Tuesday, September 30, 2008

80's Trash of the Week - Honky Tonk Freeway

From the title alone you can tell this has flop written all over it. In 1981 this was the most expensive comedy ever made. They painted an entire town pink; they blew up a freeway overpass; they made an elephant water ski. But all was for naught. Hume Cronyn, Daniel Stern, and Beverly DeAngelo's side boob could not save this huge ensemble road trip from being a thin shadow of It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World with second-string actors.

She floats; the movie sinks.

John Schlesinger directed some of the best movies of the '70s prior to slamming headfirst into guard rail of the '80s with this colossal failure, which was originally 3 hours long. He directed Marathon Man, which made a diamond-hording Nazi dentist not only plausible but terrifying. The Day of the Locust, where we cheered Donald Sutherland (aptly named Homer Simpson) as he stomped a child to death. And Midnight Cowboy, where we learned that the Statue of Liberty was taking a leak in Central Park. But as Sam Peckinpah would go from classics such as Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia to indulge in a silly but fun trucker movie like Convoy, Schlesinger didn't have a hit song to begin with.
I squinted at this side boob a lot on HBO when I was 11

Honky Tonk Freeway has a cavalcade of characters who all converge on the small Florida tourist trap of Ticlaw. The town is run by Mayor Kirby, played by the Kennedyesque character actor William DeVane. At a town meeting, he is sparring with a civil engineer who is telling the town that "extra piddly dunk town does not rate a freeway exit!" But later, he tells the Mayor that for ten grand, they can work someone out. But being a weaselly politician, he screws them over. So the town begins putting up illegal billboards to attract tourists 35 miles off course to see their town. The mayor runs a Safari Park with a drunken lion and an elephant named Bubbles that he keeps trying to get to water ski, but nothing is bringing the tourists in.
He reminded me of Randall Flagg...

While the town of Ticlaw is working on its conundrum, we meet a dozen other colorful characters on their way to Florida: Two NY garbage men turn bank robbers, calling the bank teller "turkey tits" and demanding that she cash a poor woman's unemployment check before taking off in their blue VW Beetle with the loot; Teri Garr and Howard Hesseman are a suburban couple in their new RV, with two annoying kids- Ralphie from A Christmas Story, younger here, doesn't want to pee in the motor home and demands frequent stops. And his whiny sister (who'd later be the daughter in National Lampoon's European Vacation) torments him, running the faucet. Beverly DeAngelo is a waitress taking her deceased mother's ashes to Florida. She picks them up from a drive-thru mortuary. Beau Bridges is a Dad who wants to write children's books about Licky the Carnivorous Horse, whose wife kicks him out. Hume Cronyn is a retired ad man with an cute-Hollywood-alcoholic wife, trying to enjoy retirement. Daniel Stern plays a drug-peddling hitchhiker. And there's also a wanna-be country singer transporting a rhino to Ticlaw, and singing the theme song as he goes.
I am horny therefore I shall honk at you and maybe we will have random sex.

Oh, I forgot about the Jeep full of gay guys with the "Honk if you're Horny!" bumper sticker. Sexy gal Bev first honks at them, only to see a bearded guy's face rise from the driver's lap. Oh, well! I guess you're not horny for me! They use the same joke again when George Dzundza, one of the bumbling bank robbers, honks at them to his dismay. The humor varies from low-brow like this and downright corny. The black sheriff says that the Mayor is getting so crazy with his Safari park, that next "you'll want me to carry a spear and put a bone through my nose." Blazing Saddles this is not. At a seafood restaurant, the waitress asks "Who gets the crabs?" and the gay fellas are there to say "We all do sometime, sister!"
Mine's this big too.

It has a mild anti-establishment vibe running throughout, from the expectations of government corruption and mindless bureaucracy, to druggie Daniel Stern offering everyone cocaine. He ends up snorting Beverly DeAngelo's mom. When the town is at wit's end, they blow up the freeway overpass and force all the traffic through their pink-painted podunk town, and have a swinging party. Everyone breaks out their big lapels and bell bottoms. Oh yeah, I forgot about the Hollywood model and her pimp boyfriend, and the two nuns! At the swinger's party, one of the nuns finally converts to Hedonism and runs off with Mr. Hollywood. Everyone collides in huge freeway crash when the rhino breaks out of the truck and goes wild. But at least the Mayor finally gets the elephant to water ski, and Ralphie gets to take a pee.
A Pissmas Story

Honky Tonk Freeway was an enormous flop and probably ended Schlesinger's big movie career. It was a late '70s movie made in the early '80s, begging people to stop watching the boob tube and come out to the theaters, but by then we had Ataris and VHS and couldn't care less about these Sunday afternoon family comedies. They were old and corny. They lingered on the '70s malaise, and did not wow us with robot and sparkle-infested visions of The Future. Today they only serve as a nostalgic footnote in movie history best left unremembered.

Someone tell him you wait until they are worn first.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 3
Could it be remade today? I think it was College Road Trip
Quotability Rating: nil
Cheese Factor: Limburger
High Points: a few nostalgic corny laughs
Low Point: George Dzundza sniffing panties in a store
Gratuitous Boobies: Bev's brely glimpsed side boob
Wait! there IS a boob!

Shilling my new Mini mo-blog

What's geekier than a blog? A mo-blog. That's a road trip blog, a mobile blog. And since I can blog from my Blackberry 8830 with photos, I figured I might start one when I pick up my 2009 Mini Cooper S. I can also upload photos to the laptop and then blog using the broadband card if I don't want the crappy Blackberry photos. My mo-blog is over at bluemeeny.blogspot.com and will probably take over or duplicate some of the Greasy Spoons posts if I make road trips to them. Same deal for some of the brewery visits.
I'm picking up the car tonight, but I don't think NJ will let me get a PLUCKU2 license plate. We shall see.

Sweetwater - Another fine NYC Burger

When we visited Brooklyn Brewery, we dined around the corner at a joint called Sweetwater, where Beast said her favorite burgers were made. She steered us to both Island Burgers & Shakes, and Five Guys Burgers & Fries, so we took her word for it and gave Sweetwater a try. It's a few blocks from the Bedford Ave stop of the L train, tucked around a corner in a cozy bistro.
They serve their burgers on large English muffins that look house made. The original comes with white cheddar and fries. The burgers have a juicy, steaky flavor similar to Anthony Bourdain's burger at Les Halles, but not quite as tasty. They are very good, and they are $11, a bit cheaper than Bourdain's. Definitely worth trying if you are in Williamsburg. The beer selection is better, too. The fries were not as good as Tony's, though.

I had mine with apple smoked bacon and black truffle pecorino cheese. I've had that cheese on its own and it is fantastic. Here it tasted plain and without any truffle flavor. That was disappointing. The onion rings come with curry mayo and taste quite good, if a bit flaky. They use batter instead of crumbs, and they fall apart a bit. But they are pretty good. Overall the burger is worth trying, but I would stick to the standard Sweetwater burger, perhaps with the tasty bacon if you like. It is definitely one of the better burgers, and I love English muffins for a burger, so Sweetwater makes the list for one of the best burgers in NYC.

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Monday, September 29, 2008

Dexter is back...

The third season of "Dexter" began last night, and I must say the show has grown from the novels exponentially, building strong characters from sketches by Jeff Lindsay. I was a little disappointed when I read the first book; it was an interesting idea, but the series handled it so much better. Sort of a first, wouldn't you think? The books are sort of a mix of Hannibal Lecter meets Tom Ripley, the psychopath from Patricia Highsmith's novels, set against the colorful backdrop of Miami. The series expands this, and while it may play fast and loose with the definition of a psychopath, it has been endlessly entertaining for the last two years and this season looks to be more of the same.

If you're not familiar with the basic premise, Dex (Michael C. Hall, "Six Feet Under") is a serial killer. But one of the good guys! See, he was adopted by a cop named Harry, who recognized the monster he would become, and guided him to make his targets other predators. So Dex only gets his psychopathic rocks off when he's stabbing another hunter of human flesh in his plastic-coated portable lab. The show manages to meld serial killer chic and police procedural quite well; Dex is a blood spray analyst in the forensic division, so the clues aren't always semen and DNA like the CSI shows. And we don't have to worry about trials, because Dexter metes out his own form of painful justice. And he's not perfect; he makes mistakes, and he admires a good killer so much in the first season that we're not quite sure if he wants him to get caught.

Batista, the deftly handled "center"

The show has a delightfully dark sense of humor, and a concept of justice culled from the Tales from the Crypt comics- a bad person doesn't have the same rights as us, and death is too good for them. My one complaint is that the first season makes it seem like killers are genetically wired to be surgically precise knife fighters, and if you're an armchair FBI profiler who's read books by John Douglas or Robert Ressler, you'll be smirking a lot at the pop psych the show sometimes uses. For example he has a "beard," Rita (Julie Benz, Rambo) a damaged young woman with two kids, dealing with an abusive ex. While Dexter is clueless at social relations, he actually does care about Rita and her kids, while a true psychopath would just see them as the mask he originally chooses them for. But that wouldn't make for much of a protagonist; we can deal with him tossing severed feet off his boat, but treating the pathetically wounded Rita like shit would be too much to bear.
Rita, in her early days

This time we get plunked right in the middle of Cubano politics; a bigwig's relative has been murdered, and Dexter has been dragged into the case. As usual his mouthy sister Deb (Jennifer Carpenter, The Exorcism of Emily Rose) is her own worst enemy, and the one consistent likeable character is Angel Batista (David Zayas, "Oz," Michael Clayton), the detective of the stingy-brimmed fedora and neatly trimmed goatee. Lieutenant LaGuerta (Lauren VĂ©lez, "Oz," "New York Undercover") is the power-hungry cop with political ambitions, and has a background with the bigwig (Jimmy Smits).
Dex and sis

"The Sopranos" used to piss people off by not starting off with a bang, and Dexter has avoided it this time. There's definitely blood, some twists, and a new killer to hunt down. But a show lives and dies on giving us a group of characters we enjoy the company of, and this show succeeds by making us like even characters like Deb, who are difficult to tolerate. She's so tactless and politically maladroit that you wonder who the emotionless killing machine in the show is supposed to be sometimes, but she has a charm, because you enjoy watching her fuck up all the time. If the show has a weak point, it's the sex-starved Asian guy stereotype, who's only been more badly portrayed in Robert Crais's novels.

Anyway, the season is off to a bang, or at least a meaty thud of blade piercing torso. The first two seasons are available on DVD and "On Demand" if you have the proper cable provider. Showtime has proven itself the king of the cable series after HBO ended it's trifecta of Sopranos, the Wire and Sex and the City, and has foolishly tossed beloved shows like Carnivale, Rome and Deadwood to the wind and replaced it with shit like "True Blood."

Paul Newman R.I.P.

His last film role.

We lost one of the greats this weekend. Not just a great actor, but a great human being. Paul Newman, that tall angular leading man of the ice blue eyes and scrappy attitude, passed into the great beyond this weekend, at age 83. He had cancer in his last years but you probably didn't know; he fought it with quiet dignity, and didn't become infused with a sudden need to raise money and awareness of a disease he was dying of. Besides, he already donated $250 million to charity through his "Newman's Own" products- which started as a lark and became a household name. And damn, Paw Newman makes some good cookies.
My cousin Lou Taylor Pucci got to ride in Mr. Newman's private jet when they were filming one of his last projects, Empire Falls. It was a two-part HBO miniseries based on Richard Russo's novel about a dying New England town. Lou played a teen kicked around by shitty parents and school bullies; Newman was a shiftless old moocher, and played the part with gusto. The part had shades of an early famous role as Hud, the amoral prodigal son, all growed up; it was original enough that we weren't sure if we liked it, because he hit the truth about absentee, self-absorbed family men. You want to like them, but it's like hugging a porcupine.
Holding his own against force of nature Jackie Gleason

Newman may have played heroic rebels as in my favorite film of his, Cool Hand Luke, but he made his bones playing tragically flawed men. Eddie from The Hustler, who never knew when to quit; Sully in Nobody's Fool, who was anything but; Brick from Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, living in Big Daddy's shadow; the fearsome Judge Roy Bean. Then there were the anti-heroes with that sly grin of his, such as Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, or the grifter in The Sting. Or his breakout role as Rocky Graziano in the boxing classic Somebody Up There Likes Me. Somebody sure did, and he turned those steely good looks into a serious acting career after being dismissed as another pretty face at first.
He had a sense of humor about himself too.

One of his great later roles as the washed-up lawyer in The Verdict will be on Cinemax this week. And Turner Classic Movies is certain to do a retrospective, if you need some catching up. As for me, I'm glad the race-car obsessed fellow got his last memorable role as a voice in Cars, a fitting end. Kids'll recognize Doc's voice in an old b/w film and perhaps give it a try sometime. And they'll become acquainted with unforgettable characters like Luke, or Butch Cassidy. Rest in peace, Paul. I've got some dressing of yours in the fridge, maybe I'll have some salad and hard-boiled eggs tonight while I watch you sing "Plastic Jesus" in Cool Hand Luke.

The Brooklyn Brewery Tour

We've been wanting to go on this tour for a good while- if I knew how close Brooklyn Brewery was to the L train and the Brooklyn Ale House, we would have gone a lot earlier. Nestled in the warehouse district in Williamsburg, in an unassuming barn-like structure surrounded by the horrific signs of hipster invasion- overpriced "thrift" shops full of ironic vintage wear- overlook the trust fund kids lingering about, and get your hand stamped at the door.

The operation is much bigger than the more familiar High Point Brewing Company location, and this is just where they make the draft of their specialty brews, like Brooklyner Weisse and Post Road Pumpkin Ale. All the bottling and their famous Brooklyn Lager is made upstate, at their original location. On Saturdays they give tours every hour from noon til 5pm, and afterward you can buy pints and taste samples at their bar in back. They also let you order food from local restaurants to have delivered. The back room is filled with wooden picnic tables for imbibing and camaraderie.

The tour lets you in among their mash tuns and brew kettles, and explains the process of cracking the grain, extracting the sugars, fermenting them with yeast, and so on. They also sell their used grain to a pig farm. It also gives you the colorful history of the brewery- began by a banker and a foreign correspondent who met in the Middle East and began brewing in their hotel rooms, because the "dry" countries under Muslim law forbade the sale of God's greatest gift to mankind, beer. They began selling in 1989 and are now one of the 40 biggest breweries in the nation, and in my book they narrowly edge out Samuel Adams for the best of the big boys; they have a larger variety of specialty beers available, and some of them are truly fantastic. Their Black Chocolate Stout is one of the tastiest, and their Post Road Pumpkin Ale is the second best pumpkin I've had (the best being Dogfish Head's Punkin Ale).

The brewery of course had many of their specialties available as well as their flagship Brooklyn Lager. I tried the Flemish Gold, a tasty Belgian style farmhouse ale, a hoppy flavorful brew with a spicy, fruity finish. I tried their delicious Post Road Pumpkin Ale, which has a definite spicy pumpkin pie flavor and a bitter hoppy finish, and took home a six pack. My fave was the Brooklyn Brown Ale, which is nearly as dark as their stout, and smooth with a full toasty flavor. One of the best bargains is a $15 combo of their Local One Belgian bottle-fermented special, similar to Chimay Reserve, and two gold-rimmed, stemmed flutes. I picked up that for later, and some other goodies like a t-shirt and a handy bottle opener keychain.

The website mentions a Happy Hour from 6pm to 11, but can't find any details about it- we would have gone back after dinner! It's a good bargain for the area, because you buy chips for your beers- $6 each or 6 for $24, and just try to find a beer this good for $4 in the city. If you're a beer lover, the tour is educational and enjoyable, and if you haven't had a chance to sample their great variety of beers, this is a great way to do it. The brewery is a short walk from the Bedford Ave. stop of the L train, and if you're looking for ironic items to decorate your apartment with, you can duel with the hipsters and scavenge in the local thrift shops.

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Friday, September 26, 2008

Go Speed Racer, Go!

We need to have a self-indulgence intervention for anyone who made successful trilogy. Peter Jackson inflicted a 3+ hour remake of King Kong on us, and now the Wachowski Brothers have turned a simplistic '60s cartoon into a 135 minute candy-colored epic in dire need of a date with the cutting room floor. It's enjoyable, and I regret not seeing its fantastic visuals in IMAX, but after 2 hours of eye candy, I feel like Chim-Chim and Spritle after eating that box of sweets. Too much of a good thing.

For a long movie, Speed Racer's story is simple- young boy Speed (Emile Hirsch, Into the Wild) grows up idolizing his brother Rex, a pro racer who dies digraced in a crash in a road rally. He follows his footsteps, with daddy Pops Racer (John Goodman channeling Mario) building designing the Mach 5, a bizarro supercar originally based on the Ford GT40. These cars are from the cartoon world and have futuro power plants, rocket boosters, and can flip and bounce around like pinballs; fitting, as the race tracks inhabit a neon and chrome pinball world where the winner is the last unexploded car. It's a lot of fun to watch, and they set it up well by giving us that familiar primary color palette from Dick Tracy, and a suburbia with garish chrome and pink concept cars in every driveway.

Speed grows up with his only friend Trixie (Christina Ricci, Black Snake Moan) defending him from the bullies who want to beat him up because his brother races dirty. All he cares about are cars and befitting his name, he has a short attention span. Thankfully for us, Ritalin is unprescribed in this world, and he becomes a young contender in the racing circuit. As his talent emerges, a billionaire race team owner named Royalton comes to recruit him. Played with pompous oily zest by Roger Allam, he tries to lure young Speed with riches and glory. When Speed finds out that the big races are all fixed, he of course rejects Royalton's offer, even though it means the overlords of racing will drag his family name through the mud.

The only man who fights the corrupt racing moguls is the shadowy figure known only as Racer X (Matthew Fox, Jackoff from "Lost"). A stony, stubbly mannequin in a black, X-emblazoned racing suit, he saves drivers from torture by crime bosses when they refuse to fix races. One of the best scenes of the movie is X's intro, when he comes to the rescue of a driver about to have his drivin' hands fed to piranhas in a mobster's fish tank. In the back of a luxury semi trailer, of course. It's too bad everything in Speed's world wasn't vehicular; restaurants all drive-thrus, RVs for homes. They took a step toward this at Royalton's Willie Wonka car factory, where everyone rides Segways and their jobs seem to consist of driving them around a circular building on colored lines.

Racer X also saves Speed's butt from the racing cartels, and Inspector Detector asks him to fight for the good guys. One of the pressured racers will spill the beans on Royalton if he can win one last race to clear his family name; it ends up being the same road rally where Rex died in a fiery crash, and Pops refuses. And of course Speed does it anyway, adding defensive gadgets to the Mach 5, like buzzsaws under the chassis to duel against the dirty racer's tire spikes.

The movie is really about the races and the colorful drivers, and the increasingly intricate tracks. My favorite is the road rally in the middle of the interminably long film, where three bribed racing teams try to take out Speed's trio. The Flying Foxes, two gals in pink cars; a gang of Vikings whose vehicles are festooned with morningstars and Thorian hammers, and Snake Oil, the whiny guy the cartels have fixed to win, who likes to fling rattlesnakes into other people's cars. This ridiculous race is great fun to watch, and the pinball physics as the cars bounce around is quite amusing. However, as another reviewer noted, it's still not as exciting as the only good thing that came out of The Phantom Menace, that being the pod race. The Wachowskis have great visual style, but they aren't that good at exciting chase scenes.

The movie must have been fantastic in IMAX, if you fell asleep for half of it. They use imaginative wipes, with character's faces, other obvious objects, and so on. This is cute once in a while, but it happens every few minutes and we begin to expect it. Chim Chim and Spritle are painfully annoying, and we find out that the idea of a monkey throwing poo is a lot funnier than actually seeing it happen. John Goodman is fun as Pops in one scene where they are attacked by ninjas, but is mostly wasted; he should have gone back to his Raising Arizon days. Christina Ricci sets the right tone, and Hirsch plays Speed's single-minded character well, but Fox and Goodman play it too flat. They don't realize they're in a cartoon.

Some of the visual playfulness, most notably the huge throwbacks to the original cartoon, are out of place and annoying. I liked the race scenes with the crazy lensflares and flashing colors, but did we need to see Spritle and Chim-Chim attack bad guys with the signature low-budget speed-line backgrounds they used in the '60s? It ruins the pacing of an otherwise enjoyable fight between the thugs and the race team. The film's fatal flaw is its enormous, indulgent running time. Like Jackson's King Kong, which took a 100 minute story and dragged it to over three hours, the Wachowski's take a beloved childhood object of nostalgia that worked well at 30 minutes (minus commercials) and make it intolerably long. The scenes drag on, and there's a long drag between the race scenes, which don't get exponentially crazier as you'd expect.

Of course, I should've seen it on the big screen or IMAX. I can't fathom how long it would have felt then. I'd have left to pee and never come back. I'm not sure how kids would tolerate it, but on DVD, with fast forward and pause, it may keep the ankle-biters occupied for long afternoons. It's a nice test of your Hi-Def screen, but you won't be sitting through it again without chemical entertainment.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Weezer at the Garden

Firecracker and I went to see Weezer last night at Madison Square Garden. I was a huge fan of their original Blue album, and while their subsequent releases have not been as great, they always manage to come up with a good song or three. Their latest, the Red Album, has a few good singles ranging from the ubiquitous "Pork and Beans" that's on radios everywhere, the rockin' "Troublemaker" and my persona favorite, the wacky rap-rock-ballad "The Greatest Man Who Ever Lived."

They performed all of those last night, and a bevy of their classics and a few good covers. Just about the only song I pined for was the nerd anthem "In the Garage," but overall it was quite a satisfying concert. Tokyo Police Club and Angels and Airwaves opened for them. We caught some of A&A who were pretty good; first time I'd heard them, they seemed like a more alt-rock Muse to me but I only heard one song. I wanted to see Tokyo Police Club, but I wasn't up for 4 hours of concert last night. We're both sick.

Weezer had a nice LED background lightshow going on, and opened with "My Name is Jonas," one of my faves. From the first album, they also played "The Sweater Song," "Say it Ain't So," "Only in Dreams," and of course, "Buddy Holly" as an encore. Other faves like "Hash Pipe" and "El Scorcho" made the cut, too.
Playing in Devo suits

They had a promotion before the concert- if you could play an instrument, you could audition to play with the band on stage. For the encore, they brought out 30 people with various instruments, from banjos and a sitar, flutes, accordions, saxophones, trumpets and a cowbell. They all played along to two songs, unfortunately including "Beverly Hills." It was fun, but thankfully they only did two songs.
The lucky winners

They covered "What's the Story Morning Glory" by Oasis, and "Sliver" by Nirvana. I felt like one of the only people who recognized and liked when they broke into "Gramma take me home!" They covered it well, and I'll never get to see the original band play it so I enjoyed it. Overall it was a good concert- they played well, and a good variety of old and new. The gimmick wasn't great, but I'm sure it was a blast for the musicians. It was not quite as cool as when Crowded House brought a school choir on stage. It's more fun to watch kids have a blast than bearded hipsters and frat boys.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

80s Trash of the Week: Reform School Girls

"You're just a shit-stain on the panties of life."

Now these are the kinds of '80s movies I truly miss; over the top exploitation films that would go direct to video today. The "caged women in heat" concept, played for the younger generation and set to bad-girl metal bands, was ripe for the plucking in the hairy days of '86. Wendy O. Williams, the sexy metal queen of the Plasmatics, would team up with the unlikely addition of Sherri Stoner- who would go on to voice Slappy Squirrel in "Animaniacs" and be the live model for Disney princess Belle, and Ariel the mermaid. With the fearsome Andy Warhol fag-hag Pat Ast playing Edna the cruel prison matron, Reform School Girls is a deliciously over the top prison drama, a '50s exploitation film filthied up for the trenchcoat and hand-lotion crowd, and a '80s girl-metal soundtrack for the teens.

The story begins when bad girl Jenny gets caught helping her boyfriend rob a store, and gets thrown into reform school (Never mind that all these girls look like they're in their early 30s, and Wendy O is pushing 40). There she hooks up with fellow fresh meat Nicky and takes the fragile Lisa (Sherri Stoner) under her wing. Immediately they get drubbed down by the towering matron Edna, who could be the love child of John Waters regulars Divine and Edith Massey, with a dose of Hatchet Face from Cry-Baby thrown in. Every line of hers is over the top campy drama, and she informs her prisoners that she believes in "complete control." She's the underling of the severe Warden Sutter, played by '70s hot heroine Sybil Danning- probably best known for her cameo as the "Werewolf Women of the SS" in Grindhouse- who dons Nazi-esque gear and struts around looking serious.

Wendy O as the tough bitch Charlie

The school nurse is the lone bleeding heart who cries out against the torture and abuse the girls undergo, and she is stymied at every turn by the sadistic leaders of the "school," which is run more like a prison camp. The girls make license plates and dig the fields, but we never see a teacher or a class. There are however, lots of shower scenes. Within the first 15 minutes the new girls need to be hosed down and sprayed for lice, and whenever we need a break from their hard life of hanging around the dorms in lingerie and bondage gear, they take a shower. It's sweaty work, and their boobies need constant washing, rinsing, and re-soaping.

Director Tom De Simone knows what viewers of a movie called Reform School Girls are looking for; not only was his directing background in porn, but he was the screenwriting genius behind Chatterbox, a movie about a woman with a talking vagina. Not only does it talk, it sings. And more embarrassingly, I know about this movie because my Dad bought it on laserdisc. I sadly never got to watch this masterpiece, but from what I can see, Reform School Girls is actually much better. Which isn't saying much.

Fragile Lisa has a stuffed toy bunny that she keeps in memory of her dead brother, but Edna keeps tormenting this obviously disturbed child out of pure sadism. First she burns the bunny, then she puts her in solitary, and finally sets her gang of bull dykes loose on her. Led by Wendy O., they're straight out of campville, dressed in lingerie and S&M gear as they serve iced tea to Edna, while the rest of the girls slave in the hot sun on the farm. Out in the wild the girls find trouble; Jenny sleeps with the guy who drives the work truck, hoping that he'll sneak her out, but of course he just uses her for a quick hop in the sack, and turns her in. They also find a kitten wandering in the field, and sneak it back to the dorm. Leading one of the sassy black chicks to say, "the last thing this dorm needs is another pussy!"
Would you like the TWA coffee or the TWA tea?

The film does have a sense of humor about itself, and its audience; the first time the new girls bed down in the dorm and Edna turns out the lights, she bellows "Keep your fingers above the sheets. We only change them once a week!" to tease the prurient viewers hoping to see the gals pleasure themselves. The sheets stay clean- this won't be running after 1 AM on Skinemax. If only it took itself a little less seriously, or had the subversive genius of a John Waters behind the helm, it would be more than a nostalgic hard rock and hard nipples trip.

Edna and Sutter keep spiraling into further sadism, and when the kitten is discovered, the fat matron chases it down and stomps on it. Wendy and her girl gang force poor Lisa into their initiation, and brand her ass with a hot coat hanger- fittingly a circular "O" as in Wendy's middle initial. This drives the poor girl over the edge, and when she tries to escape, the evil Edna chases her up the guard tower, where she tumbles to her death. This is the final straw for Jenny, who leads the girls in destroying their dorm. Warden Sutter seals her own doom by throwing Wendy in solitary for joining in the mayhem, and the girls decide to march on the prison reform board who is visiting, to tell the truth about the vile goings-on. This leads to a fiery and violent climax, with the girls attacking the guards with garden tools- ho's wielding hoes- and a delightful ending with Evil Edna hollering "COMPLETE CONTROL!" from the burning guard tower as she fires about 80 shots from a shotgun.
Poor kitty.

If you like trash, this is an '80s classic. Back then we loved it; heavy metal music (we still used the 'heavy' prefix then) and lots of boobies, with the cast strutting around in lingerie the whole time? If HBO had a pause button, this would have been burned on the TV screen of many a teen boy, and I'd be one of them. It's a veritable spankfest if you don't double over laughing at the bushy '80s hairstyles (above and below!) The incomparable Pat Ast would reprise her role in the Motley Crue "Smokin' in the Boys Room" video, and Wendy O would go on to sing with Lemmy and go on stage wearing only whipped cream. The soundtrack by Wendy O. Williams, Girlschool, and the Screamin' Sirens is quite good, and the generic synth that plays when someone is sneaking around is hilarious.
Wendy leading the riot

The best quote of the film by far is when Edna sells out Wendy: "You're nothin' but a dumb-ass kid from Cleveland, a shit stain on the panties o' life." To which Wendy replies, "You should know, you lick 'em every night!" It's good trash if not great trash, and MOJO+ is playing it in HD. So give it a watch instead of Skinemax, you pervert.

R.I.P. Wendy, shock rocker extraordinaire
Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? It would be horrible and PG-13
Quotability Rating: medium
Cheese Factor: sharp cheddar on a tuna melt
High Points: Sherri Stoner getting her ass branded
Low Point: Sybil Danning not getting a bigger role
Gratuitous Boobies: A-plenty!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The El Mariachi Trilogy

While I enjoy the revisionist westerns Hollywood's been pumping out, and even the more standard ones like the enjoyable but overrated 3:10 to Yuma remake, nothing beats a good spaghetti western for me. The Man With No Name. Django. Trinity. And no one's making them like that anymore, not even Takashi Miike with Sukiyaki Western Django. The closest we've gotten is from Robert Rodriguez, when he sprang onto the scene with his $7,000 indie El Mariachi in 1992, and expanded it into a loose trilogy with the over the top Desperado and the more indulgent Once Upon a Time in Mexico. They tell the story of an innocent mariachi who gets caught in the crossfire between two warring drug cartels who mistake him for a killer with a guitar case full of guns, painting a bloody canvas of exuberant excess. He must have had a lot of fun making them, and it's infectious.
Still one of the best low budget films of recent note, up there with Clerks and Primer, El Mariachi was infamously funded by Rodriguez signing up as a guinea pig for testing a cholesterol drug. Filmed on a budget of $7,000 using locals as actors, a broken wheelchair as a dolly, and guns borrowed from the police department, he still manages to craft an enjoyable and original take on the old tale of mistaken identity. The story begins with an out of work mariachi wandering into town, guitar case in hand; he looks for a job in a local cantina, but in an amusing, sped-up sequence, he finds that his musical tradition has been replaced by a cheap synthesizer. In the meanwhile, a drug lord puts a hit out on his partner Moco who's running things from jail. The hitmen fail, and Moco is out for revenge, lugging a guitar case full of assorted weaponry.

It's good fun, is paced well, and the amateur actors feel more natural thanks to subtitles. It wears its low budget as a badge of pride, and Rodriguez shows the buds of his comic, cartoonish style in several scenes. The mariachi has to survive mostly with his wits, sliding across a power line and narrowly missing being hit by a bus, running between two thugs with machine guns so they shoot each other. There's comic relief too, such as when he sings for his life in the bathtub to an angry barmaid with a knife jabbed at his junk. Rodriguez's school pal Carlos Gallardo plays the Mariachi, and really fits the part of the innocent but wily man caught up in things beyond his control.
It holds up 16 years later, and feels timeless. Sure, he uses too many gimmicks like a wide-angle lens, but until Primer came out, I couldn't imagine a film this good made so cheaply. And this was on film, now digital cameras have made it easier for everybody. I saw it in theaters when it got picked up, and watching it again makes me wish more backyard film makers like Rodriguez got their chance.

Desperado is the story continued with a budget of $7 million, still miniscule for an action film, but more fun than most Hollywood blockbusters. With Antonio Banderas as the nameless Mariachi, we meet him again after everyone's favorite rat-faced weasel Steve Buscemi walks into a bar and tells a tall tale of a mariachi shooting up the place. The cast is full of such cameos; Cheech Marin is the bartender, Quentin Tarantino plays a pickup man. The Mariachi is still seeking revenge, hunting down the thugs of the drug cartel, but now they strike back. Bucho is the new leader, played as a delicious parody of the angry villain by Joaquim de Almeida (Ramon Salazar from "24"). While the villain in the first movie just liked lighting matches on his henchman's faces, Bucho gets so incensed that he's almost as fun to watch as Banderas on a shooting spree.

Ridiculous gunplay is the norm here- with a sawed-off scattergun or a pair of pistols hidden up his sleeves, he shoots his way through cantinas and cars full of thugs, in one imaginative set piece after another. He's not bulletproof though, and ends up being saved by a slinky book shop owner named Carolina played with gusto by Salma Hayek. She patches his wounds and of course gets into trouble with Bucho and his thugs. Another great cameo is by Danny Trejo as a silent, knife-throwing assassin sent to take out el Mariachi. He wears a vest covered with little cross-shaped throwing knives, and steals his scenes with his tattooed, hulking presence.

The final battle comes when Bucho sends his thugs in an armored limo. The Mariachi needs to call in his old buddies, one is Carlos Gallardo, the original Mariachi, with two guitar case gatling guns, and the other with a rocket launcher! Yeah, it's silly but they have lots of fun playing on the gunslinging guitar hero theme. The sense of humor that pervades the movie is carried perfectly by Banderas, who can swing from being a bad-ass one moment, to a self-effacing comic hero the next. Hayek plays right along with her iconic tough yet sexy Latina, and the pair have great chemistry. Too bad they haven't worked together that often.

Los Lobos provides the great soundtrack to the rising body count and once again it's amazing what Rodriguez does on such a small budget. It never has pretentions of grandeur and just wants to be a fun action film, and succeeds on all counts in that respect. Sure, it ends a little abruptly and the storytelling isn't very polished, but I'd say this is the best of the trilogy. Following the Star Wars rule, the third entry should be a self-indulgent mess.

Thankfully Once Upon a Time in Mexico is not as bad as a Matrix sequel, but it is a sharp turn from the fun-loving light-heartedness of the second film, and that turned many people off. The title is a nod to Sergio Leone's films; the Man With No Name was a loose trilogy with Clint Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, which were all straightforward westerns that reinvented their genre and have a coherent tone throughout. Afterward, Leone wrote his epitaph to the old west with Once Upon a Time in the West, with all new characters and a more artistic eye; Charles Bronson played a man named "Harmonica," who also sought revenge for a past wrong and carried a musical instrument. The story of his vengeance is woven through a picture of the pioneer west getting shackled by greedy powers and the evil men they hire to do their work.
In Rodriguez's epic climax, the Mariachi has settled alone in a remote village where old men make fine guitars, and he has retired from gunslinging. He is found by a CIA man named Sands, played by Johnny Depp with the usual quirky panache. He wants el Mariachi to take out a general who's planning a coup- after he does it. He knows he'll take the job... because General Marquez is the man who lusted after, and killed, his wife Carolina. So some time has passed since we left them; we get to see a wonderful tall tale of Mariachi & Carolina's exploits as told by ... Cheech Marin, this time as an eye patch wearing Mexican twin of Ben Franklin.

Therein lies the problem with the story; it begins as a downer, and doesn't get much better. We get some exciting flashback scenes that recall Desperado's sense of fun, such as the gun-slinging couple escaping the General by swinging down a series of windows, fire escapes and flagpoles while shackled together by the wrist. But they are all too fleeting. The labyrinthine plot centers on many characters, not just Johnny Depp's amusing if somewhat out of place wacky CIA guy. There's also Willem Dafoe as Barillo, an immensely powerful drug lord; Eva Mendes as a sexy and tricky Mexican Federale, Ruben Blades as a retired FBI agent whose partner was murdered by Barillo, the new reformist President and his staff, and Mickey Rourke as a colorful chiahuahua-toting, purple-suited henchman who wants out. It's an entire season of "24" jammed into 100 minutes, giving us little quality time with el Mariachi and his guns.

And yes, there are two more gunslinger mariachi pals this time, a drunk and Enrique Iglesias, both of whom are meant as comic relief but are ultimately forgettable. Rodriguez aimed for the stars with this one, and the ensemble cast makes for much of the enjoyment. Danny Trejo is back as a vicious enforcer, and there's an amusing battle on motorbikes through a market and a cactus field, but this story is more about colorful characters and the peculiarities of Mexican politics than the free-spirited action of the first two. That doesn't make it a bad movie, but it's a definite twist on the story, and I think it may have needed epic length to better handle all the characters, plotlines, and betrayals it contains.

The movie has its share of fun and disturbing imagery, sometimes combined; Depp's comeuppance is particularly memorable, and the mariachis have even more destructive goodies in their guitar cases this time. Part of it is a fantasy that has the people rising up against the evils of the drug cartels and corrupt military that have choked Mexico for centuries, but that's something deserving of a longer storyline that isn't as confusing as this one. I was never bored, but I didn't care much about what happened, either. I wanted more of the Hayek-Banderas chemistry that the beginning teased us with, but it's a fitting capper to the El Mariachi tale.

Rodriguez has since gone on to direct successful kid movies like the Spy Kids trilogy, gorefests like From Dusk Till Dawn and Planet Terror with pal Quentin Tarantino, and probably his biggest hit, the super-stylized adaptation of Frank Miller's Sin City. Right now he has two sequels to Sin City in the pipe and another kid movie called Shorts; I hope someday he returns to making movies in his mythical spaghetti western-style Mexico, with guitar cases full of guns and other excesses. El Mariachi's story may have been told, but there's more tales in Mexico than his and the vampires at the Titty Twister!

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