Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Carriers may actually get released

My cousin Lou's latest movie in post hell is Carriers, with Piper Perabo. A horror movie directed by the Pastor brothers, the title tells it all- after an apocalyptic virus pandemic, a group of friends find out why they ain't dead yet: they're carriers! It's been held up for four years, and looks like it may be going straight to DVD. I'll see it of course, it's too bad it didn't make it to theaters. If stuff like The Haunting in Connecticut (full review of that turd) can get its weekend in the sun of naive teenager money, a post-apocalyptic horror flick sure should.

Bloody Disgusting has some more news. I miss the days of tasteless filmmaking when this would've been released during the height of the swine flu panic. I found out about it over at Tractor Facts where they were goofing on the poster, which looks like some sort of zombie softporn:

NetFlix Queue Picks: Wendy and Lucy

I watched the acclaimed indie Wendy and Lucy last month with Firecracker but forgot to write about it, and that's a shame, because it's one of last year's best movies. I'd go as far as to call it, along with Frozen River (full review), as the closest we've come to The Bicycle Thief in recent years. Big talk, yes. But we've since swallowed neorealism and it takes a quiet, introspective film like this to bring it back to us. If Sean Penn watched this before Into the Wild it might have gone from good to great.
Wendy and Lucy is a deceptively simple film, and that will lead to accusations of pretentiousness. They are unwarranted. We meet Wendy, inseparable from her dog Lucy, a perky and lovable sandy mix. We're slowly introduced to their situation through visuals, as Wendy tries to sell some aluminum cans at a recycling center; she's homeless, living out of her car, tightly budgeting things so she can make it to Alaska and work in a cannery. She drives a beat-up Toyota and lives out of it with Lucy, and she's made it as far as the Northwest. We don't dwell on or pity her, for she meets some who are less well-off, as she walks Lucy by the railroad tracks. They live in the woods, and ride the trains to get around, modern day hobos.
People living like Wendy are just one crisis away from tragedy, and we get to see it happen. Her car breaks down; she makes a risky decision, and suffers the consequences. The drama mostly plays out on Wendy's face; Michelle Williams isn't Maria Falconetti in The Passions of Joan of Arc but she does an excellent job of expressing the history and emotional depth Wendy has with Lucy, and with her family. She's been in Brokeback Mountain, The Station Agent and Synecdoche, NY as well. Director Kelly Reichardt does a fine job of telling us a story through conversation and images. For example, Wendy's backstory is explained only through a phone call to her sister, and we know volumes from how she answers: "What do you want now?"
It's a sad and touching story that gives a face to the marginal. to quote F. Scott Fitzgerald- you can start with a person, and end up with a type; if you start with a type, you end up with nothing. Wendy and Lucy gives us a person who we can empathize with by the end of the film, as she agonizes through decisions and doesn't always make the right one. Our Puritan heritage may make us want her to suffer for her decisions, but hopefully we also have some Christian charity that can forgive her, and see the long road that led to them, where bootstraps could find no purchase.

Rating: Tasty

Monday, June 29, 2009

Michael "the" Mann - Thief

This is part of the Michael Mann blogathon being held at J.D.'s excellent Radiator Heaven movie blog, in anticipation for the upcoming film Public Enemies.

"I am the last guy in the world that you wanna fuck with."

The first movie by Michael Mann that I watched was Thief, starring James Caan. I was young and unsure of why I liked it; it's grittiness, the technical aspect of the safe-cracking and high-end burglaries. The spellbinding soundtrack by Tangerine Dream. The complete lack of spoon-feeding or pandering to the audience.

The film opens with a man in listening to a police scanner in a parked car, while another in a jumpsuit hoists a huge drill to a safe and begins opening it. As the bit screws through the metal and reveals the workings inside, the camera zips in, and we watch the gears smashed to bits with a chisel. The cracker is masked with goggles, working diligently. He speaks to his quiet compatriots in quick staccato questions, utter minimalism. Another man works a bevy of volt meters on the security system. Quickly, diamonds are looted, they leave the scene with such precision that calling it "military" would seem insulting, and drive off in separate cars into the rain-puddled night streets.
With barely a word spoken, Mann has already gripped us. Audiences have always loved seeing criminals pull off a heist, and no frills are needed. With characteristic laconic style we're introduced to Frank the jewel thief's "normal life," owner of a car dealership. The perfect job for a criminal who sees civilians, those outside "the life," as marks and suckers. The entirety of the film is set in this shadow world, one we love to flirt with in the movies. And Mann, like Scorsese would in Goodfellas, perfectly portrays a world of villains who want to cobble together a life that mimics our boring suburban existence, while we go to movies to take a trip into theirs.

The film is partly based on the book The Home Invaders: The Confessions of a Cat Burglar by Chicago jewel thief Frank Hohimer. "Frank" was the pen name of real-life crook Jean Seybold, who served as a consultant on the set along with John Santucci, another thief who also played the crooked cop Urizzi. The book is set mostly in the '50s and '60s, so the movie modernized the criminal techniques, and changed Frank's modus operandi; instead of a home invader stealing rich women's jewelry collections, he seems to strike jewel distribution houses. This was a wise choice, for it anonymizes the victim and makes it easier for us to like Frank. In the book, he was often holding homeowners at gunpoint for the safe combinations, and the author was long suspected of taking part in the murder of Valerie Percy, daughter of an Illinois Senator. Not quite as glamorous. But the best parts of the book make it to the screen.
Their fence gets whacked by the mob before they get paid; this and continual police harassment by crooked cops wanting a bite of the take lead Frank to consider mobbing up with crime boss Leo, played by Robert Prosky. Like the real crime boss Leo Rugendorf, he doesn't look the part, but is a ruthless autocrat who uses people up and throws them away when he's done with them. Frank doesn't want to join, because he cares about nothing, and that makes him impossible to pressure or hurt. But soon, he will.
Michael Mann's films often figure on men with a personal code of ethics that leads to their downfall, and Thief is no different. Frank feels a great personal debt to his mentor Okie, based on a real jewel thief who taught Seybold the ropes in prison. He also wants to get back with his estranged girlfriend Jessie (Tuesday Weld) and have children. His feelings for them lead him to break his stringent code of working freelance. Okie is played by Willie Nelson; Mann continues to use musicians in small roles, and this is one of the best. Okie urges Frank to tell Jessie about his real profession. Lifted right from the book, he tells him "Lie to no one. If there 's somebody close to you, you'll ruin it with a lie. If they're a stranger, who the fuck are they you gotta lie to them?"
Okie is dying, and wants to spend one day on the outside; it's Frank's desire to pay back his mentor, and save a child lost in the juvie system like he was, that leads him to join Leo's crew. In the diner scene with Weld, we learn everything we need to know about Frank. Caan is known for his anger in the Godfather, but his vulnerability in this scene is palpable. It sets the tone for the film's grand ending. He explains that you can only be fearless when you care about nothing. This would later transform into Neil McCauley's more Zen-like "when the heat's around the corner" ethos in the epic Heat. DeNiro would also take his Yojimbo-like simplicity of action and clear speech from Frank. His desire for a normal life. Frank's a tough as nails man; we've seen him stare down mobsters and pull his .45, but his weakness, his desire to have a family with his wife cuts through all that, and makes him seem almost like a young boy.
As he plans the job for Leo, he begins to reap the benefits. A new house. Strings pulled to get his mentor Okla released due to his age and health. A baby adopted, despite his 10 year conviction. Frank's background as a juvenile delinquent makes him yearn to save an orphaned child from the same fate. He says, "I was state raised! You see 8 by 4 green walls long enough, you tell 'em "my life is yours!" Reminiscent of Andrew Vachss's Burke character, Caan embodies the hard-edged, serious ex-con who values every second of his time outside prison. Caan explains in the DVD commentary, "I don't use a single contraction in the entire film." This makes Frank feel like a man who doesn't say anything he doesn't mean to the core of his being. "If you don't use contractions, you are less likely to be misunderstood. You never have to repeat yourself."

It was filmed in Mann's hometown of Chicago and laden with its locations and jazz; many of the best jewel snatching crews of the time came from Chicago, specifically the Smith Park neighborhood called "the Patch." He used his connections to consult with real professional thieves and Chicago police; Dennis Farina was ex-Chicago PD, and though he barely says a word- something bizarre to imagine, for an actor who'd become so memorable for his outbursts- his presence helps add gritty realism to Mann's style. For example the attention to detail with the firearms- Frank uses an expensive custom long slide .45; Dennis Farina carries a rare HiStandard bullpup semi-auto shotgun, which really can fire as fast as it does. It's not quick cuts of a single shot, it's all 5 shells when he teaches Frank a lesson. James Caan was sent to Jeff Cooper's Gunsite Ranch for two days to go through combat pistol training; you can see it in his rigid isosceles shooting stance.
The centerpiece of the film is the West Coast heist, based on a real job pulled by consultant Joe Santucci. The planning takes weeks, beginning with procuring the "oxy lance" that will be used to cut a door in the front of the custom built safe. All the tools are real, and the first safe we see Caan crack was purchased for him to make his bones on. Even when they pull the cylinder out of a door lock, you can recognize the buster they use, if you've ever needed a locksmith. The oxygen lance is real as well, requiring fire extinguishing foam all over the set to keep the sparks from igniting everything. We get a welder's mask view of the door melting under its 6,000 degree barrage. It's oddly beautiful, a sparkle shower of diamonds, like the loot inside.
Santucci also plays Sgt. Urizzi, one of the crooked cops who shakes Frank down with a relish that only someone who's been on the other side of such a conversation can have. He's the guy Frank continually taunts, mistaking his Italian heritage for Puerto Rican.

You're a stand-up guy. You're a real stand-up guy. You got a mouth, you can take a trimming. You could make things easy for everybody. But no. You gotta be a goof. You're real good. No violence. Strictly professional. I'd probably like you. I'd like to go to the track, ball games. Stuff like that, you know? Frank, there's ways of doing things that round off the corners, make life easy for everybody. What's wrong with that? There's plenty to go around. We know what you take down. We know you got something major coming down soon. But no, you gotta come on like a stiff prick. Who the fuck do you think you are? What's the matter with you? You got something to say or are you waiting for me to ask you to dance?
Even James Belushi is good here, lacking his later smart-ass demeanor and sneer, playing it very cool. Then again, the comic actor is surrounded by tough guys- ex-cons and ex-cops, and James Caan in a role that makes his iconic appearance as Sonny in The Godfather seem warm and inviting. It was Belushi's first film, and the debuts of William Petersen, Dennis Farina, John Kapelos, and Robert Prosky; Farina would return in Mann's "Crime Story" TV series that made his career, and opened the door for "Miami Vice;" William Petersen would star in Mann's adaptation of Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, Manhunter.
The excellent Tangerine Dream soundtrack is what drew me back to this film in the 90's after I saw Heat. I still have it on vinyl; it's some of their best work, and "Confrontation," which plays over the final gunfight and end credits, is an electronic blues lament for a man who threw it all away so he could destroy the man holding his chain. The film is dedicated to Chicago bluesmen Willie Dixon and Mighty Joe Young, and the film does have the fleeting joy and inevitable sadness of a blues song. Young appears in the club scene where we first meet Jessie.
Tuesday Weld's role is easily overlooked, but she perfectly captures the moll look and attitude. In a film about men, we're reminded of James Brown's pearl of wisdom, "It's a man's world, but he made that world for woman." As soon as Frank and Jessie- and I'm sure naming the characters after the James Gang was no accident- hook up, he calls Leo and says he'll do a job for him. But he wants to play by his rules, and doesn't realize that in a Faustian bargain, only one guy sets the rules in the end.
There are three ranting monologues that give Alec Baldwin's infamous Glengarry Glen Ross "watch" speech a run for its money. When Frank comes out as a criminal to Jessie; When the crooked detective pulls Urizzi off him and tells him why he has to pay up to the cops, and when Leo tells Frank that he owns him, at his plating factory. This last particular scene is quite brutal and Mann films Leo's face upside down, as Frank sees it, passing on his disorientation to us.
Look. I said fuckin' look at 'im! Look at what happened to ya friend 'cause you gotta go against the way the things go down. You treat what I try to do for you like shit? You don't wanna work for me, what's wrong with you? And then, you carry a piece, in my house! You one of those burned-out demolished wackos in the joint? You're scary, because you don't give a fuck. But don't come onto me now with your jailhouse bullshit 'cause you are not that guy, dont'chu get it, you prick? You got a home, car, businesses, family, n' I own the paper on ya whole fuckin' life. I'll put ya cunt wife on the street to be fucked in the ass by niggers and Puerto Ricans. Ya kids mine because I bought 'it. You got 'im on loan, he is leased, you are renting him. I'll whack out ya whole family. People'll be eatin' 'em in their lunch tomorrow in their Wimpyburgers and not know it. You get paid what I say. You do what I say, I run you, there is no discussion. I want, you work, until you are burned-out, you are busted, or you're dead... you get it? You got responsibilities - tighten up n' do it. Clean this mess up, get 'im outta here. Back to work, Frank.
And to punctuate things, they dump a body in the nitric acid tanks of the electroplating factory. Mann has since trimmed his dialogue down, but he's also made his stories a lot tighter. Thief is sometimes a bit too obvious, and too quick; as soon as Frank signs up with Leo, he's walking streets paved with gold. And while his grittiness is solidified, his style is not yet in full flower. Frank's immediate coldness as he disassembles everything he once cared about is almost too much to bear. The slow-motion explosions may lack panache, but the lack of dialogue as he destroys it all is perfect. The sequence is still one of the most memorable of the film, as Frank writes large his Zen koan about your possessions owning you in fire across the screen. When he confronts Leo at his home, he is a man with nothing; he has thrown Jessie out of his life, and burned everything he owns.
The final confrontation is as brutal and stylized as that of Taxi Driver, as Frank's singularity of purpose makes him a swift instrument of vengeance. We don't get a single word from him; he does what he must do, and Mann expertly shows and does not tell. There are little touches; Dennis Farina's character can't aim the bullpup shotgun after he's wounded; Frank wears a protective vest, and tears his shirt to take a look at how it worked. And when it's over, he walks silently into the night, down the lonely road he finds himself on again. Will he go back to Jessie and his son? We don't know. Yet we are curiously satisfied, as the Tangerine Dream guitar lament drones through the speakers.
Thief is a singular film that portrays the life of the high-end burglar like no other. By peopling the movie with real thieves, real cops, and local Chicago characters, Mann made the outlandish story utterly believable and gripping. Mann's style mirrors the blues- a man with nothing, who has something, has it taken away, and sacrifices everything to get it back. The screen is a black night canvas painted with neon, the flash of diamonds and the electric burn of a welder's torch, with only brief respites on the sunny beach of San Diego after the score. We visit a world of rocks glasses amber with bourbon, meet night people who come home as the sun rises, who steal riches while we sleep, and get to know an ice cold thief who knows the only way to survive on your own in that world is to have nothing.
Mann would go on to more epic tales, but would always return to the American archetype of the lone killer, the man with his code. Hawkeye; Marlowe; the Man with No Name. It's no mistake that Michael Mann would direct The Last of the Mohicans, which has a long shadow over American literature with the iconic character of Hawkeye. Frank was the mold from which Neil McCauley was made, but you'll see the same obsession in Will Graham, Jeffrey Wigand in The Insider, Sonny Crockett of Miami Vice, Mike Torello of Crime Story, and even in his biopic of Ali. Heat and Manhunter- and certainly Public Enemies with the Dillinger/Purvis face-off- show how similar cops and crooks are, but Thief is the one purely from the crook's point of view, where there are no good guys. His next film in development, Frankie Machine, is based on a novel by Don Winslow (full review) is a mob picture starring DeNiro as a retired hitter dragged back into the life, when he'd rather surf the morning waves and run his bait shop. Another perfect Mann protagonist, he has old school values and has to ram them through the throats of some new blood who won't let sleeping dogs lie. I'm pumped to see some '30s gangster action next weekend, but I wouldn't mind seeing DeNiro stop treading water and work with a director like Mann again.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Public Enemies Featurette and Interview with Michael Mann

Trailer Addict has this nice teaser showing how Michael Mann got Johnny Depp and Christian Bale to the same places their characters Dillinger and Purvis escaped and hunted from. The same hotel rooms, the same prison rebuilt... a rather amazing attention to detail that can only inspire great performances from these two actors. For one, it will be great seeing Depp outside of a Burton crazy role and back to stuff like his forgotten, excellent turn in Donnie Brasco; and Bale outside of the action superstar he's quickly become, to something like The Prestige.

And for good reading, fellow Chi-town boy Roger Ebert picks Mann's brain about the upcoming film here:

Michael Mann: Seeing history through Dillinger's eyes
by Roger Ebert

a taste: Michael Mann saw the Biograph Theatre at 2433 N. Lincoln for the first time while riding past it on a streetcar when he was 8 or 9. His mother Esther told him, “That’s the old Biograph Theatre where they killed Dillinger." She took a bow from the audience at the Chicago premiere of his movie "Public Enemies," which ends with a corpse on the Biograph sidewalk.

Don't forget the Michael Mann blogathon at Radiator Heaven that begins tomorrow!

Abita Brewery Tour

I've come to terms that most of my trips revolve around beer. I've been to Germany and Ireland, with Belgium next on the list. The second Saturday of every month is reserved for Ramstein Brewery's Open House. So, when traveling in the Gulf region, I simply must stop by Abita Springs for the Abita Brewery tour. They hold them every day at 2pm, and have a few on Saturdays. And they make some of the best craft beers in the States.

Southern hospitality at its finest

The tiny town of Abita Springs, just north of massive Lake Pontchartrain, has been known for its spring water for centuries. The Choctaw Indians believed in its healing powers, and nowadays, it makes for a crisp clean tasting beer. Abita bottles 80,000 barrels of beer and 5,000 of root beer. The brewery is probably best known for their raspberry wheat, Purple Haze, outside of Louisiana. Locally the Amber is their flagship, and they have several varieties and seasonals.
Oh, heavenly row of taps

Unlike New Jersey, where the Alcoholic Beverage Commission is a corrupt dinosaur meant to protect the exorbitantly priced liquor licenses sold the the highest bidder, at Abita they have a row of taps you can serve yourself from before the tour begins. I tried everything except the root beer, which I'd had bottled before. It's quite good, but doesn't mix with regular beer in my opinion. The rest- well, even their Light beer (heavens forbid!) is good. I sipped some. Life's too short to drink light beer.
"Beer is proof God loves us and wants us to be happy." -Ben Franklin

I wasn't a fan of their Turbodog the first time I tried it, but here, fresh from the tap, it was delicious. It's a dark brown ale, malty with chocolate and coffee notes, a big-bodied brew that'll satisfy the Guinness lover in you. The Jockamo IPA is a mild, classic Indian Pale Ale that packs a lot of flavor without hopping you to death. On the other hand, the Restoration Ale- proceeds of which go to restoring the damage done by Katrina- is a full California-style IPA that frankly, gives the IPA champ Dogfish Head a serious run for the money in my opinion. The Amber classic is a Munich-style dark lager with lots of flavor, and would be the entry-level beer I'd recommend. It's crisp and clear with good flavor, without the sharp notes that take getting used to.
Sonny Day (no sign of Little Neddie Niederlander)

The tour showed off their impressive brewing operations, one of the biggest I've seen. The bigger boys like Sam Adams and Brooklyn Brewery tend to tour their specialty breweries and not the main event. This was the real deal. I met with brewer Sonny Day (not the same guy Steve Martin played in ¡Three Amigos!) and we talked about their operations. I also promised to bring him some Genesee 12 Horse Ale- but sadly, it is no longer made and High Falls Brewing doesn't offer tours. Sorry, Sonny! Abita is up to 90,000 barrels according to Sonny, and I'm glad they're growing. They truly make some of the best American beers you can get your hands on.
Their Harvest Brews are worth looking out for- we just caught the release of their new Satsuma Harvest Wit, a Belgian white made with real local satsuma juices. It's very tasty, but the one everyone goes crazy for is Strawberry Lager, one of the best fruit beers I've ever had. Firecracker's Dad managed to locate us the last six-pack in the Baton Rouge area, and I'm forever thankful. But to be honest, my favorite is the Pecan ale that comes out near autumn. It's just so unique, smooth and definitely tastes of pecans! By the way, it's pronounced pe-CAHN. My first trip down South, I learnt the hard way that a pee-can is something you piss in, and a pe-CAHN is made into pie. Don't get me started on why they call 'em praw-lines, either.

And how can we forget seasonals? They had their potent Red Ale this time, and it's quite good. The best Red Ale I ever had was a homebrew by a co-worker, but the Abita and Sam Adams versions are quite tasty. Another good find is the Andygator, a Helles Doppelbock served only in kegs. We've found it at Mara's Homemade in NYC before, but it's available in Louisiana at discerning beer bars like the Chimes. Andygator is a bright punchy bock and great on a summer day. The problem with Abita is that it's hard to pick just one; if I had to pick a favorite beer of theirs, the Jockamo IPA is one of the more complex and surprising brews, but a year or two ago they made an Abita Select Altbier that I couldn't get enough of. This year the Select was a good pilsner, but that Altbier will always be remembered by my grateful palate.

If you visit the Abita website you'll notice they are big on food pairings, and even offer a cookbook. Louisiana is as much a cuisine as a place, and Abita makes such a variety of beers to go with every favorite from a spicy crawfish boil, fish fry, hearty gumbo to sweet stuff like pralines and pecan pie. I wonder if they'll ever made a peach brew with delicious Ruston peaches, sort of like Dogfish Head's Festina Pêche? That would be something, since Abita is really king of the fruit beers as far as I'm concerned. Try a Purple Haze sometime- it certainly tastes of razz but it ain't the cherry cough syrup flavor of my least favorite Sam Adams brew, Cherry Wheat. Abita is available on tap at many bars in New York City and New Jersey like Oddfellow's Rest, Acme, the Delta, Fat Annie's Truck Stop, House of Brews, and elsewhere. Give it a try, you won't be disappointed. I garawntee!

Saturday, June 27, 2009

Burger "systems" - White Diamond

The Burger Battle of the Best continues...The hamburger as we know it today has many origins. In 1900, Louis Lunch in New Haven Connecticut began serving beef patties between white bread; at the 1904 World's Fair, Texan Fletcher Davis began selling them with a slice of raw onion. But they never took on; World War 1 cast disfavor on the German-named Hamburger steak, and Upton Sinclair's novel The Jungle turned us off ground beef and sausages. It wasn't until 1921 when White Castle came up with the exposed kitchen and assembly line style "system" to show the cleanliness that its popularity exploded; Nathan would do the the same with frankfurters. As the chain expanded, dozens of other "systems" popped up to sell burgers to hungry Americans.
In New Jersey, a few of them remain, and many stole the "white" moniker from White Castle to compete. We have White Manna and White Mana, of famous rivalry; a White Circle System, a White Rose System. And the White Diamond tucked in a traffic circle in Clark. These Burger Systems all have a "system" of making many burgers quickly. White Castle made holes in their patties so they didn't need flipping; others steam them using pan lids to cover, but most flip the burger once, put the top of the bun on, and then spatula it into the bottom of the bun. This way you can use all the grill real estate at once.
The White Diamond is open 24 hours (in a row, I checked) and they sling their thin patties into poppy seed Kaiser rolls with onions, pickles and ketchup. I got cheese on these, and bacon on one. The burgers steam inside the big rolls when topped on the grill, giving them a moist juicy flavor instead of a grilled one. While I love grilled burgers as much as the next guy, I've come to believe that the grill top and cast iron pan are better tools for cooking them. And the White Diamond system works like a charm.
While burgers this thin can't stand up to ground-to-order sirloin, they actually compete very well with the Shake Shack's brisket burger. They're very thin and I easily downed two. The rolls aren't too gummy, they must have them custom made, and the poppy seeds make for an interesting and unique texture, with the grated onions and crunchy pickle adding to the mix. And they serve it up for $2.80 for the large cheeseburger. $3.50 with bacon, which was good, but ultimately a distraction from a systematic masterpiece of roadfood.
If you get them to go, they are neatly wrapped in wax paper of just the right size, so you can peel it back and eat it with one hand on the wheel. I tested this. The building itself is as unique as the burgers- a silver cube with a lunch counter complete with bar stools in the diner tradition. Ample parking, but the little building is easy to miss- I passed it even with a GPS directing me there. This was the Clark location; apparently there's another in Linden, and Elizabeth. The Linden one will be getting a visit, it looks like it has character. That's something the White Diamond has in spades, along with 62 years of delicious burgers. It's a short hop off Exit 135 on the Garden State Parkway, and worth the detour.

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Friday, June 26, 2009

Follow Friday 6/26

If you haven't noticed the little widget in the corner, you can follow my witty twitty twattering on twitter here. If it's not worthy of a loquacious post, it goes there.

some new blog followers!

Kate Gabrielle of Silents and Talkies, Flapper Doodle and more. In her film blog, she refuses to watch anything made after 1970- an audacious vow- but one that leaves a mother lode of cinematic enjoyment to be had.

Klidmosteren! A Danish food blogger. It looks yummy. Mani tak! That's all the Danish I remember from my last visit.

TalkieKing of All Talking! All Singing! All Dancing! Another fine classic film blog.

Scandyman of the naughty and titillating Scandy Factory blog, which I adore, and the prolific Celluloid Slammer where you'll find all sorts of film clips.

I have a feeling my rare classic film post on "Tales of Manhattan" nabbed me these follows, and I'm going to watch and review more older films now. I was once addicted to Turner Classic Movies and watched 66 films in 2 weeks during a rather pathetic period, so I've tried to cut down on it. I've been reading a lot more lately. I used to be good for a book or two a week, and my huge backlog demands that I get back to it.

The Hangover

Sometimes you just had to be there. That's how a lot of Todd Phillip's The Hangover feels, and we weren't there. It's a good premise- 4 buddies on a bachelor party booze binge in Vegas who remember nothing of the wild evening that left the groom-to-be MIA, the room destroyed, and both a tiger and a baby in their midst. So it's a mystery as they backtrack their missteps to find their buddy and get him to the church on time.
The buddies are Bradley "Wedding Crashers" Cooper, a slimy schoolteacher who steals his kids' field trip dough for Vegas; Zach "Comedians of Comedy" Galifianakis, the creepy idiot manchild of a brother-in-law; and Ed "Daily Show" Helms, a pussy-whipped dentist about to propose to a nightmare woman. The insanity they awake to is epic; there's a tiger in the room, an abandoned infant, someone's missing a tooth, someone is married, and the room looks like Hunter S. Thompson visited. The characters are well-played, but Zach Gonocacockus steals the show; with a mountain man beard, puppy dog eyes and questions like "did Caesar really live here?" he brings a low-key hilarity that saves the film.
The other scene-stealer shows up much later and is making a name for himself for this sort of thing- Ken Jeong. He was the snarky ob-gyn in Knocked Up, and the King Argotron in Role Models; here I won't reveal when he appears or why, but he's definitely deserving of bigger roles and I can't wait to see them. The other cameos are a bit forgettable- Heather Graham is a stripper with a heart of gold, and Mike Tyson shows up to reclaim his tiger, and to settle the question if he should ever appear in movies that aren't documentaries. The answer is no. The film's other misstep is the hip-hop soundtrack, which was a funny idea for a movie about a bunch of whitebread nerds ten years ago when Office Space did it. Not so much this time.
What I did like was that the movie wasn't very cruel and had some affection for its characters. I've only seen snippets of Todd Phillips' other movies like Road Trip and Old School, as was not impressed. The Hangover, however, shows promise. He makes great use of small roles like Jeffrey Tambor as the father-in-law who takes the slogan "What happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas" to heart. Other times the movie feels like an episode of "Reno 911," and too much is explained. The concept of not knowing what happened last night is funnier when we really don't know what happened; it can never live up to our imaginations, and it's a rookie mistake to show things best left a mystery.
So, I don't know why Ebert loved this so much except that he's been very forgiving since his recent brush with mortality. He's still my favorite movie critic, but now I feel like I need to remove a half-star or so from every rating. In the old days, you'd just have to knock down movies filmed in Chicago a notch. Now it's mostly everything.

Rating: 3 pasties out out of 5

Thursday, June 25, 2009

80s Trash of the Week: Ghostbusters 2

I've managed to avoid watching this money-grubbing exercise in sequelry for 20 years, but after the news that Bill Murray, Harold Ramis and Dan Aykroyd are finally coming together to make a third entry, I decided to do it. Ghostbusters II isn't the worst sequel of an '80s classic (cough, Caddyshack II) but it definitely loses sight of what made the original great, and seems to have helped herald in the lame feel-good era of the early '90s.
It seems that as soon as the Prez said "a kinder, gentler nation" back in the late '80s, movies- perhaps also influenced by the new PG-13 rating- had to have a certain ... perkiness. Probably best evidenced by the works of Robert Zemeckis and Joe Dante, highly mimicked but never properly replicated, movies got a cartoonish and affected screwball quality, as if made from bad molds of Peter Bogdanovich's What's Up, Doc? It would culminate in 1994's North, best eviscerated by Roger Ebert in his infamous review.

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Peter MacNicol is the best part of the movie; he began with next week's '80s pick, Dragonslayer, and went on to Sophie's Choice and Ally McBeal. Here he plays an art historian with a hilariously contrived accent who gets possessed by an evil painting of Vigo the Carpathian, sort of a Vlad the Impaler without the vampire stuff. The Ghostbusters are split up and New York forgot all the ghosts from the first movie, and call them frauds; plus the City sued them for property damage and banned them from ghostbustin'. Ray runs an occult book shop on St. Mark's, Venkman hosts a late night cable access paranormal show, and Egon is performing his trademark experiments that veer toward mad science. They get brought back together when Dana's baby carriage takes a solo ride down First Avenue.
She's been divorced from Peter- divorce being the ubiquitous subject of movies of this period- and has their baby Oscar but little contact with wacky Venkman, who Murray portrays with his trademark '80s cokehead glee. I was always more a fan of his somewhat hapless self from Stripes; seeing him as an invincible Bugs Bunny type made him less fun for me. Of course, he was perfect in the original Ghostbusters, but here with family issues he's a bit less enjoyable. Thankfully Ernie Hudson, Rick Moranis, Sigourney Weaver and Annie Potts all return and are quite good. William "Dickless" Atherton is unfortunately replaced by a snarky mayor's aide who's not up to the task. Atherton was also the reporter in the Die Hard films; he's a tough act to follow.
It's the plot that sinks the movie, and Murray himself said it best- too much slime and not enough "us." He's right. The slime river beneath the city gets too much screen time, even though the fact that it runs through the urban-legendary remains of the Pneumatic Beach Transit line from 1870 is a pretty sharp bit of screenwriting; it also vaguely mentions the Malbone Street Wreck, the worst accident in subway history, when a ghost train barrels through. But back to the story: Vigo wants to come back, and chooses Baby Oscar as his vessel. Sort of like how Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom couldn't balance the horror of child slavery with the kid-pandering of Short Round, the Baby Oscar in Peril scenes don't seem to fit in a sequel to a movie where the bad guy was a marshmallow man summoned forth by a naked bubbly Sheena Easton.
In the end, the mood slime is lame; New York's bad vibes come from the river of pink goo infused with Vigo's ancient evil, not because it's full of entitled, geo-centric materialistic egotists. Scrooged, another Bill Murray mistake, manages to somehow be less cloying. Even the ghost montage- a favorite from the first movie- is disappointing. This time the Titanic returns, forgettable except for a brief Cheech Marin cameo as a dock worker. The ghosts are more angry looking than Slimer, who makes a quick cameo as well. A fur coat comes to life; some Harryhausenesque ghouls haunt the Washington Square arch; and some executed criminals haunt a judge, but nothing as imaginative as the library ghost in the first movie, or as funny as Sigourney Weaver possessed by Zuul. She has little to do except play it straight here, and Moranis gets kissy with Annie Potts, and never recaptures the hilarity as Vinz Klortho the Keymaster of Gozer.
The centerpiece of the film is how they try to top the Stay-Pufft Marshmallow Man, by soaking the Statue of Liberty in happy pink goo and playing soul so she'll boogie down First Avenue and smash her way into the Museum of Art, where Vigo has Sigourney and the baby. It looks cool, but it seems too big. Trading in the proton packs for Happy Slime Jizzer Guns, too many nods to fans of the toys and cartoons, cutsey babies and a fifth wheel Ghostbuster are just wrong moves in a highly anticipated sequel. That's why even though it set a 3 day weekend box office record, it was swiftly knocked out by Tim Burton's Batman and quickly forgotten. Unless they've learned their lesson from this, I fear for the newly planned third entry. Remember, Vigo is partly defeated by New Yorkers singing in harmony outside, which is perhaps only out-lamed by the ending of Krull, where the villain is defeated by bolts of pure love.

Take a good look at Dan Aykroyd's writing career since Ghostbusters. Besides this sequel, he committed the following crimes that led to the atrocity known as Blues Brothers 2000: Dragnet, Nothing But Trouble, and Coneheads. He's selling wine now, and I think he needs money. Harold Ramis has had a few stinkers, but I feel safer with him. Bill Murray has become almost as subtle as Jack Benny did in his later years, and has redeemed himself many times over for this sequel. So the new one can be hit or miss, we'll have to see. The '90s smarm is over; if this one is better than Die Hard & Indy 4, it'll be something.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? They're trying...
Quotability Rating: low
Cheese Factor: New York aged cheddar
High Points: Janosz, Statue of Liberty
Low Point: Dancing Toasters, lame ending
Gratuitous Boobies: not even ghost boobies

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