naked all the time, some scenery-chewing by Steve Railsback (Cockfighter, Barb Wire) and Patrick Stewart possessed by a lusty female vampire, it is endlessly entertaining, albeit confusing and rather like a teenage anime in its story.

Screenwriter Dan O'Bannon also wrote Alien

Another movie influenced by the coming of Haley's Comet, Hooper altered the original screenplay to include it. The space shuttle is having a rendezvous with the comet and finds an enormous, 150-mile long vessel behind it. It is organic in nature, sort of like the ship from 2001 crossed with a crusty umbrella. The shuttle is conveniently blocked from communicating with Earth by the comet, so they go investigate the ship. Inside they find thousands of dessicated bat-like creatures, and three naked humans- or at least what appear to be humans. The crew unwisely brings them back to the shuttle, and-- after an annoying flash forward-- we lose contact with them. A rescue mission finds everything barbecued except the 3 humanoids, and Colonel Carlsen (Steve Railsback) who's a bit unhinged by his experience.

Back on Earth, the humanoids are kept for study at a government lab. There the female awakens, hypnotizes her guard with her perfectly formed D-cups and some unworldly powers, and sucks the energy out of him, leaving a lifeless husk. She escapes, and soon her escorts follow suit. They can also jump to other people's bodies if they are killed, or even if they're not. Carlsen is brought to London, and we learn he has a psychic bond with the female, and they track her using him. He can sense when someone is possessed by her, and likes to beat it out of the women, and sometimes the men. Patrick Stewart, the director of a mental hospital, gets possessed by the girl and starts talking in her voice, and even wants to get it on with Carlsen. This, along with his role in Jeffrey, probably doesn't help the gay rumors. It's hilarious to watch.

Did I fall asleep in the tanning booth?

Shortly thereafter, they learn that the dead guard isn't really dead, and has to suck the life out of people, in the form of pretty blue lightning, every few hours or he'll explode into dust. By the time they realize this, a space zombie epidemic is overtaking London, as the space vampires beam our lifeforce up to their ship, to revitalize their doomed race. There are some quite spectacular effects for '85, including some very realistic looking emaciated zombie puppets, Patrick Stewart puking up gallons of blood which reform into the Space Girl from the inside out, and some lovely bat creatures when we finally see their true form. And of course, Mathilda May's buxom form strolling about nude is enough to forgive the severe shortcomings of the story. That and the performance of Peter Firth ("Spook") as the cop turned vampire hunter; he acts so naturally that we forget the confusing and bizarre jumps the plot will take.
Headshot works on space
vampires too.

As a 14 year old, I could not comprehend how feel-good dreck like Cocoon with Wilford Brimley, Don Ameche and Steve Guttenberg could trounce such fare at the box office. The old-folk demographic must have watched it in droves. 1985 was probably the last year you could depend on gratuitous boobs at the movies, and Lifeforce tried to corner the market. Just look at them. When the Space Girl (she has no name) tells Carlsen that she modeled herself after his desires, we believe it. But the movie does have problems-it tries to be too many things at once. At first we have a quiet space mystery, then a supernatural thriller, then a horror movie, then a zombie movie, and finally an attempt at science fiction. The aliens are compared to the vampires of legend, but they really don't resemble them at all; it's hinted that they visited before, but we see no evidence of how these soul-stealing aliens could have inspired the vampire myth.
Baby, you got real ugly.

The author of the book thinks the adaptation is horrid, the comet was shoehorned in without the usually dependable screenwriter Dan O'Bannon's approval, and thus the story is a huge mess. When you find out what the source of Carlsen's psychic bond, you'll wonder if M. Night Shyamalan was a script doctor. The tone varies from creepy in a good way to silly to creepy in a bad way, when Carlsen tries his sadomasochistic interrogation methods. But despite all its flaws, the movie has a certain kind of charm beyond boobies- it really does feel like an updated Hammer film or silly pseudo-science fiction film like Island of Terror; as the scientists discover the nature of the invaders, and Peter Firth's set jaw in the face of a zombie-infested London. Not bad fare for a late night.
Hey, that's not a wooden stake, or her heart for that matter.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Not with all the nudity.
Quotability Rating: Only ironically.
Cheese Factor: Stilton
High Points: Mathilda May
Low Point: Patrick Stewart mimicking Mathilda May
Gratuitous Boobies: My god, it's full of boobs!

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Where in the World is Osama bin Laden?

Sorry for getting you on a Department of Homeland Security watchlist, but that's the name of Morgan Spurlock's (Super-Size Me, "30 Days") new documentary, where instead of eating McDonald's until his liver explodes, he goes to places where Americans are told we'll lose our heads, in search of the world's most wanted man, whom the Bush administration has been unable to capture, because ... "it's not important." We've got better things to do like fight the insurgency we created, and we couldn't spare the extra troops when we thought we had bin Laden cornered in Tora Bora, so we hired locals to kill him. That worked out well.
Spurlock's documentaries can't be taken totally seriously and are never straightforward. People who responded to Super-Size Me with "duh, of course eating McDonald's every day will make you fat"-- or worse, the people who ate tiny servings and didn't gain weight in order to disprove him-- both missed the point; of course moderation or strict willpower will keep you healthy. What he was reminding us was that we're bombarded nonstop by advertisements by purveyors of unhealthy food, and it's usually cheaper or more convenient than what we're supposed to be eating.

This documentary goes a bit further, and I think it is less successful in what it wants to convey, but it is fun to watch. I like Spurlock's movie persona, and if you don't mind watching theater, this can be an enjoyable film. Of course, it preaches to the choir, really. Sort of like when Sean Penn went to Iraq to show us they weren't all America-hating fanatics, it's proving something that reasonable people have already figured out; that your average person just wants to be left alone, and if they had their druthers, would like their fellows to stop blowing each other up.

He gets the idea to go looking for bin Laden when his wife is pregnant with their soon to be daughter; after all, shouldn't he make the world safer for his unborn child, by going after the world's most dangerous man? He introduces this prank with some garish and goofy visuals, such as a video game where he strangles bin Laden with his fu manchu mustache, and a video of bin Laden dancing to "Can't Touch This," since we haven't found him in the seven years since 9/11. These set the tone. The movie will get serious here and there, but it's hardly intentional. He wants an excuse to fly around the Middle East asking people what they think of the War on Terror, which has made acts of terrorism skyrocket around the world and drain our pockets of nearly a trillion dollars in the process.

This interview is over!

Spurlock is likable and enjoyable to watch as he converses with average Muhammads from Morocco, Saudi Arabia, Israel, Afghanistan and Pakistan. He even makes a mullah laugh, the same guy who earlier was calling death to be rained on America and Israel. He's a big friendly doofus, and the only times he gets into trouble are in Saudi Arabia, when he interviews some teenage schoolkids with government permission, and gets abruptly stopped when he asks what they're taught about Jews. On the other end of the spectrum, the only neighborhood he gets chased out of is an Orthodox Jewish one in Israel, where people shout threats and throw water balloons.
Fear of a Black Hat about to cover the camera

Egyptians talk about their shitty government, how they don't bother getting involved because they know it's rigged; in impoverished areas he sees what little good millions of U.N. dollars are doing, when the money is siphoned away by local and international corruption. We see the oppressive poverty in areas where bombers are recruited, and how someone with no hope might blow themselves up just to get their family some money. He also hangs out with our troops in Afghanistan, gets to shoot a Ma Deuce and an RPG, and talks to folks in a remote village until an ambush report forces them out.
With our troops in Afghanistan, fleeing a report of an ambush.

Unfortunately, it's not that informative for anyone who'll see it intentionally, but it is entertaining. We get a thirty-second recap of our history of supporting "enemies of our enemies," and other meddling. If you already know your history, it's pretty patronizing and doesn't offer any solutions; he asks why we didn't capture bin Laden when we might have, but also admits that his capture would likely change nothing. So if you're in the mood to see the mustache dude who eat Big Macs all day fly to McNuggetstan, it's easy entertainment. Michael Moore lite- not as strident, without as forceful an agenda. And of course light in the weight department too.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Tao of Steve

Although it came out in 2000, The Tao of Steve is a '90s movie at heart, and I imagine the director and screenwriters tried to make it for a long time, without updating anything. We meet Dex (Donal Logue, Zodiac), a chubby bearded guy in a Hawaiian shirt at his 10th college reunion. He's a fat stoner slacker, predating the current run of stoner comedies, and an unlikely Lothario. How does Dex get laid so much? By using his philosophy of getting chicks, the Tao of Steve. We'll explain that later. It doesn't help the story that we're introduced to him being shot down by Syd (Greer Goodman, who co-wrote), making his seductive powers seem like wishful thinking.
The movie rides on whaleback, on the character of Dex, played naturally by Logue. He's a kindergarten teacher when he's not toking, or playing frisbee golf, pool or poker with his slacker buddies. He's got an endearing loser quality, and captures that laid back fat guy who wants to be liked archetype perfectly. He teaches the kids how to play poker. He's about as believable a teacher as Arnold Schwarzenegger was in Kindergarten Cop, but he's fun to watch. And that saves the film, because the rest of the characters aren't great company, really.

Take Dave for example (played by now-unemployed Kimo Williams, Buffalo Soldiers). He's the new dog in Dex's slacker pack, and serves only to give him someone to explain his foolproof seductive philosophy to. So, what's the Tao of Steve? First of all, a "Steve" is that cool guy who gets the girls without seemingly even trying. Like Steve McQueen, or Steve Austin, or Steve McGarrett. In case you forgot that Steve Austin was "The Six Million Dollar Man," the slackers re-enact the opening credits of the show, and dumbo Dave says "oh yeah, the 6 million dollar man!" in case you still don't get it. And if you don't remember Steve McGarrett was Jack Lord's character in "Hawaii Five-O," they helpfully play the theme on the soundtrack while the guys drum it out on the poker table. Yeah, it's one of those movies, like Reality Bites, which revels in its writers nostalgic glee and tries to force it down our throats. So how do you get to be a Steve?

1. Eliminate your desires. Very Buddhist. In other words, don't be a horndog; duh.
2. Be excellent in their presence (and not like Bill & Ted). Show off effortlessly in some manner. Dex shows how good he is with kids, mostly.
3. Withdraw. Play hard to get.

#3 is further illustrated by the mantra that men & women both want sex, but gals want it 15 minutes after men, so "if you hold out for 20 she'll be chasing you for 5."
The closest thing resembling another character is Syd, who has been with Dex but he doesn't remember it, being a stoner and all. He gets blindsided by her, probably because she's from his past before he came up with his philosophy. He loses his cool around her. She begins unraveling the weakness behind his conquest mentality, the Casanova archetype. Every narcissist is hiding a core of self-loathing, and as the film succinctly puts it: "Don Juan slept with 1,000 women because he was afraid of being unloved by one."

The revelations come on a very funny camping trip where Dex destroys his tent in a flailing attempt to kill a spider, and has to share tents with Syd, who warns him that if any part of him touches her, she has a knife. By the end of their trip, he's lost his cool and finds that he doesn't need the Tao to get with Syd, once she starts seeing the real him beneath the Steve. Being a rom-com, they have to have a break-up of sorts when dumbass Dave blurts out Dex's seductive schemes, but you know they'll get back together. The story handles this well, without being too cute.

The episodic romance is the weak point in between amusing bits where Logue builds the Dex character, based on co-writer Duncan North, a fat kindergarten teacher who banged a few of Jenniphr (spell your name right, for fuck's sake) Goodman's pals and related his game plan to her. Dex owes a lot to The Big Lebowski, another stoner slacker who liked to live in a bathrobe and would probably feed a dog whipped cream out of the spray can, too. There's a lot of clever dialogue that doesn't seem unnatural, and keeps a mild comedic energy throughout the film, but the movie is carried by this Falstaffian fatboy stoner character, spouting Taoist epiphanies and teaching young children to play poker.
As far as rom-coms go, it's above average and has more to interest guys than most films of the genre, but it's horribly dated by trying to jumpstart '70s nostalgia, and has the same '90s slacker feel of forgettable films like Reality Bites. After a little research, I found that the idea for the film came in the mid-90s and they began writing it in 1996, so that's why it feels like a '90s film. I think the only film of this type that is still watchable is Swingers, because while it does play into the short-lived swing dancing revival of the '90s, its cultural references are less obnoxious and are done on a filmmaking level, as the director mimics the characters favorite film scenes instead of just throwing stuff on the soundtrack. The Tao of Steve is decent rom-com fare and like The Baxter, About a Boy and the ultimate male-oriented romantic comedy The Apartment, a guy can watch it with his girlfriend without wanting to claw his eyes out.

Friday, August 22, 2008

Bonnie and Clyde

I didn't appreciate this movie fully the first time around- I'd just seen some Warren Beatty atrocities like Dick Tracy and Bulworth, and could barely stand to look at him. Watching it again, I can appreciate his performance as Clyde Barrow. Having seen Breathless (À bout de souffle), I can see thematic influence, even if it has its own editing style. They meet by chance when she interrupts him stealing her mother's car; he tells her he's been to prison for armed robbery, but she doesn't believe him. There's a great (and funny) shot when he draws his revolver and holds it across his waist, and Penn frames it like a porn shot; Barrow obviously dresses to the left, and Bonnie Parker is turned on even before he robs the nearest store to impress her.

The beginning of the film plays as light farce, as they rob banks in their bumbling fashion, and we expect it to be a sort of comedy; then we see him shoot an unarmed man on the running boards in the face, with the blood and gunshot in the same frame, and everything changes. It's become real, and it's not so much fun anymore. The film was daring to show the results of the violence in stark close-up, and it would keep pushing the envelope once Clyde's brother Buck (Gene Hackman) joined the gang. Though famous for the bloody violence and frenetic terror in its shootout scenes- these are not the cool collected action fantasy heroes we admire, they panic and get away by the skin of their teeth each time- the most has a lot more to offer. The cinematography (Oscar-winning, by Burnett Guffey) is simply fantastic, hinting at their inevitable deaths subtly. A cloud's shadow follows them in a corn field; when they visit Bonnie's mother, they play with some kids, and when one pretends to be killed, Bonnie knows she'll be seeing Clyde die someday.

While infamous for the realistic (if not perfectly factual) portrayal of the final ambush, Gene Hackman's death scene is much more emotional and heart-rending. Blind in one eye, barefoot and bloody, he dies surrounded by cops who have no interest in taking him in alive. In reality, it was even more brutal, with a police officer stepping on his face and preparing to deliver a final coup de grace before Buck's wife's piercing screams got to him. Much has been made of Estelle Parsons' Oscar-winning performance. She screams a lot, and Blanche Barrow hated her portrayal, but her panic is probably the most realistic performance of an average Jane caught among a bunch of cold-blooded killers. We'd like to think we'd be cool like the mechanic, but let's face it, she's annoying because her screams break the movie fantasy of gunslinging outlaws and bring us back to the brutal reality. There's little real glamor to it.

The movie is also notable for being Gene Wilder's first role as a nebbish whose car gets stolen by the gang; he chases them in another car, then tries to run away once he recognizes them. They pick them up for a ride and end up sharing sandwiches, as the gang delights in their own notoriety, and tries to play up their Robin Hood image. Bonnie kicks him and his fiance out of the car when she finds out he's an undertaker; she knows their spree will end in death and he's just one more harbinger of doom. Coincidentally, in real life this meeting actually happened, and he would be their undertaker once their race was run. Wilder's first role shows off his endearing presence, that familiar pursed lip and perked eyebrows, and slow manner of speaking that would make him a great straight man as in Blazing Saddles or alongside Richard Pryor, when he wasn't exuding the manic comic energy he had in The Producers or Young Frankenstein.

Overall this movie is an enduring classic about the American love/hate relationship with the criminal anti-hero. There is a tragic romantic aspect to their story, but in the end, we don't want to be Bonnie & Clyde, or idolize them. Neither is there moralizing. The law is shown as ruthless and shady- tormenting a blind woman, ambushing them, wanting to execute a dying, surrendering crook- and the bad guys are impotent, brash, flighty. There's a famous scene where they give an evicted sharecropper a pistol to shoot up his old farm, now property of the bank; it could have been a gleeful scene, but it's a futile gesture and the farmer knows it. Bonnie and Clyde in the headlines was more like schadenfreude for the folks who lost it all, instead of heroes.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

80's Trash of the Week: Cat People

Having recently become a cat owner, I decided to revisit this psychosexual spankfest by Paul Schrader, better known for writing Taxi Driver and directing arthouse faves like Affliction and Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters. What compelled him to remake the creepy Val Lewton horror classic Cat People as a bizarre mythical tale of kitties and titties is beyond me, but IMDb trivia says he admits that one day he was so high he refused to get out of his trailer and direct. By the end of the movie, you'll believe it.

The original was delightfully creepy and dreamlike, where a young girl's fears become a frightening reality. This one just seems tawdry and serious, because it's about people who fuck leopards. Schrader and his production designer, Ferdinando Scarfiotti, craft a beautiful mythical past that seems to exist in a timeless corner of our brains, peopled with Jungian archetypes. Rather like another psychosexual fairy tale of the '80s, The Company of Wolves, this is much darker and erotic, and while it is sometimes silly and overlong, it is unique and engaging. Unlike another "animal people" movie of the period, Wolfen, it manages to draw us in, and is probably best compared to another stylish, sexy horror film- The Hunger.

The dreamlike quality of the mythical scenes

It begins in a desert village at the dawn of human history, where an animist tribe appeases the hungry leopards by sacrificing a virgin to them; we see a beautiful young woman tied to a enormous tree, and at night the leopard comes. He doesn't eat her, so she is brought to his cave, which is curiously marked with a drawing of a cat with human hands. From here we move to modern-day New Orleans, that most lurid of American cities, always a hotbed of sexual violence, whether it be from vampires, voodoo queens, or cat people. Paul Gallier (the always creepy Malcolm McDowell) picks up his sister Irene (Nastassja Kinski) at the airport, after a long time apart. Kinski plays the virginal naif perfectly, and her sensuous body belies her behavior.
Malcolm McMeowell

Her brother is quite the opposite, and immediately gets caught in panther form when he frequents a brothel. They coop him up in the zoo, where Irene goes to visit and meets Oliver, the friendly zookeeper (John Heard). Yeah, really... see where this is going? Ed Begley, Jr. plays a rather careless curator, and Panther-Paul yanks his arm off for his troubles... and then he somehow escapes. As Irene finds herself falling for Oliver, her brother makes his own advances on her- since she is the only sexual partner who won't be torn to shreds in the climax. She rebuffs him and he goes back to hunting hookers, which eventually leads police to his basement.

As a dreamlike story of myth, the movie works great. The opening scene, with Giorgio Moroder's haunting synth theme, is great at drawing us in. Once Irene gets entangled with Paul, she behaves like a jealous kitten and takes a swipe at his colleague Alice (Annette O'Toole) while she bathes topless in the swimming pool. This mirrors the original film, which I think was much better. In Jacques Tourneur's original, Irene is young Serbian woman who thinks she is one of the cat people of her village- Satanic cultists who take the form of a black cat. That film plays it off as a psychological issue, and keeps the cat in shadows, so we're not sure if she turns into one or just thinks she does.

Unfortunately we are pretty sure people turn into cats in this one; our first introduction is a leopard under the bed in a whorehouse, where the prostitute has just left her john. It doesn't take a genius, and it's a mistake to remove any suspense about the nature of the creatures. The film does work very well as an erotic dream piece, partly through generous application of breasts, including the bountiful Annette O'Toole, and the lithe Nastassja Kinski. Malcolm McDowell's Paul is not a remorseless sociopath, but a slave to his urges; while he cuddles with a woman he knows he will tear apart, he says he feesl bad because he likes her. It doesn't stop him from nibbling a bit of her skin left on his belly when he wakes back up in human form, though.

The brother and sister have a feline grace to their movements, but occasionally it gets a bit silly, such as when Irene washes her cheeks like a cat; it happens after a formative, primal moment, after she sleeps with Oliver and loses her virginity, and I suppose it is meant to signify her transformation. It doesn't work; something more subtle was in order. The screenplay is a bit of a mess, and breaks its own rules a few times. The new ending is terrific, and bookends the story perfectly, but the way there is long and meandering. While it was certainly enjoyable seeing Ms. Kinski cavort in the nude, as stories go I prefer the original version.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? Underworld 3: Lycan Sex Party
Quotability Rating: Zero
Cheese Factor: Mild
High Points: Dreamy visuals and a litter boxful of nudity
Low Point: Script written on cocaine binge
Gratuitous Boobies: More titty than kitty

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

When the Pizza Guys Order Out... you should too

Ray's looks like your typical New York streetfront pizza parlor; it has a few stools and some benches outside. Many different slices are on display for reheating. It reminds me of a place around the corner from me called Frank's- nothing special, but dependable for a slice on the go. It's next to the A&P in Bloomfield, so there's easy parking. That's about all that places like Frank's and Ray's have going for them. They're reliably mediocre. But how bad can pizza be that the people who run the place order out?

Chinese delivery at Famous Ray's in Verona

I found out when I stopped in this Sunday. They ordered Chinese, and I snapped a photo. I dunno how Ray got famous, maybe for letting his pizzas dry out in the display case? My crust was crumbling apart. As for taste, it was decent chow. Not much to differentiate it from a Sbarro's or Villa Pizza, really. That's the problem in New York- there are a billion pizzerias, so for every Lombardi's or Grimaldi's, there are three dozen corner cockroach casas slinging pie. And they're so convenient. So "New York style pizza" in New Jersey usually means this kind of place.
They're good for something- when you get outstanding pie from a dough-slinging pizza craftsman, you not only know it, but you're thankful. While Bloomfield Ave in Montclair is a nice restaurant row showcasing everything from excellent sushi, good BBQ, tasty Cuban, soul, fish fry, deli, Turkish, breakfast and much more, it does not have a pizzeria of note. A grave shortcoming in a spot where a nice stroll could be in order. It would be nice to order a slice of Napoletano style, like from Queen Margerita or Michael's in Nutley, or even a standard Jersey thin slice like from Three Guy's in Belleville.

So if you go into a Chinese takeout place and see them getting pizza delivered, you might want to go someplace else.

Watchmen embroiled in legal battle

From the BBC:

Legal battle over Watchmen movie

Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the Watchmen
The film had been due to be released in March
Film studio Twentieth Century Fox has applied to a Los Angeles court to block the release of Watchmen, based on the comic books written by Alan Moore.
Fox, which says it bought film rights to the series in the 1980s, has been given the go-ahead to launch an injunction against rival Warner Bros.
"We respectfully disagree with Fox's position and do not believe they have any rights," a Warners spokesman said.
Fox said it "will be asking the court to enforce our copyright interests".

'Copyright interests'
The movie, about flawed superheroes, has already been filmed and was due for release 6 March. It stars Patrick Wilson and Jeffrey Dean Morgan and is directed by Zack Snyder, who made hit movie 300. Last week US District Court Judge Gary Feess said Fox could hold some of the rights to the material, even if it did not hold all rights.
Fox spokesman Gregg Brilliant said it planned to stop the release of the movie and "any related Watchmen media that violate our copyright interests in that property".
His Warner Bros counterpart, Scott Rowe, said: "The judge did not opine at all on the merits, other than to conclude that Fox satisfied the pending requirements."

Hopefully this won't delay the movie too much; Fox probably wants a bite. Otherwise why wouldn't they get them to stop filming?

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

In Honor of Bigfoot: The Legend of Boggy Creek

I dunno if you heard, but they found Bigfoot. (He was cruising in Elvis's UFO). Apparently some dudes down in Georgia found a body of a large hairy beast in the swamps known to harbor Skunk Ape, the stinky sasquatch of the South. Unfortunately when they thawed out the freezer with the body, it turned out to be a rubber suit. Big surprise there. Despite finding possum and human DNA in the samples they gave for testing. It looks like someone decided to stuff roadkill in a suit and pull a hoax, but they made a big splash, and who doesn't love a good hoax? I sure do.

Frozen rubber suit and some roadkill = media bonanza

Growing up in the '70s, there was a huge Sasquatch vibe. Bigfoot captured the perfect combination of budding environmentalism and mystery needed to soothe the malaise borne of enormous collars and paisley prints, and the creeping realization that our country was becoming a garbage-covered shithole. The idea of an angry ape in the woods, pissed off at us throwing Chunky bar wrappers and empty cans of Tab on his turf, was a tempting one. Maybe he would beat up Richard Nixon, stomp a Japanese car, and throttle an oil sheik, and we'd be number one again.
Six Million Dollar Man and his lover

There were a lot of Pissed Off Nature movies in the '70s- grizzlies, piranhas, sharks, ants, spiders, whales, frogs, worms, snakes, alligators, and even killer bunny rabbits were all out to get us. Why not sasquatch? In 1973 a quasi-documentary called The Legend of Boggy Creek was made as a low-budget labor of love by Charles Pierce and Earle Smith, who also gave us the eerie docudrama The Town That Dreaded Sundown, about a Zodiac-esque killer who haunted Texarkana in the '40s. This came first, and was perfect drive-in fare; it became a huge hit, making $20 million when movies cost 50 cents. The Godfather only made $134 million! It even inspired The Blair Witch Project with its shaky camera style.
The story told by the narrator is of when he was a child in the '40s, of the Fouke Monster- an apelike creature sighted in "the Bottoms" swampland where Arkansas, Louisiana and Texas meet. It's a haunting area, memorably depicted in Joe R. Lansdale's novel The Bottoms, which isn't about Skunk Ape but you can imagine the beast of Boggy Creek lurking in this area. The movie is more of a nostalgic documentary on rural swamp town life with occasional appearances by a huge hairy beast in the woods that's probably a bear. While it never approaches the documentarian mastery of Louisiana Story or the like, it has a down home charm to it, because many of the people who claim to have seen the creature play themselves re-enacting the sighting, or daily life.
A simpler time, when Indians didn't cry by the river.

Folk songs written for the film, such as "The Ballad of Travis Crabtree," about a young swamp hunter who'll remind you of Huckleberry Finn, give it a "Grizzly Adams" vibe. My favorite is "Where the Creature Goes," where we hear the singer pine for the creature's "lonely cries ringing out over his watery domain."

How I miss his lonesome cry.

The Boss-Man and I watched it one night, and it is definitely a window back to the early '70s. Nowadays the closest you'll get to this is stuff like "Ghost Hunters" on television, where someone recounts a spooky tale while the camera creeps around with night-vision on, and some low-budget effect recreates what they claim they saw right before they pooped their pants. The beast may be a guy in a suit, but they keep him shrouded in the dark woods where only his silhouette can be seen, and the first-time actors do a fine job of being themselves and then shitting bricks. One fellow says he took aim but wasn't sure if it was an animal or a man, and didn't want it on his conscience.
I don't have any beef jerky, dude!

So why are there still bigfoot hunters out there, even though the hoaxer who created the famous "walking ape" footage admitted it on his deathbed? It's something we'd like to believe in. I know I wish we had wild man-apes cavorting in the woods. Or something undiscovered. Cryptozoologists like to remind us that the okapi was "undiscovered" until 1902, despite natives insisting that it was out there, but that was in Africa, a much wilder place.

The sequels to The Legend of Boggy Creek were Mystery Science Theatre 3000 material, but the original has a sort of hokey, low-budget charm to it. Can you imagine an era when something like this would gross 25% as much as something like The Godfather? Well, I guess it still works; The Blair Witch Project made a bundle, was shot on a shoestring and based on vague folktales. I only saw it years later because the Discovery channel ad campaign rubbed me the wrong way. But nowadays when you hike in the woods, you'll joke more about the witch than the sasquatch. Or maybe manbearpig.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Greasy Spoons: Island Burgers and Shakes

In a little unassuming storefront in Hell's Kitchen, you can get some of the best burgers in the city slathered with homemade sauces and dozens of toppings, a delicious shake and some huge-ass cookies. Just don't ask for fries. They don't serve any. Why the ixnay on the izefray? There isn't enough room for a fryer. Once you squeeze into the shop's narrow seating area, you can see why. It's still comfy for 4 at a table, as the slinky waitresses sidle behind you with huge platters of chicken churascos, and if you're lucky you won't have to wait for one of the 5 or 6 tables. But if you have to, it is worth the wait. And you can get a huge baked potato covered in toppings instead.
We didn't try a potato. The burgers are enormous, and they have Dirty Chips- aka Zapp's Chips in the South- available in BBQ, Sour cream & Onion, plain kettle, and Jalapeno. I had mine with jalapeno, which gives a nice palate-cleansing tang between bites of burger. And you'll be taking a lot of bites. Island Burger is known for toppings, and their huge menu lists dozens of variations that you can have either as a burger or a churasco.

Fork? How about a forklift...

I decided on the Frog (boursin cheese, bacon, and fried onions), Firecracker had the Tijuana (bacon, jack, guacamole, onion), Jokerboy the Purist had a bacon and cheese, and Beast had Will's (bacon, cheddar, sour cream, onion, scallion, sourdough). We all had bacon. Bacon is the great equalizer. About the only thing on a pig that's better is perhaps the Crispy Pig's Ear at The Spotted Pig, which must be eaten in moderation. But it's so good that our two friends violated kosher to try it. The bacon here is nothing special- not thick or seasoned. The burger and the sauces made up for it.
About an entire grove of avocados.

The burger patties are half a pound- fat and juicy. They will serve them to you rare- none of that nanny state bullshit. I had mine medium, so it was pink and juicy in the center. The patty resembles a huge charred meat donut without a hole. It's fat and round like a cartoon hamburger, but well-formed so it's a bit loose inside, and doesn't feel like eating the huge chunk of meat that it is. The problem is keeping a thick burger and its generous toppings on the bun. Ours were all either on Pullman sourdough- a thick, spongy square slice of bread- or the sesame seed bun. I daresay that these may not be up to the task of holding the burger together. The ciabatta roll we saw a slab of chicken churasco riding was more like half a loaf of bread and seemed much more capable. The next time I go, I will definitely build on a ciabatta.
Even a relatively "plain jane" bacon-cheese was unwieldy.

The flavors were excellent, despite our troubles eating the messy burger. The boursin cheese was rich and creamy with lots of herbs, and the bacon seemed like an afterthough. Very few of the caramelized onion petals remained on the burger, so I couldn't tell how everything worked together. The guacamole was tangy and creamy, and I might pair that with something hot next time. I didn't see many spicy sauces, to my dismay. I like a little fire in my burger.
Ryan working on Shake #1.

That would give their excellent milkshakes and malteds something to cool off. Remember Pulp Fiction, when a $5 shake was a joke? That's milk and ice cream. They don't even put bourbon in it? Well, its time has come to pass. I was disappointed that you don't get the metal shaker- just a relatively small sundae glass. But oh, the taste. I had a black & white malted, and it was honestly the best malted I've ever had. Jokerboy had 2, which is one solution I guess. Me & Firecracker shared a "Kitchen Sink" cookie which was good- though next time peanut butter & chocolate chip will be the one we choose. This monster cookie was oatmeal-raisin-chocolate-pecan-peanut butter, and could have done without the oatmeal. At least we got some fiber. The oatmeal drowned out the other flavors, but there were nice chunks of chocolate.
Cookie Monster would be sated.

The burgers are not cheap- they cost as much as a burger & fries at a chain. But this tastes like a real homemade burger. It shocked me that I hadn't had an honest-to-Wimpy juicy hamburger at a restaurant in so long. Greasy, yes. But at Island Burgers, when you ask for medium, you get it. They don't cook them all until they are gray inside, like at Red Robin, or any number of burger chains. This is the real deal, and worth hunting down. As far as BIG burgers go, this is up there with Miss Ann's Ghetto Burgers, and the monstrous bleu cheese burger at The Spotted Pig for pairing size and flavor. Check them out. You won't regret it.

Just don't ask for fries. Besides, you can go downtown to Pomme Frites where they serve fries and no burgers.

View Larger Map

disclaimers of legal bull shitte

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 Unported License.

All writing © 2011 Thomas Pluck and may only be reprinted with express written permission of the author. You may link to pages at will. If you wish to repost anything on your website you must contact Thomas Pluck using the contact form. Thank you for your cooperation. -Robocop