Friday, July 31, 2009

80's Trash of the Week: The Deadly Spawn

Looking like a cross between a chestburster, Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors, and a fleshy lobster, The Deadly Spawn: known in some parts as Return of the Alien's Deadly Spawn, cashed in on the spectacular success of Sigourney Weaver's panty battle in space by bringing horrible creatures to Earth to feast upon us. Over the years, I remember eager Giger fans hoping that every cheap cash-in was an actual sequel.

You can go a long way with a freaky critter design.

This was long before San Diego Comic Con was around to leak every bit of movie minutiae, and I remember going to a Creation Con dressed as Arthur Dent and arguing with a scrawny nerd who claimed Galaxy of Terror- a delightful Corman vehicle with Ray Walston and Sid "I live and die by the crystals!" Haig that James Cameron cut his teeth on as A.D.- was the official sequel to Alien. Thank goodness Cameron would give us Aliens a few years later and end the argument.

But before then we had The Deadly Spawn, a surprisingly effective cheapo horror film that begins with a "meteor" crashing to earth near a campsite, where the curious campers become chow for a shadowy, snaky creature with ferocious fangs and an unseemly appetite. Not long after it's in someone's basement, chomping off the face of a housewife in her pink terry cloth robe. After hubby's evisceration is seen only in shadow, I thought this was gonna be a ripoff, where we only see the creature for a few seconds until the end. But no, they make the best use of the "severed arm tapping on the shoulder" gag- even better than Jurassic Park- that I've ever seen, and the huge lamprey-like beast is soon in our face. And its victim's is off. Nice effects. Damn.
I gotta hand it to these low budget film makers

The movie pays homage to horror by giving us a nerdy household with a science fiction loving Dad and Son, and a kid named Pete who makes monster costumes and loves '5os-era monster movies. He names his favorites as The Mole People and The Terror from Beyond Space, and sneaks around with capes and rubber masks on. Unfortunately the portions of the movie not involving a three-headed alien lamprey gnawing fingers and faces off are near MST3k material. I kept waiting for Charles to befriend the sluglike alien spawn that swim like toothy sperm in his blood-laked basement. And the little monster lover does not disappoint! Just like Trumpy in Pod People, he has a new misunderstood pal from outer space. I kept hoping he'd direct the creature to attack his enemies, as he stood back in his glorious red cape.
You fool! I possess a Cape of Lamprey Control!

What really shines are the effects, which are quite good for a film of this nature. They're revolting as hell. Watching the little slugspawn pull apart a rubber human head reveal the gaping eyes of the skull beneath? The monster itself, with row upon row of glistening, recurved fangs? Brilliant. The cast of nobodies are deservingly devoured and their careers mostly begin and end with this film. But the movie is easily forgiven for unforgettable scenes like the spawn nibbling on the toesies of the old biddies having a potluck dinner. It also has one of the great "Blob" endings- what I like to call them- where we think the crisis is over, but it's only just begun. If you've seen The Blob, it ends with the frozen goo in the Arctic getting frisky and under "The End" it reads "...Or Is It?"; that's been copied endlessly since, and here we get a Spawn the size of a mountain awaking to chomp some more. Perfect.
The perils of using too much exfoliating cream

Now normally I'd love a movie where a kid with a proclivity for running around in a cape saves the day with nothing more than a fake rubber head and an extension cord, but it's hard to recommend The Deadly Spawn for anyone but the lover of gory bad movies. It just doesn't have the charm of Night of the Creeps or The Gate, but it does have a unique and disgusting creature and plenty of gore. Other Alien ripoffs like Galaxy of Terror jolt us with boobies and bizarre sex (and presumably, with a name like Inseminoid, that does too) but this one eschews it. I'm not sure it would have added to it anyway. According to fellow blogger Dreamin Demon it was filmed over a period of 2 years of weekends, so that makes it more like homebrewed films such as Equinox (full review), giving it charms of its own. Plus, it was made right here in New Jersey, with one of the locations being fantasy artist (and co-producer) Tim Hildebrandt's house in Bergen County.
Lookin' meaner than a Dune sandworm designed by David Cronenberg

This is no Troll 2 and is a fine entry in the 80's Trash of the Week. Lovers of cheesy horror will get their fix, and because most of the actors are family or people working for free after answering an ad in the paper, you never know who's gonna die next. One hottie famously got a job and had to leave, so the monster surreptitiously gnaws off her head and punts her out the window! You gotta love it. John Dods, the man behind the creature, went on to be a make-up artist on many Hollywood films and Broadway productions, creating the masks for Disney's Beauty and the Beast and the prosthetics for Young Frankenstein. The film makers also have a website up with plenty of behind the scenes photos and information for fans. Check it out!
One of many monster chomper POV shots

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today?: Can't do CGI in your basement yet
Quotability Rating: Low
Cheese Factor: Land O' Lakes White American (New Jersey's favorite)
High Point: Don't go down to the basement!
Low Point: Nerd Family Breakfast
Gratuitous Boobies: None

Thursday, July 30, 2009

movie blogger Voight-Kampff test

Dennis over at Sergio Leone and the Infield Fly Rule has a big ol' quiz for movie nerds that I decided to tackle. His blog is good readin's too.

1) Second-favorite Stanley Kubrick film.
2001. The Shining is tops.

2) Most significant/important/interesting trend in movies over the past decade, for good or evil.
Disney ride/video game structure, since Spielberg began it for Temple of Doom

3) Bronco Billy (Clint Eastwood) or Buffalo Bill Cody (Paul Newman)?
Bronco Billy. Haven't seen Newman in that yet, and I loved Bronco Billy as a kid, though I didn't know what it was about then.

4) Best Film of 1949.
The Third Man.
next: White Heat, third is She Wore a Yellow Ribbon

5) Joseph Tura (Jack Benny) or Oscar Jaffe (John Barrymore)?
Not sure, but I like Jack Benny so there.

6) Has the hand-held shaky-cam directorial style become a visual cliché?
In the right hands (Greengrass, Cuaron) it works. Too many directors use it as a lazy way to add realism now.

7) What was the first foreign-language film you ever saw?
Shogun Assassin.

8) Charlie Chan (Warner Oland) or Mr. Moto (Peter Lorre)?
Oof. I find Chan more offensive because he actually has an Asian cast for the small parts while he does yellow face in front of them. So, Lorre.

9) Favorite World War II drama (1950-1970).
Followed by The Story of G.I. Joe, Guadalcanal Diary, Mamma Roma and Hell in the Pacific.

10) Favorite animal movie star.
Clyde the Orangutan

11) Who or whatever is to blame, name an irresponsible moment in cinema.
William Friedkin injuring Ellen Burstyn's back by yanking her harness personally in The Exorcist.

12) Best Film of 1969.
The Wild Bunch.
Followed by Army of Shadows, Z, Midnight Cowboy, Easy Rider.

13) Name the last movie you saw theatrically, and also on DVD or Blu-ray.
Theatrically: Harry Potter 6.
DVD: Watchmen Director's Cut

14) Second-favorite Robert Altman film.
McCabe & Mrs. Miller is my #1, Long Goodbye is #3

15) What is your favorite independent outlet for reading about movies, either online or in print?
See the blog roll to the right.

16) Who wins? Angela Mao or Meiko Kaji? (Thanks, Peter!)
Meiko Kaji is yummy.

17) Mona Lisa Vito (Marisa Tomei) or Olive Neal (Jennifer Tilly)?
Oh, I blend baby! Mona Lisa all the way. She's a hot foomatza broad.

18) Favorite movie that features a carnival setting or sequence.
Strangers on a Train for the wrecked carousel sequence. Tod Browning's Freaks is a close second.

19) Best use of high-definition video on the big screen to date.
Michael Mann. Miami Vice is a neon painting.

20) Favorite movie that is equal parts genre film and a deconstruction or consideration of that same genre.
Funny Games (German version)
or The Long Goodbye if that's somehow disqualified

21) Best Film of 1979.
Such a tough year! So instrumental to my love of film. Gotta say Alien though Apocalypse Now and Being There are right up there.

22) Most realistic and/or sincere depiction of small-town life in the movies.
Anything by David Gordon Green- All the Real Girls.

23) Best horror movie creature (non-giant division).
The Thing (Carpenter)

24) Second-favorite Francis Ford Coppola film.
The Godfather Part 2. The first one is tops.

25) Name a one-off movie that could have produced a franchise you would have wanted to see.
Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins
The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension
Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow
Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World (may be happening, yay)

26) Favorite sequence from a Brian De Palma film.
I don't like DePalma all that much, I'll go with the Potemkin steps shootout scene in Untouchables

27) Favorite moment in three-strip Technicolor.
"The only barriers between us will be in your cold mercenary heart!" in The Quiet Man
Or pretty much anything The Archers ever did

28) Favorite Alan Smithee film. (Thanks, Peter!)
Hmm. Apparently The Twilight Zone movie has Smithee for the AD. If that doesn't count, Hellraiser: Bloodline isn't that awful.

29) Crash Davis (Kevin Costner) or Morris Buttermaker (Walter Matthau)?
Walter Matthau all the way.

30) Best post-Crimes and Misdemeanors Woody Allen film.
Mighty Aphrodite was pretty funny.

31) Best Film of 1999.
The Limey.

32) Favorite movie tag line.
Can't beat Alien's: "In space no one can hear you scream."
other faves:
When he said I do, he didn't say what he did. (True Lies)
You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll kiss three bucks goodbye (Hardware Wars)

33) Favorite B-movie western.
Terror in a Texas Town

34) Overall, the author best served by movie adaptations of her or his work.
Elmore Leonard.

35) Susan Vance (Katharine Hepburn) or Irene Bullock (Carole Lombard)?
Bony Kate all the way.

36) Favorite musical cameo in a non-musical movie.
Tom Jones singing "Are You Gonna Go My Way" in The Jerky Boys movie.

37) Bruno (the character, if you haven’t seen the movie, or the film, if you have): subversive satire or purveyor of stereotyping?
Subversive satire. Cohen likes getting away with as much as he can.

38) Five film folks, living or deceased, you would love to meet. (Thanks, Rick!)
I'd love to have dinner with Cary Grant, Audrey Hepburn, Humphrey Bogart, Madeline Kahn and Martin Scorsese.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Steve's Sizzling Steaks: Blaze Burger

The Burger Battle of the Best continues...
Yeah yeah yeah. I went to a steak joint that is a Northeast Jersey institution and I ordered a hamburger! I've had Steve's Sizzling Steaks many times and they are unique- marinated in Maggi sauce, the salty smokiness is not for everyone but I find it delicious. They don't put that on the burgers, but next time I'm gonna ask them too. I had the Blaze Burger, a half pound of ground round on a soft Kaiser roll, many times as a child when my Dad took us here, and I wanted to see if it was as good as I remembered. I was not disappointed.
Steve's is an old hunting lodge turned bar that's been around since 1936. The bar area is decorated with dozens of steins and hunting rifles across the ceiling, and every inch of the wood paneling is covered with a taxidermied critter, a fish trophy, a snakeskin, or a rack of antlers. What would you expect from a guy who fished with Ernest Hemingway? The hardwood is soaked with the testosterone of the golden age of manhood and merely drinking a beer here has been known to increase male fertility. In the old days they served steaks and burgers. That's all. Now they have chicken, appetizers, and shrimp available. But when you go to a place called Steve's Sizzling Steaks, you know cow is on the menu.
My stepfather and I had a few beers- they have Samuel Adams, Boddington's and Blue Moon along with the usual tap fare- and ordered up. He got the New York strip. It comes with a good-size salad that made me wish I'd ordered one. But the meat came soon enough. The Blaze Burger, cooked on their fire grill, is charred but still juicy when ordered medium, as it should be. I got mine with Swiss and fried onions; the usual cheeses are available, as is bacon. You get steak fries and a few onion rings with your burger, and the lettuce, tomato & pickle on the side.
Before I get to the burger, let me say their onion rings are nice and crisp, good flavor. But their steak fries are some of the best. All too often steak fries are mushy and undercooked, but Steve's has been cooking them for ages. They come with every steak, on the sizzling metal plate, soaking up the sweet juices. As I watched my stepfather dig in to his juicy steak I began to regret my order, but it was love at first bite. They make a good bar burger. I'd put this a hair above the Cloverleaf Tavern, which is my median for good burgers in the area, because the big roll keeps things neat and tastes good too. The burger has a good sear on it for flavor, and like I said, it isn't dry or too firmly packed.
So if you go to Steve's and don't feel like having one of their 24oz. porterhouses or their juicy ribeye, you can safely grab a burger instead and you won't be disappointed. They may not be in the top echelons of burgerdom, but they don't slouch on it just because the signature is steaks. We'll return here for steaks soon, the next time Firecracker gets the carnivorous urge. And I'll tell you how damn good their FlatIron steak and Filet are. Steve's is on Route 17 in Carlstadt:

View Larger Map

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Return of Brüno

So now Sascha Baron Cohen has made movies with all 3 of his characters from Da Ali G Show and has to come up with something new. This is the second best of the trio- Ali G Indahouse was pretty boring- but despite the high hit ratio of laughs, it's a bit scattershot and resembles the Borat movie a bit too much. Does it suck? Not in my opinion. If you liked Borat, you'll like Brüno, unless you're homophobic, or easily offended by gay stereotypes.
If you're not familiar with Brüno, he's supposed to be a flamboyantly gay Austrian fashionista who declares who's "in" and who's "straight to Auschwitz" on his TV show. For the movie, he falls from grace by wearing a Velcro outfit to a catwalk and causing disaster. He is "out," and flees to America to seek stardom with Lutz, his assistant's assistant, who is infatuated with him. In Borat, his sidekick was funny in his own right; Lutz plays the starstruck lackey well but he can't hold a shot on his own. That's one minor flaw.
Sascha Baron Cohen is very good at pranks, and he plays a few good ones here. Brüno adopts an African baby to be more like Madonna and "Brangelina," by trading an iPod for a cute kid. Then he takes him on the Richard Bey show before a mostly black audience to say he's gay, he's adopted a black baby, and named him "a traditional African-American name,"-- O.J. The audience reacts as you might expect. Another great prank is his cage fighting arena where he grows a Lemmy mustache and calls himself "Straight Dave," and ends up making out and stripping with his opponent before a stadium full of rednecks expecting pro wrestling. They throw chairs at the gay men, but they also don't leave or stop watching. Nearly as suicidal, he calls Osama bin Laden "a dirty wizard who looks like a homeless Santa" to a real live terrorist leader. Cohen, I salute you. Your balls rival Stephen Colbert's. Nearly as brave: he dresses like a Hasidic Jew, except for the hot pants, in an Orthodox section of Israel, and gets chased out. He goes hunting with a bunch of guys in Alabama, and tries to enter a guy's tent while nude. He crashes a swinger's party and comes on to guys as they pork away in a wife-swapping party. The man is insane.
Yes, he makes you very uncomfortable and not all the gags work. He pranks Ron Paul, mistaking him for Ru Paul, and strips in front of him in a hotel room. This pissed off a lot of bloggers. I think Ron Paul is a bit of a loon but I respect his strict constitutionalism and don't think he deserved this. Any more than Charlton Heston, dying of Alzheimer's, deserved Michael Moore's attack in Bowling for Columbine. As much as that fat fuck has redeemed himself with Sicko, I'll never forgive him for ambushing a man with dementia. And Cohen should have went after an anti-gay politician like Rick Santorum instead of Ron Paul if he wanted to have real effect. Even if he went after a hypocrite like one of the Republican parties many gay sex scandal exiles, it would have been better.
I can't deny that I laughed a lot. Before I saw it, I read many reviews where people found his schtick passé, or even damaging to gay rights by promoting stereotypes. But let's face it, the people who hate gays don't care if they're the utterly polite, über-neat and trendy stereotype who gentrify neighborhoods so the yuppies can kick out the po' folks, or the guys who dress like the Village People and ride their motorcycles in pride parades. In the big picture, does Brüno matter to gay rights? Is some California jerkoff going to watch this and see a Sexercycle with a dildo attachment and decide to vote against gay marriage? I don't think it's going to change anyone's mind. As satire, Brüno works a lot better as he points at how celebrity-obsessed Americans are. In one scene, he asks parents who are pimping their children as actors if they'll allow liposuction, crucifixion, or if the kid will dress as Hitler pushing Jew babies in a wheelbarrow. They all say yes. They'll allow anything if their kid will be in a music video. It's terrifying, and you almost see Cohen break character as they surprise even him with the depravity they'll subject their children to. Things even Brüno, who rides with a baby on the handlebars of a Vespa, won't do.

Rating: 3.5 talking weenuses out of 5

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Terror in a Texas Town

They Just Don't Write 'em Like That Anymore

I'd have taglined this movie Sterling Hayden with a friggin' HARPOON. This tasty taco of a B Western may lure you in with the fast food flavor of Hayden and harpoons, but it has serious nutritional value in the form of unforgettable performances by Victor Millan as farmer standing up for once in his life, and Nedrick Young as the force of evil he must confront.
This don't mean Sterling Hayden's ain't no slouch here either. Ya, he plays Big Swede- coming home to his Papa's farm, only to learn that someone done shot his Pa. We see the final confrontation first thing, Swede with his Pa's harpoon, facing the gunman Johnny Crale all in black, in a near parody of the classic Western showdown. Crale, played by blacklisted screenwriter Nedrick Young, quietly goads him on: "Just five steps closer, Swede. Give yourself a fighting chance." Swede backs down, and we learn what led to this...

Pa Hanson's death begins the story with Johnny Crale once again facing the old man who has only his harpoon from his whaling days. He wants him to sign over his land, and when he doesn't, he shoots him dead and empties his six shooter into the fallen corpse. Yeah, it's a brutal story. Written by Dalton Trumbo through front Ben Perry, it is bleak and cynical. The town fat cat, played by Sebastian Cabot, has Crale and the town sheriff in his pocket, and wants the folks land for the crude he's found beneath it. The only one who knows is Jose Mirada, a good man frightened because he and his son Pepe are the only witnesses to Hanson's murder. And if Crale finds out, his family will surely be killed.
Sterling, that big expressive brute, comes to town unaware of the tragedy. He meets his father's murderer first thing, but doesn't know it. The town toughs play the big Swede for a dummy. The Sheriff tries to run him off with sly questions about his immigrant status and shaky standing as an heir. He won't be moved, and once he finds the Miradas he realizes something is amiss in town and won't budge. So the thugs taunt him until they can beat him up and throw him on the next train. But he staggers home along the tracks, collapsing at Jose's feet. His stubborn perseverance begins to inspire Mirada, whose family has been threatened again by Crale.

Once Swede and Jose talk they figure out that fatcat McNeil wants the land for oil, and Swede wants to get all the farmers to church that day so they'll stand together. So when McNeil sends Crale to force the Miradas out, Jose stands fast. It's a tense and emotional scene, with the fear playing across the unarmed man's face, as he confronts the stone cold killer. Victor Millan's dignified portrayal singled this film out for Turner Classic Movies Latino Images in Film marathon, and it still holds today. He knows he's dead whether he takes it standing or on his knees. He chooses to take it on his feet.

But his newfound courage shakes the killer to his core; Ned Young was better known as a screenwriter, but his performance here is somehow more chilling than Jack Palance's famous turn in Shane. But he knew something about standing up. He was blacklisted for refusing to name names, and was blacklisted for it. Maybe he drew on the ruthlessness of power he saw in the men who tried to break him? He'd later win the Oscar for best screenplay for The Defiant Ones, and be well-remembered for others like Jailhouse Rock and Inherit the Wind. But here his acting is likely at its best, crafting the classic Western villain that we want to see more than dead- we want to see a harpoon hanging out of his chest!
The 80 minute script surely obliges, and fans of Sterling Hayden will not be disappointed by his simmering portrayal of the good man done wrong. This overlooked Western is fine viewing, and about the only time you'll get to see sixguns face a whaling harpoon on the silver screen. But look past that to the roles of Jose Mirada and Johnny Crale, which defy our expectations of hackneyed cutouts and elevate a B movie to something special.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Harry Potter and the Half-Finished Movie

Let me start by saying that I'm not a fan of the novels. I'll admit I read the first book on a girl's recommendation, but I never liked it much; it always felt like schoolkid lit meets P.G. Wodehouse meets vague slapdash fantasy. I'm sure the books have improved with length, as another friend is a fangirl who goes on and on about how great Snape is and how dark the story has gotten. Sadly, the movies mostly feel like Cliff's Notes to me.
Among film fans the entry directed by Alfonso Cuaron- The Prisoner of Azkaban- is usually regarded as the best. Chris Columbus did a decent job with the early ones. The films have their own look and feel, but there's just something missing in these later ones. I'm actually glad that the plot involving Voldemort is actually moving, but you don't even see him in this one. The wizard fight at the end of Order of the Phoenix was fun to watch, and there's something nearly as good here but it's badly realized and all too short. It involves seeking a relic that might destroy the ol' Dark Lord, and Harry and Dumbledore end up in a lake full of scrawny zombies in a crystal cavern. That was somewhat compelling.

I also like how Daniel Radcliffe is making Harry his own. He's cheekier. After all, the actor's played the lead in Equus and run around with his wand exposed, the character has come of age and even gets to smooch in this one, he ought to have a bit of the high school rebel in him. But only barely. The story seems to linger way too long on a Quidditch match, which hasn't been exciting since it was first introduced, and high school romance between Ron, Hermione and respective beaus. Some of this is amusing; in potion class the British actor cum professor du jour is Jim Broadbent, as Slughorn, who shows off a love potion. Wonder if that'll show up later?

The characters work well but the story is a mess, especially for those of us who haven't slogged through the tomes. Seems like Draco Malfoy is in league with ol' No-Nose and his minions like the annoying as hell Helena Bonham Carter, whose characterization of Bellatrix makes me want to make pies out of my own kidneys. Michael Gambon and Alan Rickman once again hold things together, with Maggie Smith barely getting screen time but excellent when she does. We get flashbacks to Li'l Voldy, aka Tom Riddle, played by Ralph Fiennes' nephew; the kid's got talent and we'll be seeing him again I'm sure. But we learn very little. He seems like a bad seed, about as obvious to become history's greatest monster as Anakin in Attack of the Clones.
We also see a trio of flying black smokes from "Lost" who like to fuck shit up. I think they're senior Death Eaters. They destroy the Millenium bridge, but as usual the muggle world is completely ignored, which was cute in the beginning, but makes you wonder if Hogwarts has neuralyzer spells to make people forget that three black smoke clouds just murdered hundreds of people. The film's only interested in it for the special effects. I don't think anyone even mentions it later. "Hmm, notice that the Death Eaters are waging war on the muggles? Maybe we ought to do sumfin'. Nah, let's have some Butter Beer."

I've heard wondrous things about the character of Severus Snape from fans, and I love me some Alan Rickman, so I was glad that he gets to do more than appear in drag as a gag in this one. He's always been the most interesting character, and he consistently gets shafted. Here he's implemental in the series' biggest surprise, which director David Yates handles as clumsily as I can imagine. I mean, this is big, I don't want to spoil it, but let's face it. In The Empire Strikes Back, even if you've seen it a dozen times, the "I am your father" line is obviously important. The equivalent of Snape telling Harry that he boned his mom is given here, but it doesn't feel like much. I knew what was coming, and it just fell flat. There was a huge tragedy and everyone seems sort of sad, but nothing like you'd expect.
I can't say I have much hope for the rest of the series, which Yates is dubbed to direct. I kept getting hints of a great story, but the scripts lately seem cobbled together by committee. Perhaps the PG-13 rating of the previous movie hurt sales and they went for this bland high school romance. Thankfully the kids have grown up into their characters and are enjoyable company on-screen as they banter and bicker. That's the only reason this movie gets an above average rating from me. I saw it for free at a drive-in at the end of a Mini Cooper rally, and I'm glad I didn't pay for it. No wonder they're splitting the final book into two movies- if Voldemort doesn't even show up in this one, they've got a lot of fighting to do if this series is going to be over any time soon.

Rating: 3 out of 5 annoying Anglophiles

Friday, July 24, 2009

demonic duo: Faust and The Devil's Rain

Movie Nights with Milky

My pal Milky and I have had a weekly tradition of renting random crap to watch over Chinese food, Lil Burgers, or sushi. Last week we happened to both receive Satanic flicks in our Netflix queues: he had Jan Svankmajer's surrealist take on Faust and I rented The Devil's Rain after Final Girl posted about it. It intrigued me. Shatner, a goat-faced Borgnine, John Travolta's debut, Tom Skerritt in full mustachioed glory, and a tale of Devil Worship set in the barren West? Who could resist?
I'd totally rock out to a metal band called "Borgnine"

The Devil's Rain is pretty awful. We meet the Preston family one dark and stormy night when Poppa comes home without no eyes! And then his face melts off in the rain. Momma (Ida Lupino of all people) and her idjit manchild servant run to get son Mark, who's a sheriff round these parts, played by William Shatner in all his dramatic, shirtless glory. They tell him of his family's peculiar destiny, to keep a Satanic book from the hands of devil worshipper Jonathan Corbis (Ernest Borgnine). The next day, when Mark goes to confront Corbis at the old abandoned church in the desert, they have a quiet stand-off where Borgnine exudes malevolence. How great the movie could have been, with these two giants butting heads.
Butt heads... get it?

But no. Mark returns to find Momma kidnapped and the idjit trussed upside down, and then he himself gets captured by Corbis's devil cult and tortured, shritless of course, until he becomes one of the many eyeless minions. As Borgnine performs the creepy ritual, he becomes a goat-faced devil, and the effects are actually pretty good. But the story is a huge mess that put us to sleep. From here, we learn there are more Prestons, played by Tom Skeritt in his pre-Dallas from Alien days, and Joan Prather as a psychic girl in the mold of The Fury (full review). No offense, but at this point the movie is better than Ambien and we both dozed off. Once they track down Corbis, they get attacked by a young, eyeless John Travolta, and then join forces with Sheriff Eddie Albert to disrupt the final ceremony.
Shatner's contract demanded a shirtless scene

We get a flashback to pilgrim days to see how the familial curse began, and learn that Corbis's book contains the names of all the people who sold their souls to Satan, and without his rolodex he loses all his power. They don sacrificial robes and sneak in, and something that looks like the clock in Grand Central Station is declared to be "the Devil's Rain," but I never understood why. Does it matter? There's also a hole in the desert floor full of explodium, since whatever falls in there explodes. Maybe it goes to Hell. The Sheriff throws the "Devil's Rain" in there and it of course explodes, and frees everyone from Corbis's curse. It also makes it rain, which makes all the eyeless minions' faces melt off. And Corbis's goat-face too. I'm guessing they wanted to call this movie The Devil's Reign and misspelled it, and then had to put rain in it so people wouldn't be confused.
Mista Kotta... I'm meltin'!

Directed by the man who brought us the Dr. Phibes movies, I expected better. It's worth seeing to watch Shatner do his thing, and more importantly to see Ernest Borgnine play the Devil's Left Hand. He's always amazing, even when he's reading a terrible script. Not only was Ernie the first guy to make an ugly momma's boy gets the girl movie with the Oscar-winning Marty, he was perhaps the evilest-looking of The Wild Bunch, the cabbie from Escape from New York and most recently, the 92-year-old coot who authored an autobiography titled I Don’t Want to Set the World on Fire, I Just Want to Keep My Nuts Warm. The man is something else. He said he got the title from a guy selling roasted chestnuts in New York. And he's grumpy that in the U.S., the title got changed to avoid offending the Midwest. Gotta love this guy.

Faust is the first Jan Svankmajer movie I've actually sat down to watch; I'd seen bits of Little Otik on Shotime Beyond, heard of his surrealistic take on Alice in Wonderland, and of his fantastic stop-motion animation work. I've always liked that form of animation and his style is rather unique. Darth Milk has always wanted to read Goethe's Faust, but the mix of dramatic theater and epic poem is a bit daunting even for us snooty English majors, so he put this in his queue and brought it over. Say what you will about Svankmajer's style, but the bizarre concoction of surrealism, stop-motion effects, full-size marionettes, and the play-within-a-movie structure certainly are gripping.
I like David Lynch like any good internet film nerd, and also Luis Buñuel and Peter Greenaway. So this wasn't a shock to my sensibilities. I was unsure of exactly what Svankmajer was going for, but that's part of the fun. As a story, it works in a circular fashion and as a dreamlike take on all the forms the Faust story has taken- opera, film, play, moral folktale. He has a morbid sense of humor and in one hilarious scene, the devil sends a demon disguised as Helen of Troy to seduce our Czech everyman who's been forced to play Dr. Faustus. What's the disguise? Well, he drills a hole in the life size marionette and pats on a little tuft of hair, and slaps a mask on him. The claymation effects for the summoning of Lucifer and how he appears are quite memorable too. It begins with a clay baby with a spell stuffed in its mouth; this disintegrates into three egglike blobs that roll around, merging into a horned and fanged face, or merely eyes and a mouth, depending on its whim. In the Englush version, all the voices are dubbed by one man- Andrew Sachs- who's been in many small roles, including Gerard the Frenchman in Mel Brooks' History of the World Part One.
If you're in the mood for an odd one, this one gets Milky and I's approval. Svankmajer's Alice and Little Otik are queued for future movie nights.

Thursday, July 23, 2009

80's Trash of the Week: Fletch Lives

Fletch was a huge hit; Chevy Chase took the newsman character from Gregory McDonald's novels and amped up the laughs, and the sequel went even further and became a pure Chevy Chase disguise comedy. As a fan of the books I was cruel to it upon release, but co-worker The Mouth from the South and fellow blogger Dylan both defend this movie, so I wanted to revisit it.

"The spiders is good! They eat up the cockroaches!"

The first movie had lots of laughs, but the thriller plotline and Fletch's desire to be a good reporter and ferret out injustice remained. The sequel goes more for laughs, and shoehorns in a plot involving toxic waste, which would be an early '90s staple; in that way, Fletch Lives is again of its time. The story is, Fletch heads South to inherit his aunt's plantation, tended by groundskeeper Calculus Entropy, played by Cleavon Little. He has a small part but is very memorable, as expected. He's the real reason I watched this again, but if you watch it as just another Chevy Chase comedy, it's actually one of his better ones.
Ben Dover

The minute Fletch shows up down South, his lawyer gal gets offed while they sleep and he's the prime suspect in the eyes of the inept yet corrupt local police, who throw him in a cell with Randall "Tex" Cobb. Most famous for playing the incomparable Leonard Smalls in Raising Arizona, here he's got eye make-up on and gives the film one of its funnier scenes, as he tries to introduce Fletch to the charming institution of prison rape. He gets to have more fun later as the leader of the biker gang the Nazis from Natchez, where Fletch pretends to be Ed Harley, of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. That scene works well too. Chase is just so ridiculous as an effeminate and nerdy dork walking into a biker bar that I had to laugh.
Ed Harley.

Later the Klan shows up, led by Geoffrey Lewis- Clint's buddy from the orangutan films- and Fletch cuts eyeholes in a bedsheet to goof on them. Someone wants to drive him away and get his auntie's land, and that leads him to TV preacher Jimmy Lee Farnsworth, played by R. Lee Ermey with all his bushy-eyebrow glory. Ermey plays the role straight, and we get our laughs from Fletch's impersonation of Claude Smoot, a buck-toothed faith healer whose specialty is smacking the demons out of your forehead.
Better yet is how Fletch inspects the scene of the murder, by putting on a pompadour and driving his Aunt's decrepit pink Cadillac as a sort of rockabilly exterminator. When the dumbass deputy follows him in, he tricks him into thinking a skitterbug, which reproduces by masturbation, has gotten into his ear and the only way to get it out is to get on all fours and squeal like a pig. It just wouldn't be the '80s if a comedy went South and didn't goof on the Klan, slavery, Deliverance, the Civil War, evangelists and corrupt lawmen, and this one has its ducks all lined in a row. Set in Louisiana, they pronounce Pontchartrain right, and they eat Zapp's chips. Not as bad as it could be.
Cutey Julianne Phillips tags along as a lawyer trying to get Fletch to sell the estate to an unknown client, and Hal Holbrook plays the genteel Southern gentleman. The last 15 minutes feel like they were scribbled on a bar napkin; everything gets resolved as quickly as possible. That and Fletch's silly Song of the South dream sequence at the beginning sour an otherwise enjoyable comedy, which reminded me of just how funny Chevy Chase could be. Nothing against Uncle Remus either, but it just wasn't funny, and would fit better in a Lampoon flick.
R. Lee Ermey and Julianne Phillips

Okay Blog Cabins and Mouth from the South- you got me. This one is better than I remember, and doesn't deserve the crap it gets. But I still think Ghostbusters 2 sucked. Apparently they want to reboot the Fletch franchise, so who do you think will get it? Let's hope it's not Jim Carrey.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 2
Could it be remade today? It will be...
Quotability Rating: Nice to meet you Ben. Victor Hugo.
Cheese Factor: smothered & covered
High Points: Biker bar scene
Low Point: Ending
Gratuitous Boobies: Victim of the 1989 boobie drought

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Explicit Ills not illin', Skin Deep is

Explicit Ills

This sprung onto the scene at the SxSW festival but didn't pick up a distributor, and is now available on DVD. That's odd for a film that ends up being poignantly about the state of health care for the working poor in America, one of the subjects in the news most lately. It doesn't belabor us about the head with a hammer of its message, but instead paints a picture of a gentrifying neighborhood and introduces us to a handful of interesting characters. There's a saintly young boy named Babo, played to perfection by Francisco Burgo, and his mother Rosario Dawson in an understated role; Lou Taylor Pucci, who seems to have bitten off more than he can chew with the side job he's taken; Paul Dano (Eli from There Will Be Blood) as an unemployed actor relegated to playing a ninja at a kid's birthday party; a teenage boy trying charmingly trying to get it on with a neighborhood girl, and Tariq Trotter of The Roots as a health food entrepreneur trying to open a store.
New writer-director Mark Webber has had small roles in many films before and makes a surprisingly mature debut here. The poor neighborhood is something he knows well; his single mother and himself were homeless in north Philly for some time and became the subject of a news show story. He presents with a naturalist style, letting his characters speak for themselves, and his Philly surroundings set the mood for a tableau that eventually evokes the deepest emotion. He makes us part of the neighborhood, and makes us care about the people in it. In the end, the story is about the community itself, and doesn't end where you'd expect. It does have a few newbie mistakes, like the slow-mo dance intro to one character, and perhaps it is a little too removed at times, but this one's worth seeing.

Rating: Tasty

Skin Deep

Otherwise known as "that John Ritter movie with the glow in the dark condom lightsaber fight" that's really all this has going for it. I like John Ritter, but he doesn't work here in the Larry from "Three's Company" role, as a Lothario with writer's block porking every California girl who comes his way. The only memorable jokes are this forced one and when he makes it with a female bodybuilder, and says he feels like Mrs. Schwarzenegger. Late-career Blake Edwards penned and directed this one, and unlike the unfairly maligned A Fine Mess, it doesn't hold up. Remember Ritter with Sling Blade, where he's incredible.

Rating: Stinky

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

City Crab brunch

NYC is a brunching town. And City Crab, located a few blocks uptown from Union Square, does a fine brunch. It's no bargain, though during happy hour the cocktails are reduced, the oysters are a buck, and some of the beers and drinks are half price. It's some of the best seafood I've had in the city, and it's worth the extra price.
I had a half & half dozen of Fanny Bay and Pine's Cove oysters, west and east coast; the small westies were sweet and tart, almost fruity, with a briny finish. The pineys were big and meaty with a buttery flavor and a delicate briny liquor. Some of the best I've had lately, up there with Kumamoto oysters at Ebbett's Grill in D.C. The crab cakes in the Eggs DelMarVa- their take on eggs benedict with a crab cake- also gave D.C. a run for its money, which is surprising because Baltimore/D.C. is supposed to be crabtown. But these were perfectly spiced without overwhelming the crab flavor of the sweet shellfish. Great job on a brunch classic.

The Bloody Mary was one of the best I've had in the city- very spicy but not too heavy on the horseradish, not watery, not too thick. Previously I raved about Dinosaur Bar-B-Q's and the Brooklyn Alehouse's, but I like this better. The Alehouse uses too much horseradish for me, but if you love that, they make a great mix. Firecracker approved of their mimosas, champagne with just a splash of O.J. Beer selection is good: includes Hoegaarden, Long Hammer IPA, Blue Point Toasted Lager, but only the macros are half price.
Unlike Blockhead's Tex Mex, our fave brunch place for a budget, this ain't cheap eats, but it's worth it. The Eggs DelMarVa are $16 each, the drinks are on the high side but generous in portion. The oysters are great and at $1 per, are a NYC bargain if you come during the right time. They are open for Restaurant Week and the menu looks great- crabmeat gazpacho, lobster tails, crab cakes, key lime pie- so I'd say they are worth a try if you can't get into the trendy places you're dying to say you ate at.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Frank McCourt, R.I.P.

Frank McCourt, the treasured autobiographer who painted for us the most stunning portrait of a man rising from boyhood misery to a life worth reading about, has passed away due to meningitis at the age of 78. Firecracker and I had just spoken about him; to hear a reading, or attend a book signing, or see his play A Couple of Blaguards. The next day his brother Malachy, an enjoyable writer in his own right, shared that Frank was not well, and wasn't expected to last long. Frank's legacy is written in his memoirs Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man.

The first was made into a well-known film that could only hope to capture the brutal poetry of the book. The thing was, the McCourts' childhood wasn't unique for the time. Fathers were prone to drink, and both worked and spoke with their hands. His was hardly there at all. His mother worked like mad just to keep them fed. What was unique was that Frank and Malachy not only survived such a childhood but transcended it, and became men who elevated not only their own kin, but all of us with their storytelling and lives as teachers and politicians. I recently finished Malachy's History of Ireland, which is told through its people. Though not as detailed, it captured in short order what a huge historical tome I've struggled with was trying to do- give the history of Ireland from long before the Troubles to its current stage as the "Celtic Tiger," clawing for footholds in our economic crisis. They are modern Irish bards, and we're honored by their tales.

I haven't read 'Tis or the rest due to my own neurotic reading habits; I have a library's worth of book backlog and I try not to read the same author too often. I have to read 3 books before I let myself buy a new one, and I'm still up to my neck in them. But I'll make an exception for Mr. McCourt. My grandfather came from Bray in County Wicklow, and I visited the ancestral home a few years back. I consider myself plain old American but I'm grateful for my Irish heritage, which reading Angela's Ashes made me want to explore. So thank you Frank, not only for sharing your own life, but making me respect those of my forebears, and the struggles they made in getting here to make me.

A 5th century cross on a skellig island off County Kerry

I thought of your book recently when Firecracker and I visited the Irish Hunger Memorial near Battery Park in New York. I remember you saying that as young children, you laughed at the idea of eating grass, like they did during the Famine; it's part of the absurdity of poverty. It leads people to do things you can only consider absurd, and poverty is especially absurd in its own right when it exists only so that others can live in luxury beyond imagination. Malachy ran as the Green party candidate for Governor of New York, so the McCourts continue to give back to us more than they ever got. Here's saying thanks one more time.

I raise this beer to you, Frank McCourt; we knew you were in heaven an hour before the devil knew you were dead.

this way, boys...

To Only the Cinema, to discuss this month's movie of The Oldest Established Really Important Film Club: Black Book by Paul Verhoeven.

a hell ride through Asbury Park in a crowded theater

Hell Ride

Quentin Tarantino wanted Larry Bishop to make the "greatest biker movie ever" and produced this for him. They don't succeed. It's a good one, however. Bishop was in The Savage Seven back in '68 and Tarantino Lazarus'd him into Kill Bill Vol.2, and this came of his current grindhouse obsession. It's not a bad movie to catch on cable, but don't expect much or you'll be disappointed. Bishop plays Pistolero, an aging biker Pres dealing with mutiny from within, and vengeance for the murder by fire of his woman, Cherokee Kisum, still on his mind 30 years on. His compatriots The Gent (Michael Madsen) and the new blood, Comanche (Eric Balfour) deal with internal coups driven by the rival gang the Six Six Sixers, while Pistolero does peyote and commits acts of biker badassery. We learn of Kisum's murder through flashbacks, and this Tarantino-inspired fractured storytelling doesn't work in Bishop's less able hands. And the dialogue feels inspired by the producer as well, and could have used a few rewrites; a lot of it just doesn't work.

What does work is Bishop himself, who is believable as the old silverback; Vinnie Jones as the maniacal leader of the Six Six Sixers, and cameos by Dennis Hopper and David Carradine. Peter Fonda said he was done with biker pictures- they did try to get him. There's a bounty of breasts and biker chicks acting like women do in biker pictures. Cherokee (Julia Jones) gets a lot of flashback time and is the one strong female role. The action is good, if sporadic, and the story ends a little shorter than you'd expect, but if you go in expecting a sleazy biker movie, it's easy to watch. Just don't expect a re-imagining or some sort of modern update.

Rating: Worthy

Greetings from Asbury Park
A heartbreaking documentary detailing the attempts by politicians and developers to "revive" Asbury Park by kicking old people out of their homes to build luxury condos through eminent domain. Certainly biased, but this grassroots documentary is the Roger & Me of eminent domain. It is showing on New Jersey local public broadcasting this month and is a must see for New Jerseyans and anyone who owns property, especially property that billionaire developers think they can make a buck on. Does it serve the public good to tear up perfectly good homes to build condos that start at $500,000 for a studio, just to give more waterfront property to the elite? Asbury Park has had blighted areas for many years, but going after neighborhoods where working families can afford to live is not right. Eminent domain abuse is the forgotten scandal and it is only going to get worse. It didn't revitalize Detroit, and it won't fix Asbury. The documentary is well made and worth your time.

Rating: Worthy

Shouting Fire: Stories from the Edge of Free Speech

Fine documentary on free speech in America. It is playing on HBO this month and makes for good viewing if you're interested in the subject, and you should be. It's not just about government censorship, but also how the media reacts and is manipulated to have chilling effects of its own. They touch on everything from the recent "intifada" brouhaha in NYC to the ACLU defending the Klan's right to march in Skokie. It's not all-encompassing, nor does it try to be. This isn't a top-notch doc, but it is worth watching. By Liz Garbus, who also directed the well-regarded The Farm: Angola, USA.

Rating: Worthy

disclaimers of legal bull shitte

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

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