Saturday, January 31, 2009

Tell No One

If you don't mind subtitles, this is one of the best thrillers of 2008. If you mind subtitles, learn how to fucking read. Tell No One is based on the novel by Harlan Coben, a Jersey boy who won't make Dennis LeHane lose any sleep soon, but who writes solid thrillers about ordinary people thrust into frightening and realistic situations when something from their past rises from the muck and comes out swinging.
Alexandre Beck is a reserved and friendly doctor working at a Paris clinic. We meet him one morning when a brash, thuggish man brings in his child and demands that Dr. Alex see him. We see his calm in dealing with the violent man, and the sadness in his eyes. Through flashbacks, we learn that Dr. Alex's wife was brutally murdered 8 years ago, as they swam in a lake near a country cabin. He heard her scream, and when he climbed onto the dock he was knocked unconscious. Eventually her murder was blamed on a serial killer operating at the time, but he never confessed. Alex himself was suspected, because he could never explain why he was pulled from the water.
Now eight years later, two more bodies have been unearthed in the same area. The police begin sniffing around again. And on the anniversary of her death, Alex receives a cryptic e-mail he believes to be from his dead wife. How can this be? Is she still alive? He never got to identify the body. Her ex-cop father had that unfortunate task, and he describes the brutality vaguely, with obvious pain. So we have a set up similar to The Fugitive, but instead of fleeing the cops and hunting the one-armed man, Alex finds himself hunted by vicious, powerful men intent on destroying the life he's managed to cobble together after Margot's murder.

As he awaits the instructions in the e-mail, he finds that he is being watched. And as he reaches out to friends, they become targets. The pincers of the police digging through the old case begin to close, and Alex has no choice but to go on the run, for his own safety, that of his few friends, and possibly for Margot's, if she really is alive. Director Guillaume Canet keeps the tension pegged for much of the movie. The nameless thugs are led by a bearded man who kills as if he's swatting a fly. His consort is a silent woman with ripped muscles who seems to have studied massage therapy for the ability to cause pain instead of relief. Played by Mika'ela Fisher, she's one scary bitch.
Alex gets stuck between them and the police, with only his lawyer friend on his side. Even Margot's father turns against him. The film is Hitchcockian in how things close in on Alex, but without the master's dark humor. Here we are kept in Alex's shoes for the entire film, and we feel his fear. When he finally runs from the police, there's a fantastic foot chase through Paris, with none of the usual cliches. When he comes up against a busy highway he can't just dash across, flip over a windshield and keep going. There's also no booming chase music, we get to hear his breath, his footsteps, and the sounds of the city around him as he dives through alleyways, the backs of shops, and through street fairs. And unlike most wrongfully accused men, Alex actually gets tired.
The film is taut as a drum, and while we meet many colorful characters- sleazy lawyers to street thugs, senators obsessed with steeplechase horse races- they all matter. The ending is a little too long, and maybe a little too neat, but we get there it's quite satisfying. Alex is played by Fran├žois Cluzet perfectly, as a man who dearly loved his wife and is not granted superhuman powers through his righteous anger at her murder. Dustin Hoffman can play him in the inevitable remake. But see it before then, it's worth a little subtitle-readin'. Even if your lips move while doing it. Then go read the book, too.

4 croque monsieurs out of 5

Friday, January 30, 2009

Best BLT in New York?

I don't normally return to a restaurant so quickly, but Dinosaur Bar-B-Que intrigued me with their offering of a BLT with house-cured bacon, fried green tomatoes, and their tangy remoulade in place of mayo. I had to try it. So Tommy Salami's li'l posse of Beast, Milky and Firecracker converged at Dino's instead of our usual brunch haunt- Blockhead's at 107th and Amsterdam. We were not disappointed.

Once again, reservations are a must. At noon on a Saturday we waited 40 minutes for a table, and the bar was full. It was after noon, which is beer o'clock round these parts so I tried a tasty Brooklyn Brewery Winter Ale, which was rich and chocolatey. The Brooklyn Brewery gang has done it again. My other favorite here if you prefer a lighter beer is the Hook & Ladder Ale, which has a fruity aroma and a crisp refreshing taste. They also make kick-ass Bloody Marys, better than the Brooklyn Ale House's mix in my opinion (and they are one of NYC's best). It was tangy, spicy and smooth, but not at all watery, garnished with a green olive. I would have liked one of their drunken boiled shrimp on a skewer, but you can't always get what you want. But it never hurts to ask- I will next time.

Once we got a table the service was at a good clip. My crew got their usual pulled pork sandwiches, which are excellent, and tried out all the sauces. Our consensus is that the Wango Tango smoky habanero sauce is the best. It's not as hot as their hottest Devil's Duel sauce, and still has plenty of flavor while also providing good bite. It never drowns out the meat either, so slather it on. But you wanted to hear about bacon, didn't ya? Their BLT comes in two flavors, regular and "ultimate." the Ultimate has their appetizer fried green tomatoes in the "T" slot, and they slather it with a generous helping of their tangy remoulade. It is quite a sandwich.

They cure their bacon in-house, and you get thick chewy slices. I prefer my bacon crisp, but I enjoyed this anyway. It was much more filling with a few slabs of thicker bacon. And the fried green tomatoes- crisp and crunchy, never mushy- were the perfect accompaniment. As you can see, they get a bed of shredded lettuce- I'd prefer green leaf or butter lettuce- and a solid sesame seed bun. You get two sides- I chose the mac 'n cheese because it's excellent, and the BBQ beans to try 'em out. They're smoky sweet and delcious, a little thin but with plenty of pork bits in there for flavor. If you don't want their best side- the salted 'taters- try the beans, you won't be disappointed.

To conclude, this is one of the best BLT's I've ever had. It is definitely on the rich side, and it makes for a great hangover cure. With 2 sides it is quite the satisfying meal, and the melange of smoky chewy bacon, crisp tomato and the sauce's rich tangy topping makes for a memorable BLT experience. Now we all know NYC restaurants love to sling pork belly, foie gras, truffles and "Kobe" beef like it's going out of style, especially now that Wall Street fucknuts have all that bailout bonus money to spend- so I ask you, who makes the best BLT in NYC?

I like simplicity, so give meripe heirloom tomatoes, crisp salty bacon without extra flavors, fresh green lettuce and maybe fresh-made mayo on crunchy wheat or tangy sourdough bread and it's perfection. Maybe a little extra virgin olive oil, salt and pepper on the tomato, or Niman Ranch bacon. But I wouldn't mind trying something ridiculously decadent, as you can easily assume. So let's hear it, who can top the Ultimate BLT at Dinosaur Bar-B-Que?

For a review of Dinosaur Bar-B-Que's ribs, pulled pork, sausage, brisket, appies, beers and sides, check out my earlier review here.

Chopping Mall

"Thank you. Have a nice day."
I learned about this movie from Something Awful, the retarded and hilarious armpit of the internets. Even though it's about a mall full of Johnny 5-alike security robots gone insane, stars Kelli Maroney- the ditzy sister from Night of the Comet- and best of all, is directed by Jim Wynorski, who's best film is probably Return of the Swamp Thing, this is just the sort of '80s trash I need to feed my soul.
Chopping Mall features Paul Bartel and Mary Woronov- Roger Corman vets and masterminds behind Eating Raoul and Death Race 2000- so it can't be all bad. It helps that for scream queens we also have Rebecca Crampton, who got head from a head in Re-Animator, and Karrie Emerson as the tomboy gearhead who can fix cars, and hopefully fuck up killbots.
In the 80s we had beauty pageants at malls. No we didn't!

We meet Paul & Mary- playing their cannibalistic characters from Eating Raoul- as they attend a demonstration of security robots. The robots chase down a thief and taser the shit out of him, but when shown a security pass, leave you alone. Like all technology in the '80s, they are commanded from a control center run by nerds in white labcoats. And as we meet our teen robot fodder- Alison (Kelly Maroney) the new girl at the pizza place, Nerdy Ferdy who's guaranteed not to be a total slime beast, his feather-tressed jock pals, and the aforementioned scream queens- lightning strikes the computers running the robots, and since this was before surge protectors, they turn into malevolent murder machines.
That's why it is imperative that all your electronics have surge protectors, and you only use Monster cables. They cost ridiculously more, but if you've seen Chopping Mall and Maximum Overdrive, you know that they are just waiting to turn you to mincemeat and take over the planet. So it's a total bargain. The dude at Best Buy totally saved my ass with that info. It doesn't take long for the Killbots- which was the film's original title, before they came up with the punny replacement- to kill their nerdy keepers and begin patrolling the mall, with the new prime directive of Kill All Humans.
"Don't tase me bro!"

The Killbots are also cockblockers, and interrupt poor Ferdy from getting anywhere with Alison. Of course the jocks get their easy poontang, which seals their fate in movies like this. Killers can smell sex, even if they're killbots. And they seek those targets first. Unlucky for the big titty girl whose name I can't recall, and her jock douche boyfriend. He gets it first, when the robots use their gripper claws- which suspiciously look like those grabbers sold to short and old people on infomercials- to tear his throat out. Tittygirl #1 flees in terror, and we learn that the robots not only have tasers but LASERs, which they shoot her in the ass with. I am not kidding. There's a little spank-mark on her undies where the laser seared her buns. The movie doesn't skimp on the blood or the boobs, and as her friends watch in horror, her head gets blown off. It's no Scanners but it was impressive, and unexpected.

"Let's go send those fuckers a Rambo-gram!"

From then on it's a free-for-all, and the killbots go on a blasting spree. But this is a red-blooded American chopping mall, which means there's plenty of weaponry to fight back with. The boys head to the gun store and the girls go through the heating ducts to a department store, and go for the lighter fluid. Grillin' and killin' the American way! The robots look like they're made of cheap plastic, but they soon turn out to be bulletproof bad-asses, which even such iconic totems as the 12 gauge and .357 Magnum cannot damage. And the mantra of "kill it with fire!" gets turned back on the teens themselves.

You'll notice that the worst deaths are given to the girls, in true exploitation fashion. Sure, we see a janitor- the ubiquitous Dick Miller no less- get electrocuted, and a guy gets thrown off a railing, but the girls get their heads exploded and burned alive. Only the tomboy Linda escapes, probably because the director thought she was a lesbian. The kids try everything from propane tanks, fire extinguishers, and the ever popular one-liner in their fight, but soon only Alison remains. She's got experience from Night of the Comet, where she fought space dust zombies, so she manages to trap a robot in a paint store- apparently the explosive kind- and kill it with a road flare and using the robot's own catchphrase against it.
"Have a nice day! P.S. You're terminated fucker"

Overall, Chopping Mall is a bit low-budget and sleazy, definitely not in the same realm as classics like Night of the Creeps. But it manages to be funny and gory, and get a few zingers in there. Ferdy is played by Tony O'Dell, the most annoying of the Cobra Kai in The Karate Kid, Part II. I was quite amazed with his ability to play a non-douche in this film. It is a sad thing that he has retired from acting, swept from the cast lists much like Daniel-san's leg. The robots are a bit cheesy-looking, but so were the H-K's in Terminator 3, so I can't hold that against it. This is solid '80s horror sleaze that will titillate you and not make you feel so dirty you search for a sani-wipe.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 1
Could it be remade today? I, Robot?
Quotability Rating: Good - "Fuck the fuchsia, it's Friday!"
Cheese Factor: Fondue-licious
High Points: Exploding head!! Best credits ever!
Low Point: Not enough Paul Bartel & Mary Woronov!
Gratuitous Boobies: Hell yes. Fake ones and real ones.

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Best Animated Feature

This is part of The LAMB Devours the Oscars.

The Academy Award for Best Animated Feature is only as old as 2001. Ten years prior, Disney's Beauty and the Beast broke out of the animation ghetto and was nominated for Best Picture. In the next decade, Pixar would explode onto the scene with Toy Story, a technical breakthrough that ironically brought us back to animation's sentimental, universal roots. The sequel Toy Story 2 came in 1999, and surpassed the original in both visual and emotional achievements, and in my mind, should have been nominated for Best Picture. It won the Golden Globe that year for Best Comedy/Musical, and I have a niggling feeling that the Academy recognized that animation just ain't for kids anymore, and that influenced their decision to give them a separate but equal category.
And yes, I chose words with bad connotations for a reason. For while it is nice for animated film to be recognized at the Oscars, it is unfortunate, especially now that CG has become so prevalent, to be shuffled off into their own little category. Is 300 an animated film? Is Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Should Persepolis be forced to compete with Ratatouille? Both are excellent films, but one chose a simple visual style over Pixar's insanely detailed character designs, where you can count rodent hairs, if you want a future job as an FDA food inspector. By pigeon-holing them in the same category, Persepolis is at a distinct disadvantage. Perhaps it's no different than comparing Frost/Nixon's simplicity with The Curious Case of Benjamin Button's visual excess, and giving Animated Features their own category helps raise awareness for them.
However, the rules for the category seem to favor the big 3. The rules state:

In any year in which 8 to 15 animated features are released in Los Angeles County, a maximum of 3 motion pictures may be nominated. In any year in which 16 or more animated features are submitted and accepted in the category, a maximum of 5 motion pictures may be nominated.
So if fewer than 16 animated films are released in L.A. County, the Academy only nominates 3 films. And if fewer than 8 are released, there's no category that year. There have not been 5 nominees since 2002, when Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away won.

This year it's just the big three: WALL-E (Pixar), Bolt (Disney) and Kung Fu Panda (Dreamworks). The rules are why the excellent Horton Hears a Who! was overlooked, and I found it to be one of the most beautiful films of the year, and certainly better than Bolt and Kung Fu Panda for storyline. And I really liked Panda! Blue Sky Studios, who made the Ice Age movies, did a great job adapting Horton to the big screen and expanding it to feature length. It's a shame it couldn't be nominated. Waltz with Bashir, an Israeli soldier's nightmares after the first Lebanon war, sidesteps the animation cubbyhole by being in a foreign language; Hayao Miyazaki's Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea didn't get a U.S. release, so it's out.

But let's get on to the Big Three.

1. Bolt
Bolt is the story of the star of a TV show I can summarize as "24 meets Inspector Gadget-- he's a super-powered cyborg canine protecting Penny, a kidnapped scientist's daughter from the maniacal clutches of Doctor Calico and his Cackling Kitty Accomplice. The show depends on him thinking everything is real, so one day after a cliffhanger episode, he thinks he really needs to rescue Penny- and gets shipped in a packing crate to New York. Having lost his powers, he takes a street cat hostage, thinking she's the cat from the show, hooks up with a fanboy fuzzball in a hamsterball, has harrowing adventures, and learns the power of love, friendship and perseverance.

I enjoyed Bolt, but don't think it deserves nomination over Horton Hears a Who!- it's good fun, and has an emotional ending, but you can still see the Disney formula from stinkers like Home on the Range affecting it. For example, superstar Miley Cyrus voices Penny, but her character is given no real depth. She's there to get Hannah Montana fans into seats. In fact, according to IMDb, Chloe Moretz (Dirty Sexy Money) had already voiced the role of Penny before Cyrus was brought in to overdub it. They should have stuck with a real actress. John Travolta voices Bolt and does a fine job disappearing into the part. Susie Essman- the foul-mouthed wife of Jeff Garlin from "Curb Your Enthusiasm," steals the show as Mittens the New Yawk street cat who shakes down pigeons and teaches Bolt how easily humans throw away their pets like so much garbage. She's nearly upstaged by the crazy TV fanboy hamster Rhino (Mark Walton), who was just a little too crazy for me. I'm sure the kids loved him.

The humans are all Hollywood caricatures, meant to make us feel like little Hollywood insiders. Part of me wanted the whole "He's a TV star who thinks it's real!" gimmick to go away, and actually watch Penny and Bolt escape from endless attack helicopters, but kids have to get their dose of vitamins and irony these days. I can see Disney not wanting to tread on Pixar's toes when Lasseter & co. have had a lock on the classic sentimental cartoon for decades, but this story feels a little too much like a Hollywood pitch. There's a hilarious and exciting sequence where Bolt & co. escape from a shelter, and I found the ending genuinely touching, but there was just a little too much cliche here and there for me to consider this great instead of good, even in the small pond of Best Animated Features of 2008. Horton got robbed. TraBolta!!!!

Disney has gotten a lot better. Despite dropping their classic animation department for 3-D after the spectacular micro-managerial bungling of the otherwise good Treasure Planet, they've finally managed to claw a toe-hold and stand with the big boys in CG. Bolt may not be great, but it's a big move in the right direction. Maybe one day they will continue where Lilo & Stitch and The Emperor's New Groove left off.

2. Kung Fu Panda

I reviewed this in great detail here. I loved Kung Fu Panda, despite it being another Dreamworks film chock full of celebrity voices, because it has heart. It takes a standard kung fu story that could be a Sammo Hung movie, with a fat panda who works in his father's noodle shop, but wants to be a Shaolin warrior. When he tries to spy on the choosing of the legendary Dragon Warrior at the Temple, he gets inadvertently chosen by the Master for training, and hilarity ensues. Can a clumsy, goofy fat glutton save the village from Tai Lung, the sinister snow leopard?

Dreamworks learned that you don't need to recognize the voice actors to get asses in seats. Jack Black does his Jack Black thing, but everyone else blends into their character and doesn't go all Robin Williams wacky on us. Seth Rogen and David Cross are delightfully amusing as Mantis and Crane; Angelina Jolie, Jackie Chan, and Lucy Liu have understated spots as Tigress, Monkey and Viper. As you can see from the animal choices, they did some kung fu movie research before they made this, as the "Furious Five" are modeled after the 5 Animal Styles of Shaolin Kung Fu. And while much of the gags are on panda's big belly and goofy nature, when Master Shifu- played perfectly by Dustin Hoffman- decides to train the big galoot, the fantastic "chase the dumpling" sequence is as exciting as any such "battle" from a real kung fu film.

They even inject some emotion into the tale with Mr. Ping (the always-excellent James Hong), Panda's unlikely father, who is a duck. I expected this to be forgettable but fun, and it ended up surprising me. I would not mind being forced to watch this a dozen times with kids, and while Jack Black may grate on my nerves on the sixth viewing, Dustin Hoffman's wizened red panda and James Hong's hilarious duck characters will keep endearing the story to me. And the tragic character of Tai Lung, voiced by Ian McShane, is not your typical villain. It also helps that the animation is gorgeous; if this is the first kung fu film you've seen since critics told you to see Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon you'll be pleasantly surprised.

My full review has plenty of gushing, so I'll try to hold back. Imagine a simple story about a trash-compacting robot in the far future, the last of his kind still dutifully cleaning up our mess on Earth. His only friend is a cockroach, until one day he gets a visitor from above. And for the entire first act of the movie there is no real dialogue. Now imagine being in a theater full of kids watching this first act, with few if any big splashes or booms to keep them occupied. I thought it would be a nightmare of squalling and kicking and whining. But when I saw WALL-E at an early show, the kids were silent. It was as gripping for them as it was for me, watching this comical little robot go through his daily routine of crushing junk, saving little doodads that caught one of his mechanical eyes, finding Twinkies for his cockroach pal to sleep in, and watching a battered VHS tape of Hello Dolly. When Eva, a flying robot seemingly designed by Apple's SETI division arrives, we get a touching cybernetic love story that brought tears to my cynical old peepers.

It's so damn effective that you almost don't want WALL-E to have his adventure, where he meets the apex of human consumerism on a space ark where they await Earth's renewal. This was a terrific gamble, sticking such an obvious jab of social commentary in such a sentimental film. Chaplin did it, but he was Chaplin. Well, Pixar got away with it because they're Pixar- I think they only people who complained were Fox News and the Fat Acceptance wackos who envied the Buy-n-Large hoverchairs. The movie doesn't give us easy solutions or perfect endings, which is even braver. It says that fixing things will be hard work, but we can do it. It speaks volumes more than the insipid Oscar-bait of The Curious Case of Benjamin Button, and if I had my druthers it would be competing there instead of this category.

So, my conclusion?

This year Pixar has it cinched- WALL-E is not only a new masterpiece on a visual and technical level, but simply one of the best stories this year, animated or not. If people think The Dark Knight got screwed out of a Best Picture nomination, WALL-E fans should be even angrier at the Animated Feature category. At least the Globes separate Comedy/Musical from Drama, which seems a bit more fair. I think as more movies like Beowulf, 300, and Sin City blur the lines between animated and traditional film, this category may disappear, or perhaps used for only traditional hand-drawn animation. Time and technology will tell. Disney is returning to traditional feature animation with The Princess and the Frog this year, and both Kung Fu Panda and Ratatouille have credit sequences that seem to yearn for the old days of hand-drawn. Let's hope we see more of it, and this category can get more than 3 nominees in the years to come.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Encounters at the End of the World

Werner Herzog is one of my favorite film makers. This may seem like damning with faint praise, but when he makes a documentary, it's like a Bruce Springsteen song. He just sort of starts talking about what he's up to, and at first you smirk, but soon you're tapping your foot and involved in it, and not surprised when it's a theme song for a movie or an inauguration.
Encounters at the End of the World is like that. Herzog visits Antarctica, well, because he wants to. He is adamant that he won't be making another movie about damn penguins, and he concentrates on what interests him. First it's the dreamers, wanderers and adventurers who people MacMurdo Research Station. John Carpenter wasn't that far off with the quirky characters in The Thing, mind you. There's a strange, homey atmosphere in the lonely places of the world, and we meet a woman who's been all over the world, in dangerous places, and here she entertains her comrades by contorting herself so she can be placed in a duffel bag. We meet those brave souls who'll dive among leopard seals under ice sheets to film the gorgeous formations or collect microscopic organisms, and the scientists who catalog the new species, and seek the origins of life on Earth.
He comments on how banal exploration has become, and we briefly meet a man who holds Guinness World Records for traveling in somersaults, on pogo sticks, and so on. He's going to Antarctica to skip across it, or something. The point is that we've not only mapped the world, but hacky-sacked across it. But at MacMurdo, the spirit of Shackleton is still alive, and you see respect and perhaps envy for men such as him, who braved a new world, in their lives.
But perhaps to Herzog's chagrin, the most arresting image is in fact, of a penguin who may have read Hemingway's story "The Snows of Kilimanjaro." As the little explore stares out over the ice, we know that his journey may only be caused by a fault in his little brain, but who's to say our own desires to conquer the unknown are so different? The footage is beautiful, and Herzog has once again made a masterful documentary. Get it on Blu-Ray, the DVD is a bit soft.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

The Hot Dog Oscars

In honor of the upcoming Academy Awards, let's see who wins this year's Best Hot Dog. I ate a lot of hot dogs last year. I gained ten pounds. (It's disgusting, the things I do for you people).

The nominees for Best Hot Dog of 2008 are:

Gray's Papaya, for The Curious Case of Coconut Champagne
This old favorite is a standard Oscar-bait dog- a skinny tube steak with good flavor, classic toppings, and they're open all night. The drinks are amazing, and vhat a bargain!! But we've seen this before.

Crif Dog, for Dog/Bacon
Hot Dogs and Bacon- two things that go great together, fried to crispy perfection. Others have done it, but no one wraps bacon around the dog like Crif does, and their toppings selections keep getting better. The one to beat.

Big Daddy's Diner, for Hotdog Millionaire
Size does matter! But so does flavor. Big Daddy's diner of decadence makes the best foot long we had this year, a spicy frank smothered in cheese and bacon. But the bacon lacked flavor and more toppings would have been nice.

Puka Dog, for The 'Furter

Let's go Hawaiian! You've got to go to Honolulu for this one, but it's worth the flight. The dog is a bit bland and mushy but well-seared. What makes this one amazing is the perfect bun- with a hole seared in the middle to stick the juicy dog, and tons of fruity, spicy and mayonnaise-y toppings!

Ben's Chili Bowl, for Half-Smoke
Ben's is a spicy sausage made of beef and pork, slathered mightily with a kick-ass smoky chili and tangy onions. This one's a classic and a serious contender to Crif Dog. If you're in D.C., you simply must go. It's a neighborhood landmark and makes serious good eats.

And the winners are...

Don't you hate when the Oscars wastes your time and saves the big ones for last? Get used to it.

The Independent Sausage award goes to The Dover Grill for being the most exciting hot dog joint in North Jersey we found. While it doesn't beat Crif Dog, they make some amazing flavor combos there.

The Irving Whaleberg Lifetime Achievement Award goes to Joey "Jaws" Chestnut, for winning the Nathan's hot dog eating contest once more. This time he ate 59 hot dogs in 12 minutes, tying champ Takera "Tsunami" Kobayashi, and then defeated him in a 5 hot dog eat-off tiebreaker. He is truly a great American and an inspiration to hot dog lovers everywhere.

and the winner of Best Hot Dog 2008 is...

No big surprise here if you know insiders at the Academy! Crif Dog continues to amaze us with their timeless concoctions. They've added cream cheese, kimchi, and Taylor Ham to the roster, but the Spicy Redneck- cole slaw, jalapenos, bacon, and chili- still reigns supreme. It's such a perfect mix of crunchy saltiness, spicy peppers, and cool creamy slaw. The Good Morning Jersey, with Taylor Ham, cheese and a fried egg, is pretty good but needs ketchup added- Taylor Ham and ketchup are the perfect marriage of flavor. The Jon Jon Dragon, with cream cheese, scallions and "everything bagel topping" is good but strange. Cream cheese goes well, but the topping is too salty. We still haven't conquered their menu, and they keep raising the bar.
Even when Milky can barely lift a Crif dog, he will persevere and conquer. He won't let any mere hot dog humiliate him. And just look at how fiercely Firecracker protects her plate. She got the Chihuahua, the avocado bacon dog. That's the one Chihuahua you won't wanna dropkick.

Thanks to all who participated, and for those overlooked, better luck next year!


Guy Ritchie made two Britmob heist ensemble films- the best I can categorize them at short notice- with Snatch and Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. After that he got pussywhipped into directing wifey Madonna in a needless remake of Lina Wertmuller's Swept Away, and then made a psychological film called Revolver that most people hated, and I avoided. Now he's back with RockNRolla, dipping into the rich well of British mobsters, colorful characters, and a story centering on a heist once more. And it works, mostly.
This time he must have watched the classic The Long Good Friday with Bob Hoskins, for the story is similar- a powerful mobster is on the cusp of a sweet deal with hungry new outsiders, and doesn't realize just what a big fish in a small pond he is. Tom Wilkinson (In the Bedroom, Michael Clayton) plays Lenny Cole, who is at a unique position to help push huge real estate deals along, with contacts in government, legal offices, the underworld, and everywhere else. "There's no school like the old school, and I'm the fucking headmaster."

His right hand man is Archie (Mark Strong, Sunshine) the master of the back-handed slap, razor wit and the man who gets things done. We are introduced to Lenny's specialty when he sets up and screws over three up and coming street men- One-Two (Gerard Butler), Mumbles (Idris Elba) and Handsome Bob (Tom Hardy). Also known as the Wild Bunch, these fellows are in hock to Lenny for 2 large- as in million, with inflation. So they need cash quick.
In the meanwhile, Lenny is working his deal with Uri of the Russian mob. $7 million for starters. That's a lot of money to take as deposit, but to show that he trusts Lenny, Uri lends him his lucky painting. Like the contents of the briefcase in Pulp Fiction, Ritchie decides we're not to see this painting. It's strange and beautiful. Things really start going when the picture inevitably disappears, and Lenny sends Archie to find it, at all costs. It's about time- the movie dragged for the first half hour, but around this point the Wild Bunch also get hired by Stella the slinky accountant (Thandie Newton, yum yum) to hit a money drop, to help assuage their debts.
The heists are the best part of the movie- Ritchie's sense of humor from having watched so many movies like this makes the scenes hilarious and refreshing. Gerard Butler is hyper and hilarious, rather like Colin Farrell in In Bruges, and that's a compliment. When they hit a van guarded by two Russian thugs who sit around comparing war scars, I was finally engaged completely. We spend too much time lingering on the not-so-dead Johnny Quid, the Rock & Roller who wants to be a rocknrolla (wiseguy) to keep my interest. He's not that interesting. The aptly named Wild Bunch and Archie make it all worth it, and Tom Wilkinson lives up to Ritchie's tradition of bad-ass old mob kingpins like Brick Top.
The story ends like a drawing room mystery when everyone gets together and things get explained, and all the mysteries become clear. I found the end satisfying but it felt lazy. Once again Guy Ritchie crafts a bevy of interesting characters with colorful names and gets them in bloody and humorous situations, but he chooses the least interesting one to lead with, and even announces that he'll be returning in a sequel at the end. I wouldn't mind seeing more of Archie, Stella and the Wild Bunch but I'm not sure about the others. Heck, even small parts like Tank the info man were better company. Glad Ritchie is back on track, though- this was enjoyable viewing for a fan. If it's your first film of his, check out his Snatch first.

Monday, January 26, 2009

The Reader

This is a fine drama but I'm not sure it deserves a best picture nomination. Like Frost/Nixon it is held together by performances, like Rachel Getting Married it has some flaws. Kate Winslet is 99% fantastic, channeling Marlene Dietrich as a German woman named Hannah nearing 40, and still working as a ticket taker on a tram. One day a young man named Michael (David Kross) is sick on her trolley and she helps him; later his mother urges him to go thank her, and a spontaneous affair begins when he peeks at her putting on her stockings.
The first act of the movie is Summer of '42 and the lovers spent a great deal of time naked. Some complain, but this feels and looks natural. It doesn't stand out as gratuitous, but shows how prudish most movies actually are these days. As the physical relationship softens and becomes an emotional one, young Michael begins to read to her. It becomes obvious to us watching that Hannah cannot read, but the movie treats this as a surprise later. Perhaps if the movie wasn't called "The Reader," and I didn't immediately think "who'd need a reader? a blind person, or an illiterate?" it could have been a surprise. But it is not, and the movie feels clumsy when it tries to make it so. As Michael ignores the beautiful young girls flowering around him at school, Hannah one day disappears, breaking his heart but freeing him to live a normal life.
We see Michael go to university, years later, where he is studying law. His ethics teacher wants his students to know the difference between law and morality; he takes them to the trial of SS guards charged with the murder of Jews. And Michael sees Hannah again, and she's not a member of the jury. The "secret" of her illiteracy becomes the linchpin of who is the guiltiest person on trial, and she is too ashamed to admit it. And it becomes obvious that her shame of illiteracy led her to become a guard during the war, and "sign" a statement she could not know the contents of. At first this seems like a clever construct- what if someone ended up a monster through no motive of their own? But it is not. Does redemption exist for ordinary people who followed the rules and abetted atrocities? Or are they just scapegoats for the entire country?
Soon it is Michael's turn to stand up to the unstoppable engines of the government, justice, and the country's demand for absolution. Like Hannah, he has a shameful secret he is loathe to reveal, and makes a decision that will haunt him for the rest of his life. For every whistleblower, for every man who stands up to the tanks at Tienanmen Square, for every Oskar Schindler there were a million people who just went along. The Reader is about those people.
Michael's shame weighs down on him throughout his life and makes him distant from his nonexistent wife and neglected daughter. Played by Ralph Fiennes, he manages to be quiet yet expressive, a shadow of the passionate young man he once was. The third act is his attempt at redemption with Hannah, his daughter, and a survivor, and the weakest part of the film. There are plenty of good scenes, but the pacing is languid and the editing awkward. Like The Return of the King, it doesn't know when it's ending, and we get several denouements. We get a clumsy and unnecessary flashback structure with bookends, and it weakens the film.

I think it is still worth seeing, and the performances of Winslet, Kross and Fiennes hold together the director's clumsy web. If you want to see Kate's nipples, they're like the double crimson sunsets on Tatooine in Star Wars on the big screen. Her make-up is excellent and while not as creepy as Benjamin Button's, she ages convincingly. With her accent and severe expressions, Winslet proves that she can transform into a character- even if that character is eerily reminiscent of Marlene Dietrich in A Foreign Affair. Only once, when she smiles up at us, did she remind me who she was. It wouldn't be an outrage if she got the Oscar for it.
4 big red Nazi nipples out of 5

Keanu Bebop - Whoa, Reeves to star in Cowboy Bebop movie

Hollywood Reporter reports that 2011 will bring us a Cowboy Bebop live-action movie, with Keanu Reeves as Spike Spiegel the bounty hunter. Let me pause while the anime nerds scream. Now, if Keanu channels his old Ted "Theodore" Logan and My Own Private Idaho energy, and takes a shitload of Jeet Kune Do lessons, this could work. I'm actually more concerned about his fighting skills than his acting chops for this one. He at least looks the part, being a lanky black-haired chain smoker.
The good news is they have the original director Shinichiro Watanabe on board as associate producer. Hopefully they'll realize the music was an important part of the show and bring the Seatbelts along for the soundtrack. The show was one of the best written series I've seen, animated or not; weaving story and character arcs among single throw-away episodes with homages to everything from blaxploitation films, spaghetti Westerns, film noir and the French new wave. If you watch one animated series from Japan, this would be my suggestion. It can make a great movie- and did, with the animated feature Cowboy Bebop: Knockin' on Heaven's Door, which even made it to theaters stateside. A live-action remake of that wouldn't be the worst idea, but hopefully they'll give us something fresh. Maybe Keanu can kickstart a new franchise.

But enough of that, let the nerds fight over who'll make the best Faye Valentine:

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Frank Langella admits that Skeletor was his favorite role

Frank Langella is up for the Best Actor Oscar this year for his excellent portrayal of President Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but when he was asked what his favorite role was on CBS Sunday Morning, he didn't mention that one. Or Dracula, the role that made him a '70s sex symbol, or the evil politician from Dave.

Nope, it's Skeletor in the enormous late-'80s flop The Masters of the Universe, based on the cartoon. If you haven't seen it, click here for my review.

Here's Langella's interview on CBS Sunday Morning. He's a brave man, and said he took the role because his son watched the He-Man cartoon. It's pretty awesome that he starred in a disaster of a B movie for his son's enjoyment. No wonder he had so much fun with the role. Most actors say that hours of make-up is a pain in the butt, but the very private Langella endured it for his kid, and I respect that. I feel bad for mocking his taking the part now, but he and Billy Barty were really the best parts. To see how he prepared for Nixon, I suggest watching him as Skeletor. You won't regret it.


I love a good World War 2 movie. The problem is we've heard so many of the stories from that war. Well now Edward Zwick (The Last Samurai, Glory) and Daniel Craig (James Bond) are telling us one we haven't heard before about the Bielski Partisans, Polish Jews who fought back against the Germans and saved 1200 people by camping in the forest. It's an amazing tale and makes you wonder if the city folk of the ghettos were as well armed as their country cousins, if they could have fought back the onslaught of Hitler's blitzkrieg. But that's something for writers of Alternative History fantasy books and nerds rolling dice in their basements to decide.

Defiance is the tale of Tuvia Bielski (Daniel Craig) and his brothers, who come home to find their mother and father murdered by German soldiers. When they find out that a local constable has been pointing out the Jews for the invading Germans, Tuvia takes a pistol and goes to the man's house for revenge. From then on they are fugitives, hiding with friendlies and making quick raids for food and to kill soldiers when they can. But other Jews who escaped the trains to the camps begin to find them. Not all can fight. And those aiding them are murdered. So Tuvia and his brothers Zus (Liev Schrieber), Asael and Aron take to the woods with them.
The forests are deep. They begin with simple lean-tos, but eventually have a huge camp with small cabins, soup lines, and scheduled food raids. The locals don't take too kindly to being raided, and Tuvia tries to spread the pain around so no one suffers too much. Some give freely, but others need the persuasion of gunpoint. Survival is survival; the thefts are not glossed over. The camp grows and grows, and everyone brings sad news of towns emptied of Jews- either killed or herded to the trains. Zus wants to be true partisans, to fight the Germans, but Tuvia would rather "save one old Jewish woman than kill ten Germans." And this brings the film its only real conflict.

This is what gives the film a bit of depth, because when your enemy is the Nazis, there is little ambiguity. Instead, we get to think about whether it is more noble to save the innocent, or fight evil. In the end we need to do both, but it is not always an easy choice. The movie does not dwell too long on these tough choices, but does not ignore them. It is not an easy task for Tuvia to lead his people. Some fight, and all work. The fighters want a bigger share of their meager meals. They bring a German soldier prisoner, and Tuvia's declaration that they will not behave as animals is put to the test.
But in the end this is a war movie, and the action is excellent. As partisans they fight with ambushes and guerrilla tactics, and Zwick does not gloss over the violence. A car full of German officers and their dates are ambushed on the way to a party. There is no hesitation. The Jewish women fight as well, for guns are the great equalizer; and they die, in numbers, without sentiment. They are women fighting for their lives, not Ewoks. Their lives and honor are just as important as the men's. Zus fights with the Russian partisans and learns that "comrade" be damned, they have no love of Jews either; Stalin's "socialist principles" are only enforced when it serves the right purposes.
I enjoyed Defiance, but like Zwick's other epic films- Legends of the Fall, Glory, The Last Samurai, and Blood Diamond it has an old-fashioned Hollywood quality with broad appeal and background characters drawn in stereotype. The smaller characters seem like functions of the plot and filler for color- we have an apolitical teacher and an intellectual hashing out whether Stalin will be any better than Hitler, which is ironic to us with 20/20 hindsight. The women and younger brothers fade into the landscape. The women take up with the men without the usual courtship and call themselves "forest wives," but most of them blend in with the trees. But like Glory, Zwick once again tells us a tale we did not know before, and puts a face to history. He does a fine job, and made another memorable film here.

3.5 Schmeissers out of 5

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