Sunday, November 30, 2008

Tony's Hot Hot! Hot Dogs

I'm not sure if the owner has a stutter or was just being cute, as the place was manned by a teenage girl holding court with her friends, who looked straight out of suburban thug central casting- the fat guy with holes in his shirt, a beard you can lose a rack of ribs in, and sandals; the shaved head guy with the beard, and the lanky guy in the hoodie. Before long, Joe Bag-o-donuts showed up with his elderly charge, which would have given Sopranos tourists at the nearby Holsten's ice cream shop- where the last episode ended- a bit of authentic Jersey flavor. The hot dog joint would too, but not the best of the area.
They don't top the Dover Grill but they make a decent dog if you load it will toppings. Milky created the bacon bits-cheese-chili-onions monstrosity pictured here... I had one with hot onions and sprinkled more crushed red pepper on it since the onions were weak. The fries were a bit underdone too. This is so close in proximity to Rutt's Hut in Clifton and J.R.'s hot dog truck that there's really no reason to go here unless you're stuck in traffic at the corner of Broad & Watchung in Bloomfield and feel a hankerin' for a hot dog. Not bad but nothing special. The loaded one tasted good but I imagine if the hotdog fell out and only the toppings remained, it would be nearly as good. So Tony... Buster Poindexter says you are not hot hot hot.

Saturday, November 29, 2008

El Topo

I'm so glad I finally watched this. I expected it to be much more difficult, and while I don't profess to understand what Jodorowsky was saying with it, I can say I enjoyed it completely, and like a Fellini film constructed of symbols, I will be watching it again and again. El Topo, or "the mole," is the story of a gunslinger's journey from the darkness into enlightenment. And when the mole finally sees the sun, "he goes blind," so says the narrator...
Never has a story thrust me into an archetypal, surrealistic world so swiftly and successfully. A man in black riding a horse across the desert, holding an umbrella. Like the famous scene in Lawrence of Arabia, as he approaches, the speck becomes a man; but this time, the man is holding a naked boy on the horse in front of him. Is he really El Topo's son, or does he symbolize the child within? What the hell is he doing with a naked kid when he could throw his cape around him? The film's Catholic imagery worked against it, but John Lennon urged a friend to buy the rights and promote it, and it became an instant cult hit.

It keeps the same queasy tone from there, as he wanders through a blood-soaked town where every villager has been slaughtered, and continues on a spaghetti western acid trip reminiscent of Django, the Man with No Name, and Johnny Guitar populated with grotesques and creatures of the id. It's enjoyable because it works on both the classic "what the fuck?" level and as a surrealistic exercise, like reading Finnegan's Wake- trying to make sense of the language invented for the film, and how the story, bizarre as it is, mirrors the Jungian quest archetypes and the cycles of life. As he goes from one master gunfighter to the next, they become increasingly bizarre; one is two men, a man with no legs strapped to a man with no arms, another merely sits in a pen with dozens of rabbits.

I loved every minute of it. It's also suffused with humor, poking at other surrealists such as Bunuel and his foot fetish, and Fellini's parades of grotesques. So while it is an exercise in surrealism, it has more in common with allegorical tales like The Silent Flute (Circle of Iron) and off-kilter bizarro westerns like Six-String Samurai than Viridiana. Fans of bizarre bloody films can like it for its surface, and those who enjoy unhinged surrealism a la Eraserhead and Lynch's other masterpieces.

Wednesday, November 26, 2008


Blog Cabins came up with an amusing alphabet meme- your A-Z of movies. Here's mine.

A is for Airplane!, who fell down the stairs
B is for Birdy, assaulted by bears
C is for Chinatown, who wasted away
D is for Dark Star, thrown out of a sleigh
E is for Eyes Wide Shut who choked on a peach
F is for Forbidden Zone, sucked dry by a leech
G is for Ghost World, smothered under a rug
H is for Harvey, done in by a thug
I is for The Iron Giant, who drowned in a lake
J is for Jacob's Ladder, who took lye by mistake
K is for Kiss Me Deadly, who was struck with an axe
L is for The Limey, who swallowed some tacks
M is for The Muppet Movie who was swept out to sea
N is for The Night of the Hunter who died of ennui
O is for Orgazmo run through with an awl
P is for Popeye tramped flat in a brawl
Q is for The Quiet Man who sank in a mire
R is for Ronin consumed by a fire
S is for Swept Away... by an Unusual Destiny in the Blue Sea of August who perished of fits
T is for Titus who flew into bits
U is for Unbreakable who slipped down a drain
V is for Les Visiteurs squashed under a train
W is for WarGames embedded in ice
X is for Xanadu devoured by mice
Y is for Yojimbo whose head was knocked in
Z is for Zardoz, who drank too much gin

apologies to the late Edward Gorey

Five Napkin Burger

We've wanted to try this boldly named NYC burger joint since we passed it on our journey to Island Burgers & Shakes. In Hell's Kitchen lies this upscale version of a burger bar, and they deliver a big juicy burger that lives up to the name. But is it that much better than Island? Let's see.

For one thing, they have fries at Five Napkin, and a lot more tables. They serve your burger with a nice little mess of shoestring fries done crispy with lots of flavor. They also have cornmeal-dusted onion rings, but at $7.25 for a "tower" of 7 or so rings, they sting the wallet. The rings are very good, nice and crispy, and if you could get half rings/half fries like at the Burger Shoppe, it would be ideal. They also have a stellar beer menu, with everything from big bottles of Chimay and stout to a fine selection of bottled micros, and their own nut brown ale on tap. They also had Abita Light, but who wants a light beer when you're getting a big-ass burger?

And what a burger. 10 ounces of fresh ground chuck. I ordered the standard Five Napkin, which comes with comte cheese, caramelized onions and rosemary aoili. I had mine cooked medium and that made a big difference compared to the girls who got the cheddar bacon variety medium-well. Mine was thick and juicy, and for the burger alone I must say it nudges Island for second place, but still stands below the ground-to-order burger at downtown Les Halles. But for overall burger experience- the buttery bun that holds the ten ouncer with aplomb, the dollop of rich aoili atop a blanket of stringy comte cheese- makes for a challenging rival to Bourdain's more pure burger. It's pretty close. Every bite is a luxurious, decadent mouthful of flavor, with the beef not overwhelmed by the toppings.
But is it worth $15? Sure, you get fries. But you can get a similar burger for almost half that at Island, which tastes nearly as good. So it's up to you- if you like an upscale diner atmosphere with a stellar drink menu, a deep-fried pastrami-wrapped pickle appetizer, and a menu with a half-dozen sushi rolls available (at a burger joint? wtf?)-- Five Napkin Burger is your choice. Plus you can get reservations at Open Table (we had to wait a half hour, after changing our table from 2 to 6). But if you'd rather stroll in to a cozy spot with an enormous amount of toppings- but chips instead of fries- Island Burger & Shakes is for you. I know if I come back here I'll try the Lamb Kofta burger and the pastrami fried pickle. But if someone else orders the 5 Napkin* burger, I'll beg for a bite. It's damn good.

* five napkins are not supplied, to our great dismay. You get one (1) cloth napkin. A marketing gimmick failure.

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Monday, November 24, 2008

The Dover Grill

New Jersey may be the king of hot dogs fried in vats of oil (see Hiram's and Rutt's Hut for proof) but NYC has held sway with the mighty Crif Dog, who rule the toppings mountain. Now we have a contender for that category, in Dover. Milky and I just hiked around Lake Ramapo to see the ruins of Van Slyke Castle when a powerful hunger came over us on the drive home. So we perused the Munchmobile Book from the Star-Ledger and found The Dover Grill.

On the slow eastern side of Route 46, where its riddled with traffic lights, you'll find this unassuming hut on a traffic triangle next to an ice cream parlor. Parking is around back across the street. At first glance it's nothing special, but once you eye the menu, you'll see otherwise. They offer a tantalizing selection of toppings, including a bacon dog, which everyone should try at least once.

Here they don't wrap the dog in bacon like at Crif, but it sits alongside the slender Sabrett's link before being lavishly slathered with toppings. They run out of sauces and toppings at times, and we had to forgo the Hawaiian dog with pineapple, but we had the All the Way #4 and the American dog. And what's an American dog? Overdoing it. A crisp slice of bacon, chili, creamy cole slaw and jalapenos. This is pretty close to the infamous Spicy Redneck at Crif's in style, but falters in execution. It's just too small and sloppy. But for $2.50 it's at least half the price and tastes oh so good.

They also have Birch beer, cream soda, black cherry soda, pina colada and fruity drinks. But the real treat is for those of us who like hot onions. My mainstay has been J.R.'s hot dog truck but now they have competition- the hot onions at the Dover Grill are a tad on the sweet side, but you can order them on your crispy, golden crinkle-cut fries! They come on the side and you can dip your fries right in. Chili & cheese are available for the purists, but hot onion fries are a tasty and original treat worth the drive for.
So Crif Dog may not be driven out of business by this little hot dog hut, but the next time I consider the tunnel tolls or the shuffle of public transportation necessary to get from North Jersey to the Crif, I may just hot in the car and drive over to the Dover Grill. Sure I'll need twice as many dogs to fill me, but it will cost a bit less. The Spicy Redneck still reigns supreme, but it's little brother- the American Dog at the Dover Grill- is worth trying when you're not in the mood to head into the city. We'll be back to try their other flavors too, they've got a bunch and they all sound great.

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Friday, November 21, 2008

Pushing Daisies... perhaps too apt a title now

It is with great sadness that I read about one of the best and original comedies on television, "Pushing Daisies," will be doing just that next season. Never has a title been so perfect a pun since "Six Feet Under" ended. And it's a damn shame, because Pushing Daisies is a more original show and one of the few things I looked forward to watching on prime time these days.
Perhaps it was too quirky for its own good. The basic premise? A virtuoso pie maker named Ned has a secret gift- his touch can bring things back from the dead. But only for a minute, then something else must die to take its place. And if he touches you twice- you're dead for good. It's a bit silly, but I like when magic has its rules. Otherwise you end up with day-walking vampires chugging holy water martinis with garlic-stuffed olives, and that's just lame. Daisies was crammed with amusing characters, from Emerson Cod- the bulky black private eye (Chi McBride from Narc, The Frighteners) who uses Ned's gift to help solve murders, to Ned's childhood crush Charlotte aka "Chuck"- who he can never touch- because he saved her once. Probably the only man who appreciates condoms. The starry-eyed and star-crossed couple are played by Lee Pace (The Fall, Infamous) and Anna Friel (A Midsummer Night's Dream).
Rounding out the cast are Swoosie Kurtz and Ellen "Suddenly Seymour!" Greene (Little Shop of Horrors) as Chuck's eccentric aunts, who live in Grey Gardens-style reclusivity, and the delightfully named Olive Snook. Who is, of course, a snook who's in unrequited love with Ned, and the show's sharpest-tongued smartass. And it's biggest doofus. Your typical show will consist of Emerson using Ned to solve a bizarre murder- the show has killed people with bees, exploding steam ovens, and cement mixer-magic tricks gone wrong in the last month alone- while the quirky crew shuffles around their mutual webs of deceit in the pie shop.

You can't go wrong with pie, and the show has the best-looking pies since Waitress. Despite the health code violation of a shaggy dog named Digby, The Pie Hole is the kind of place that makes you long for a specialty pie restaurant around the block. They'd need to wheelbarrow me home. The show's quirky humor, snarky narration by Jim Dale (who reads the Harry potter audio books, and was a regular in the Brit "Carry On" comedies) and fantastic set design made it a big stand-out in the prime time lineup. With reality shows and CSI-alikes crowding the schedule, it was nice to have a completely strange and often hilarious show like Pushing Daisies around. With cameos from the likes of Paul Reubens and Fred Willard, and directors like Barry Sonnenfeld and Peter O'Fallon (Suicide Kings) taking the helm, it really popped.
If anything, give your HDTV or Blu-Ray player a workout and watch the rest of the season. The colorful and imaginative sets- ranging from mountain convents, carnival side shows, and Emerson Cod's amazing wardrobe- are worth watching for the eye candy alone. It's unfortunate that yet another original show is getting the axe, and Pushing Daisies will join the ranks of Arrested Development, Carnivale, and Deadwood in the Island of Shows Unappreciated by Their Networks. Watch it while you can, it's smart and funny, probably too much for its own good.

Olive singing "Hopelessly Devoted" as she pines for Ned.

80s Trash of the Week: Rock 'n Rule

"We must remember Zip, that evil spelled backward is live. And we all want to live, don't we?"
After the rock 'n roll tittyfest Heavy Metal, Canadian animation company Nelvana tries its own version of a rock-inspired animated film. Theirs was more family friendly, contained anime-inspired funny animal critters based on the bands Cheap Trick, Blondie, and a villainous Mick Jagger clone not-so-subtly named Mok. For years Rock 'n Rule was kept off DVD due to copyright issues over the music, but when Unearthed Films released a 2-disc special edition, I had to clutch this bizarre nugget of my teen-hood. I inflicted it upon Milky this movie night, and somehow he survived.

When in doubt, skimpy loincloths sell.

This is the first feature-length animated film made entirely in Canada, and Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs it ain't! But it's a lot of cheesy fun, with some really good music, so we'll forgive them. It's a simple enough tale about a group of friends in a rock band trying to get noticed, in a postapocalyptic world where the rats, mice, cats and dogs have evolved to take our place- thus explaining the button noses and pointy ears, and giving the movie some kid crossover appeal. The lead singers are Angel and Omar, whose singing voices are Debbie Harry (solo from Blondie at this point) and Robin Zander from Cheap Trick. Angel plays the keytar, and thus second fiddle to Omar's ranting hard rock guitar. This creates tension, and of course they're sleeping together, so the band in reality would disintegrate long before a power-mad rock musician stepped in to screw things up. Backing them up are Stretch and Dizzy, loosely modeled on the drummer and guitarist from Cheap Trick.
Fat & Skinny, aka Stretch & Dizzy

Omar and Angel fight over whose songs to play on open mike night, with O growling "Born to Raise Hell" and Angel's sweet pipes belting out the best song from the movie, "Send Love Through." Debbie Harry would use the same music and re-release this as "Maybe For Sure" on her Def Dumb & Blonde album, but the chorus seems forced. Here's the original, and it's played in pieces throughout the film. It's so catchy that it helps things along a lot.

Angel's Song

Lou Reed also has a hand in the music- he does Mok's songs, and the second-best is definitely "My Name is Mok," a spoof of superstar rock egos. He does some of the minor songs in the interludes too, such as "Triumph of the Glory in Me," a goofy anthem used to hypnotize Omar and the boys so Mok can steal away with Angel. The little songs are quite funny and the bands seemed to have a lot of fun working on the film. The movie has its moments, such as the cartoon that Zip, one of Mok's muscle-head goons, watches. The Uncle Mikey Show, which teaches kids the difference between good and evil. Remember, giving a cow a flower is good. Chasing it around with an axe? Evil.
Good... or evil?

Mok is of course, evil. He wants Angel for her voice- which is the final key that will let him summon an enormous demon to rule the Earth with. But I think he's just jaded with success, and wants to see the demon eat his audience. He rides around in a zeppelin, between ruined cities like "Nuke York" to perform at "Carnage Hall" or Radioactive City Music Hall. When he finally hooks Angel up to a synthesizer to summon the demon, it's Iggy Pop, rumbling an all-too-short song called "Pain and Suffering." Angel is of course scantily clad to give budding teen boys some flashes of watercolor wank material. Which is probably why I remember this movie so well.

Angel and Omar caught in the act.
These are just two freeze-frames that make Angel look like a total slut, which cracks me up. She's not jacking anyone off or diving for a mouthful of man-meat, but it sure looks like she is. At least you're not hung like a mouse.

Can Omar get over his pride, and sing with Angel to save the planet? I think you can guess. The movie is a bit slow in points, but it has a lot of character. It couldn't be as violent and boobie-laden as Heavy Metal, but it makes up for it with wit and charm. And they try to get a little naughty here and there to keep teenagers and adults interested, but it's a hard sell. It was lazy to make them all funny animals, so they could stick with their usual button-nosey dog-eared rotoscoped models, and the humor is definitely on the corny side. But it certainly has its moments, and some one-liners that stick with you. Like "I spy with my little eye, something that begins with.... FAT!"

The ending.

Nelvana is probably best known for the Care Bears and other '80s stuff, but they also animated Boba Fett's first appearance in the infamous Star Wars Holiday Special, an abomination that I will probably re-watch and review here someday.
Iggy never looked so good!

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? No way in hell
Quotability Rating: Medium
Cheese Factor: Metric fuckton of cheese curds on poutine
High Points: The songs!
Low Point: Roller-skating disco goons
Gratuitous Boobies: While Angel is hot, they're mice you furry fuck!

Thursday, November 20, 2008

Bad Lieutenant

What a twisted tale of redemption. Ferrara goes where most won't. If you want to write a tale of a bad man doing good, you might as well make him as bad as imaginable. Harvey Keitel once again embodies a role no one else would touch, playing a crooked junkie degenerate gambler NYPD cop on the fast-track to self-destruction. We meet him when he is trying to commit suicide by proxy, either by overdose or by getting so deep in debt that the mob rubs him out, doing him the favor.
Ferrara paints the life of a man in misery, who has hurt everyone around him- during the brief scenes with his family they say nothing, and move cautiously around him, having learned to flinch whenever he moves. He reminds me of the lyric from Leonard Cohen's "Bird on a Wire"-- "like a beast with his horn, I have torn everyone who has reached out for me." We follow him as he treads a path of corruption through the city- scoring drugs, trying to steal evidence, shaking down thieves. These aren't the usual fetishistic admirations of the junkie ritual like in Pulp Fiction; when he shoots up with his fixer, the deal comes with an S&M show set to Johnny Ace's "Pledging My Love," showing the level of self-degradation necessary to put a flicker across his burnt-out receptors. The irony of using a heartfelt ballad from the '50s is not lost; "LT" is a child of that era, and the song would remind him of his teen days when he wasn't a piece of human wreckage.

Everything changes when a nun is raped and brutalized in church; the rest of the cops are mobilized, but he remains unmoved. He has faith in nothing. When the church puts up a $50,000 reward, he smirks "Girls get raped every day. They give a shit this time because they wear penguin suits?" The other cops are so offended that they challenge him, and he defends himself by saying he was raised Catholic. Martin Scorcese brings a "fallen Catholic" sensibility to his mob films, but Abel Ferrara makes a true Catholic redemption fable here. The Lieutenant as much as rapes two girls he pulls over for driving without a license; he never touches them, but his lewd demands are unforgettable.

and you thought Nunn Bush was a brand of shoes.

Originally he wants to hunt down the rapists for that money, to save himself from the loan sharks. But when he talks to the nun, she says she forgives the boys. She won't name them, even when he eavesdrops on her confession. All is lost; LT knows he can't pay off the mob, and he is going to die. He breaks down in the church, and his glimmer of faith is rewarded; he finds a way to catch them. But this isn't a heroic tale, and how he redeems his life of evil does not sit well with the audience. We want revenge, and thus Ferrara shows that if we truly believe in the laws of God, we are just as guilty as LT. Wrath, and murder are our sins. The Lieutenant dies for his own sins, but by freeing the rapists as the nun asks, is he performing the Will of God, by letting Him judge them? Or is the nun insane from her trauma, and is it all in his head?
The end of this scene is actually pretty clever...

LT sees Jesus in the church, hallucination or not; some of the scenes of him bringing the boys to the bus are done in handheld, at eye level, as if to show Jesus watching. The ending is one of the most powerful in cinema, as LT fights every fiber of his being that wants to mete justice, but "vengeance is mine, saith the Lord." I am irreligious, but was raised Catholic, and know the rules. This is Seven without the glitz or the serial killer angle. It's an unflinching look at the evil of the world circa 1990 New York City, and an accusing finger pointed back at those who like Travis Bickle, wanted a "real rain to come and wash the filth away."
"Your lives ain't worth shit in this town."

If you can get past the raw emotion of Keitel's performance, and the brutality of his behavior, this is a great film. Unfortunately due to Jimmy Page being a cocksucker, Schooly D's excellent "Signifying Rapper," which used a sample from "Kashmir," is cut from the film. Years later Page would show how principled he was by allowing Puffy Daddy to sample it in a shitty song that was used in the shitty shit movie Godzilla. See this before Nick Cage and Werner Herzog(!!!) make a remake/prequel/wtf called Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, which will be interesting, to say the least. Just make sure you get the original NC-17 cut, or you're wasting your time.
Just remember that Full Frontal Harvey and his porkchop are waiting for you.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Interstella 5555: The 5tory of the 5ecret 5tar 5ystem

Daft Punk and anime, two tastes that go great together. Like the French electronic duo- probably most famous for their instrumental "Da Funk" from '95, or perhaps "Technologic" which is now in commercials- my favorite memories of anime come from Leiji Matsumoto, who gave us Captain Harlock and Galaxy Express 999. His unique visions blend the future and the past, the familiar with the alien. Unlike Disney, who messed up Treasure Planet, he knew that pirates, even space pirates, need swords. And that a steam locomotive launching off its rails into space is not ridiculous, but a young boy's daydream realized.

The 5tory, part 1

So when Daft Punk wanted to make an animated film set to their album "Discovery," they approached their childhood hero. They fleshed out a dreamlike story with allusions to the unpleasantness of the music industry, and headed to Tokyo, where Matsumoto signed on as visual consultant. The result is a story both beautiful and engrossing, set to what may not be my favorite Daft Punk album, but what is definitely the most coherent whole, one that is as much a concept album as Tommy or The Wall, both of which were made into equally surreal films.

Interstella 5555 begins with a band of turquoise-skinned rockers playing to an enormous audience, who are all a similar hue; I'm not sure if this is a reference to the Smurfs (sorry, Les Schtroumpfs) or not, but we start out knowing we're not on Earth, as they belt out "One More Time." As the album progresses, we learn that rock music comes from space, where an evil man who looks suspiciously like Ben Franklin has been kidnapping aliens and brainwashing them for millennia. Will our blue friends find out who they really are, and be able to escape the fiendish clutches of the music industry?

Part of it reminded me of another '80s favorite of mine, Rock 'n Rule. That was another anime-like film by Nelvana in Canada, about a musician trying to summon a demon. It'll be a future '80s trash of the week, maybe this week if I can get Milky to watch it! Interstella 5555 is great watching for fans of Daft Punk, and for anyone who grew up with Battle of the Planets aka G-Force, Voltron, Galaxy Express 999, Captain Harlock and all the other dubbed Japanese animation classics that flooded '80s television. Newer anime fans will enjoy it as well, because there's nothing like the classics reborn.

Tuesday, November 18, 2008

The Burger Shoppe, NYC

Wall Street can use a bargain lunch these days.The Burger Shoppe- which is infamous for its $175 Kobe beef burger topped with truffles, foie gras and the lamentations of the downtrodden- also serves a bargain lunch, at least by New York standards. For $4.50 you can get their Shoppe burger, a cheese burger with their house sauce and lettuce. I opted for some dressed-up versions and a mix of fries and onion rings.
They have some excellent microbrews on tap, including Sixpoint Righteous Rye. I had one with my burgers, and enjoyed the old world feel of the aged bar room upstairs. Downstairs is a chrome counter top with stools, recalling lunch counter days, but I wanted to try their Bar Room Burger- $18 worth of beef topped with aged Gruyere and braised pork belly- so I headed up the creaky steps to the darkened bar room, and grabbed a round table for myself.

Well, unfortunately they only serve that burger during dinner hours, so I grabbed a Kahuna burger (muenster, avocado, bacon) and a Becky (aged cheddar, pickles, ketchup). Their All-Day Menu has some other choices, like the timely Sub-Prime Meltdown (swiss, mushrooms, onions) a Crispy Shrimp burger, a chicken burger, and a portobello mushroom burger for you veggie types. The burgers are pretty good, good taste and not too big. Two is an easy meal. Their fries and rings are tops, good flavor and crispy, not greasy. The toppings seemed to overwhelm the beef flavor, so next time I'll make sure to try a Shoppe burger alone. As it stands, they're hovering around Five Guys Burgers & Fries in my rankings, but I assume their Bar burger will be in higher territory.
But the place is about atmosphere. I love an old bar room, and the aged wood scarred from years of stockbroker elbows leaning heavily upon them, gives the place that old New York feel you get in other classics like Chumley's. And their beer selection lives up to the image. If you're way downtown and want a burger, but not Bourdain's $15 jobber (worth every penny) at Les Halles, grab a stool or a table at The Burger Shoppe. And if you shorted the market, buy the $175 Kobe/truffle/foie gras one. But if your portfolio puts a tear in your beer, you can still grab a tasty bite here.

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Quantum of Solace: Bond ReBourne

Bond has come a long way from the days of invisible cars. With the latest "reboot" of the franchise, Casino Royale, they went back to basics and remade Agent 007 more to the mold of the original Ian Fleming novels- a cold, damaged assassin who isn't made of stone. The latest movie, 22 in a series of blockbusters, keeps that spirit and brings Bond into the true modern age- a world of shadowy quasi-government organizations with immense power, looking to control the world's most precious resource. And while the latest incarnation definitely studied its competition- namely the refreshing Bourne movies- it makes several nods to its rich past, and Bond is still his own man. Daniel Craig makes him the most exciting version in decades.
Quantum of Solace is named after a Fleming short story and has little to do with it- the story thrusts us immediately into a car chase through the Italian mountainsides, with two Alfa Romeos gunning after Bond in his trademark Aston Martin. As in its predecessor, the action scenes are short, brutal, choppy, but I never had any trouble figuring what was going on. I found the car chase especially good, for how chaotic it was. Sometimes drivers- even Bourne- seem too in control, and even a super-agent can't predict how other drivers will react, or the pinball physics of crashes. Here it works well, and Bond is always operating by the skin of his teeth.
When the chase is over, we find out that the movie is practically a continuation of Casino Royale- Bond is delivering the ringleader of the previous film's evil plot to M, where we learn he is just a cog in the machine of a much larger and secretive organization known as Quantum. So once again the title is a play on words- not only is Bond seeking a "quantum," or smallest possible amount, of solace after Vesper's betrayal and death, but he's also after a SPECTRE-like organization with that name (and snazzy "Q" lapel pins). We quickly learn that Quantum has people everywhere, and Bond has to operate mostly on his own to subvert them. They're so powerful and unknown that they operate in plain sight, discussing their machinations during an opera. At least they use bluetooth headsets and sublingual mikes. Anything else would be gauche.

A secretive group bent on world domination is nothing new to the Bond films, but the secrecy and realism is. We never see "Quantum agents" and they can operate through other governments instead. The man doing their deeds doesn't wear a grey Nehru jacket and carry a Persian pussycat- he's just an oily-looking fellow running an eco-friendly corporation, so it seems. And his nefarious plot is much crueler than a laser on the moon or anything like that. For when we realize what the "most precious resource" is, it's nothing shocking or new. And it makes perfect sense.
The trailers make much of Bond's vendetta against Quantum for Vesper's death in the first film, and as he tracks down the leaders, she is always in the back of his mind. When M doesn't trust him to put personal issues aside, he has to work with old friends from his previous adventure, including the forcibly retired Mathis (Giancarlo Gianinni, Hannibal, Swept Away (1974)) and CIA Agent Felix Leiter (Jeffrey Wright, Basquiat, Syriana). Keeping these links gives the film the same foundation that M, Q and Moneypenny gave the older films. There are some new contacts as well, namely Camille (Olga Kurylenko, Hitman) who has vengeance issues of her own to deal with. She's been cozying up to the villain Dominic Greene (Mathieu Amalric, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly) who manages the role perfectly without outlandish theatrics. There's not a third nipple or disturbing facial scar necessary to make us fear and despise him.
There's no Bond movie without an amusingly named cupcake, and the girl this time is "Strawberry" Fields (Gemma Atherton, RocknRolla), but I only caught her first name in the credits. Here she's a paper-pusher sent to rein in Bond, but of course his charm is just too much for her. She's at least instrumental to the story and not just a bit of crumpet. The film is an excellent techno-thriller without depending on the tech to be the story and excitement. Seeing Bond take cell phone photos of people and get back identification hits has been done on "24" and The Bourne Ultimatum, but they manage to make it plausible, and we see that someone like Bond can only work his magic with an enormous support system behind him. No invisible cars here.
There are some throwbacks to the classic films- they brought back the "gun barrel" opening shot and sexy credits sequence, this time put to Jack White and Alicia Keys. The new song "Another Way to Die" is pretty good and quite different for a Bond film. You'll also see references to Goldfinger and one of the Moore movies, where a villain is dispatched from a rooftop. Director Marc Forster, probably most famous for Monster's Ball, manages a fine transition to the paragon of action thrillers, the Bond film, practically a genre of its own. His films Stay, a creepy and surreal mystery, the touching and heart-wrenching drama The Kite Runner, and the offbeat comedy Stranger Than Fiction show that he can't be nailed down. After this, he's tackling Max Brooks' zombie apocalypse novel World War Z, so let's hope he fixes the one flaw this movie has- it's too short.
At 106 minutes, it's the shortest Bond film. We get plenty of action and a great finale, but it does seem like it's over too soon. Perhaps a little more chicanery in Bolivia with Mathis and Fields would have made this a 4-star Bond film like Casino. The one thing the latest reboot has dropped is the Indestructible Henchman, and that's fine; a hulking man with iron teeth or a razor-brimmed bowler aren't what we want to see anymore. But maybe someone who's a better match for Bond in a street fight is in order. Goldeneye, the best of the Brosnan era, had a great fight between two double O's, and the Bourne films always have him facing off against another superman. Daniel Craig has shown that he can handle the stunts, but let's see him meet his match.

3 ½ Vesper cocktails out of 4

Watchmen trailer #2

This trailer kicks the ass of the teaser. Sure, it has a lot of the stop-mo stuff from 300, but let's hope it's a trailer thing and not in the film. This looks simply incredible, and following Rorschach for these brief moments was just thrilling. I just can't wait until March.

Friday, November 14, 2008

Ramstein Brewery - Winter Wheat Doppelbock

It is once again that glorious time of year when the High Point Brewing Company releases its seasonal brew, the Winter Wheat doppelbock. At their open house last Saturday, it was almost as lively as when they debuted their other popular seasonal at Oktoberfest. I guess I'm not the only one who loves the winter wheat, with its chocolaty finish and malty smoothness.

It's one of those dark beers without bitterness, that is full of flavor without feeling like a loaf of bread in a glass, a problem you sometimes get with stouts such as Guiness and Mackeson's triple. the foamy head on this one is rich brown and tasty, and for you folks who can't or won't make the trek to the brewery, the good folks there thankfully bottle this one. It is available in stores from November to April, and makes a fine libation for the cold winter months, whether alongside a rich stew or even with a bowl of ice cream. Call me weird but I like how it tastes against good old vanilla. I've yet to make a float with it, but I've been wanting to try.

Rainy days are perfect for enjoying beer and comradery! Prosit!

At this open house we had a surprise feast- a delicious sampling of down-home German food like wurst and spaetzel, home-grown red cabbage and radishes, delicious carved ham and more. The crowd went through it like a buzzsaw, and thanks to Firecracker I got to taste some. I was stuck in the growler line with a double order, since Milky was down in Philly playing Marines. We cracked the growler for movie night, and it tastes as good as it does from the cask. They did another cask opening this time, and once again, no one treats their drinkers better than High Point Brewing Company. Grab a six-pack at one of these locations, and come by on the second Saturday of December for the last open house until spring! You won't regret it.

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