Monday, August 31, 2009

Breakfast Clubbing

I watched The Breakfast Club a few weeks back in memory of John Hughes passing. I've never liked it much; even when I was 14, it felt particularly crafted to appeal to me, as a misanthropic angsty teen loner. I was somewhere between the burnout and the nerd when I saw it; I was just losing all my preppy friends because I dressed in a ratty Army jacket gifted to me by the guys at the VFW, and was beginning to get that ubiquitous feeling that "nobody's like me" that almost everyone gets at that age.
So Breakfast Club should have appealed to me, as it tries to be a 6 person play set in a school library during Saturday detention, with 5 stereotypes and Lieutenant Dickwad from Die Hard popping in now and then to break things up. He gave teens more credit than the average Hollywood director, and approached taboo subjects such as class differences. The best part of The Breakfast Club to me was the recognition that on Monday, they'd go back to their cliques and treat each other like garbage; in high school, I was a fence sitter. I was part brain trust, part geek and part burnout, and I was also on the track team for a while. Like Will Rogers said about the middle of the road, it was the surest place to get run over.
Molly Ringwald's eulogy in the NY Times is very telling; when she and Anthony Michael Hall grew up and left Neverland, John essentially threw a petulant kid fit and called them "flat leavers." I think part of what made John Hughes's best films work- and his most cloying ones fail- was that he glamorized that coming of age period and embraced its materialism. Part of what always bothered me was how rich everyone was in his movies. Rolls Royces, classic Ferraris, mansions in the tony sections of Chicago. That's perhaps why originally, I unfairly sneered at the ending of Planes, Trains and Automobiles when Del turns out to be homeless. He shouldn't have used that word. What was sad about Del was that he had no family on Thanksgiving; home or not. But it doesn't sour what is one of Hughes' best movies- as well as Martin and Candy's. Hughes also tried to atone for his plutophilia with Pretty in Pink, but the studio made and Some Kind of Wonderful; two stories about rich meets poor. Neither really work well and seem forced. According to the IMDb, the studio forced the ending of Pink on him, and he made Wonderful to make up for it, but sadly it just leaves us two mediocre movies.
As a director he had a pretty good run; I haven't seen Curly Sue or She's Having a Baby and probably never will, but considering 16 Candles, Weird Science, Ferris Bueller's Day Off, The Breakfast Club and Uncle Buck make me sit and watch them, I shouldn't slam Mr. Hughes. He's just another victim with stars in his eyes, and thankfully he quit when he did. I hope he got to spend the time he wanted with his children before his sudden death. Otherwise it was all for nought. So, what's the Club like almost 25 years later? It feels very dated, while The River's Edge and Out of the Blue almost feel like they could have been made today. How I wish I'd seen them back then.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

Cloverleaf Tavern: Best of Essex

The Burger Battle of the Best continues...

I feel like I ought to write about the Cloverleaf Tavern, because it is one of my favorite local haunts. It's been around since the '30s and was a men's club for a short time, giving it some old time cred, like a speakeasy. Today it's my favorite beer bar in New Jersey, offering up a solid selection of bottles and drafts, along with a memorable pub menu. They are currently in the running for several awards in the Best of Essex county competition, and I think they are definitely the winner for best tavern.

The All-American Burger with Trail Cut Fries

Best Burger is a tough one, though burgers are what first drew me here. Years ago, my Uncle Paul recommended the Cloverleaf and Tierney's of Montclair for bar burgers, and of the two, the Clover is definitely the winner. Tierney's makes a decent small bar burger but I wouldn't go out of my way for it. Their beer selection is limited and I haven't gone back since. At the Cloverleaf, I'm working on my M.B.A.- Master of Beer Appreciation- a rewards club where you get a $15 gift card every fifteen beers you scratch off their list of craft, exotic and classic brews. When you complete all 45, you get a shirt, and your name on the brass plaques on the wall. And you can begin your PhD, of course.
The Country Bourbon Burger

They have a nice burger selection, from tasty sliders to their classic All-American burger, and their flagship, the Country Bourbon Burger, which has Maker's Mark Gourmet BBQ sauce. They are both fine burgers, topped with crispy or caramelized onions, quality cheese, and placed on their signature brioche bun toasted on the grill. The Black Jack - Cajun spiced with Pepper Jack cheese- is my favorite. They make their burger patties by hand and they are good and juicy. They offer a Buffalo burger if you want a leaner, beefier flavor. They are above your average bar and diner fare, and while I've had better burgers at gourmet establishments, for the price you get something much better than expected. I'm just spoiled. I almost always get a burger here, so that tells me they are doing something right!

Their fries are worth talking about. They make the usual waffle fries, but the trail cut- the little wedges pictured- are excellent. Crisp and tasty outside, tender within. They also make the best sweet potato fries I've had, managing to keep the outside crispy. They use fresh oil so your fries are golden and never over-browned. The pickle and cole slaw staples are tasty and worth eating. You'll have a clean plate if you get a burger here.
Shrimp Po'Boys and Sweet Potato Fries

Their specials vary from local faves like steamers, to their version of a shrimp po'boy- tasty enough but so far from the original that I'd skip it. Their signature appetizer, their bubbling crab dip, is one of the best I've had. Creamy and rich, but the crab isn't overwhelmed. The chilled oysters are a bit pricey and nothing to write home about, but the other appetizers never failed to please, and the portions are admirable. I haven't had a steak here yet but will try one, as they are nominated for best steak. The only disappointment I've had was the meager Rueben sandwich, which could have been more filling. I should have gone for their Bourbon Chicken, which I know is satisfying.
I've spoken of their beer selection, but it bears repeating. They have a nice row of taps that feature local brews like Flying Fish and Ramstein- including their maibock and Oktoberfest brews- plus a rotating selection of classic and craft beers. Abita, one of my fave breweries from Louisiana, got featured here this month. They also have their own tasty Alt Bier that I like a lot. Special seasonal brews like ale brewed in Calvados barrels, or Imperial Cherry, or Creme Brulee Stout are always available for the adventurous. They have a well-designed website and announce special events on Twitter, so check them out. I wouldn't go so far as to call them a gastro-pub but they do have a great kitchen and may surprise you. Besides, what's a great beer without something to wash down?

Saturday, August 29, 2009

time to make the zeppoles

Nothing says summer festival in north Jersey like a bunch of old Italian women huddled around bubbling cauldrons full of oil, frying the bits of pizza dough known as zeppoles. They vary from lead sinker belly bombs, to these airy doughnuts we had at St. Joseph's Fiesta in Jersey City. Lightly dusted with powdered sugar and bagged so you can shake them and get them fully coated, these were light and easy to eat as we walked the neighborhood. If you don't like fried dough, you don't know how to eat.

Friday, August 28, 2009

what exit? I'll tell you what exit, $%$@#!

Flying Fish Brewery is brewing a series of beers named after exits on the NJ Turnpike. I heard over at the Beer-Stained Letter blog that the Turnpike Authority- one of many government monopolies that contribute to my state's miasma of political corruption- was not pleased. So of course, I gave them the Italian Salute and bought a bottle.

I would have anyway, because Flying Fish is one of New Jersey's best breweries. Located in Cherry Hill, their Hopfish IPA and Farmhouse Ale are two of my favorites. Exit 11 - a hoppy wheat ale that combines a Belgian yeast, wheat, and West Coast hop infusion- is my new favorite of theirs. The mellow fruity smoothness of a great wheat beer, with the snappy, piney finish of a hoppy IPA make for an excellent summer brew. Available only in 750ml "big bottles," there's enough for two big wiesbier glasses and a little leftover. Milky and I consumed one while watching Superman II: The Richard Donner Cut, and if offered a case of this beer, I would kneel before Zod.

Flying Fish Brewery offers tours on most Saturdays- check the calendar on their website before visiting- and I foresee a trip there in my near future. They are also on twitter. Give them a try! Great local beer is one of the things that keeps us sane here in Jersey.

is Z the new A?

I first noticed Zooey Deschanel in The Go-Getter (full review) as the girl whose car gets stolen; That's odd because most of the time she is narrating, and the most captivating part of her is the eyes. She'd been in David Gordon Green's All the Real Girls and The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but she didn't stand out to me then. Not enough to remember her name. However, in 500 Days of Summer, I spent most of the film lost in those eyes. She put forth a fragility backed with a depth of strength and distance, that instantly reminded me of Audrey Hepburn.

Now, a friend of mine on twitter reminded me that liking Audrey became a bit of a cliche, but good taste is never hackneyed. The shallow admiration of her doesn't dull her brilliant presence; a recent post at The House Next Door captured what makes her wonderful better than I can, but the fawn-like eyes are part of it, and Zooey has that for sure. In 500 Days, she plays Summer, and remains mysterious for most of the film. We see her through the eyes of office drone Tom Hansen, who works crafting platitudes at a greeting card company. She's the new receptionist, and catches his eye immediately. But there's more than that. They like the same music, something our generation has put so much weight on, best shown in High Fidelity; she flits around with her out of style hair and seems to have walked out of a novel.
The film begins by telling us that it is a story about love, but not a love story, and it remains true to this. It shouts its love of Mike Nichols' The Graduate in the early brief narration and we see it play out subtly thereafter with a shot or two. Joseph-Gordon Leavitt of Brick fame plays Tom and shows incredible range here; the script lets him run the gamut from "that guy we like from the PG movie" as Trent from Swingers would say, to the sarcastic, self-loathing bastard with the broken heart. He manages to stay likeable through it all, and we're never biting our tongue to stop from shouting relationship advice; the story is smart, and we don't get that intolerable forced break-up that wouldn't have happened if someone would just say something. It's not a love story. If anything, it's about guys like Tom, elbow deep in drudgery that keeps them from chasing their dreams, and girls like Summer, who've told themselves they don't believe in love.
There'd be a whole new story if we told it from Summer's perspective, but the charm is seeing glimpses of it through Tom's eyes as he changes, and putting it together ourselves. While obvious comparison to Juno are inevitable, this isn't a high school story where they steam along on the strength of our convictions; it does have a strong soundtrack, the kind of thing that quirky Minnesota gal might like in college, such as Belle & Sebastian and the Smiths; it has clever, colorful inter-title cards, and it's so smart that we might think it's too smart for its own good, but it isn't. First-time director Marc Webb, and a first-time screenwriter duo of Michael Webber and Scott Neustadter have given us a great story here. And they've given Zooey Deschanel and Joseph-Gordon Levitt starring roles they deserve (they've since been in Yes Man and G.I. Joe, paychecks from which will hopefully hold them over until they can take better roles). My favorite? The scenes of early courtship as they goof around in an Ikea, it felt like something inspired by the Simon & Garfunkel song "America."

Lambscore 4.5/5
Large Association of Movie Blogs

Thursday, August 27, 2009

meat sticks to shove in your mouth

I bent my wookie. That's a garlic bread straw wrapped with prosciutto and whipped cream cheese with chives. They are a fantastic party treat. A co-worker made them and I'll probably be making them myself, for Firecracker's apartment-warming party at her new digs in downtown Jersey City.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

die happy

Five Guys Bacon Cheeseburger with grilled onions, grilled mushrooms, pickles, BBQ sauce, and fresh jalapenos. A juicy burger steamed on a grill with crisp bacon, a tasty bun that holds together, and a tangy combination of fresh and fried vegetables for a mixture of sweet, smoky, snappy and piquant flavors. It is my favorite combo and to steal a quote from another reviewer, this is the best burger for under $5 you're likely to find, especially at a chain. I consider them the median to judge all others against.

Another food reviewer also named Tommy derided these as "Wendy's, but round" and I immediately discounted his opinion on food and anything else. If you've eaten a Wendy's burger lately they are nothing like this; but perhaps I love Five Guys Burgers so much because they remind me of the Wendy's of 30 years ago, or at least how I remember them when I was but a wee salami. I will stand behind my heartfelt recommendation of this burger as the best of the franchise burger joints. Red Robin, you stand schooled; you still make some of the best chicken sandwiches, though.

Monday, August 24, 2009

the four horsemen race with the devil...

Horsemen a derivative dark thriller reminiscent of Seven, The Cell and Japanese teen ennui and rebellion films such as Suicide Circle. Dennis Quaid plays a Detroit Homicide profiler so dedicated to his job that it veers toward child abuse; his son Alex, played by Lou Taylor Pucci, raises his younger brother and is used to Dad bailing out after a cell phone call and dropping a $20 for cab fare, whether they're in church or about to go to a Red Wings game. We're introduced to him when a hunter finds a banquet of freshly yanked human teeth on a silver platter in the middle of an iced over lake in the woods. A bizarre image for sure, but what does it mean?

The film is only 90 minutes long and is the worse for whatever cuts were made, because it seems like the murders occur so swiftly. The next victim is a housewife, a mother of three children, one adopted, who is found suspended by fish hooks in her bedroom. A custom rack holds her up, much like Vincent D'Onofrio's insane killer in The Cell, and she was stabbed perfectly between the aorta and lungs so she'll drown in her own blood over a period of hours. Looking back on this, the script by Doom penner David Callaham- CallaHAM!! When yer last name's Pluck, you cherish these moments of schadenfreude- is pretty convoluted and contrived. The room the body is found in has the words "Come and See" painted on the walls, and this leads super-sleuth Quaid to the Biblical book of Revelations, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

I don't think the movie will hook you.

Visually the film is intriguing and director Jonas Åkerlund, who'd previous done Spun, manages to keep us watching even as the plot holes widen into chasms. The performances are mostly quite good- Quaid is against character and adopts a scowl that hints at the inner pain that would make him so driven as to leave his dying wife's bedside for the job. As his son, Lou Taylor Pucci perfectly captures the "here we go again" attitude of the neglected child, as he raises his younger brother in the face of the invisible Dad. Zhang Ziyi, as the adopted daughter of the first victim, chews the scenery so thoroughly I was reminded of the cartoonish bad girl from The Crow (full review).
I'm sorry son. Grisly murders are just cooler than bein' a Dad.

Horsemen has nice visuals and the interplay between Quaid and his son Pucci is interesting enough, but the story is one we've seen done better before, and has holes that the Ice Truckers could navigate through with their eyes sewn shut. At 90 minutes it seems like whole swaths of interconnections were cut for time or should have been written in the first place, and the ending is so preposterous that you'll know that whoever wrote it not only watched The Cell, but never asked how D'Onofrio managed to hook himself in that bizarre suspension rig he used. It's an unfortunate film for all the actors involved, who deserve better. (Note: Lou Taylor Pucci is my cousin, but as you can hopefully tell from this review, when he's in a stinker like this or 50 Pills I won't sugarcoat the review).

Rating: Stinky

Race with the Devil has Warren Oates and Peter Fonda as motorbikers on vacation in a big honkin' RV, chased by Satanists after they see them sacrifice a nude girl in an arcane desert ritual? Sounds like a recipe for hot buttered awesome! and it is!
Directed by Jack Starrett- the incoherent master of Authentic Frontier Gibberish from Blazing Saddles, and the director of exploitation classics Cleopatra Jones and The Losers- the movie rides on the fearsome energy emitted by the incomparable Mr. Oates. He and Fonda are dirt bike racers who decide to take an RV trip to the Rockies for some skiing, with wives Lara Parker and Loretta "Hot Lips" Swit in tow. When they park the Winnebago in a remote stretch of wasteland and go to explore the lonely desert, they realize they are not alone. They witness what they first believe is a bunch of hippies cavorting naked around a bonfire, but soon realize it is something far more dark. A hooded man plunges a knife into a woman's chest, and as the men stare blankly through the binoculars at what just happened, their wives saunter up and the Satanists notice. Oops.
They give chase, but after a harrowing run back to the mobile home they manage to hightail it out of there, with cultists banging on the windows as they careem through a gulch on the way back to the interstate. But their hell ride is far from over. They pull into the nearest town to notify the Sheriff, and he leads them back to the location with an eerie sense of ease. When they find blood, he says it could be an animal's. So Peter Fonda sneaks some into a jar to be tested at a lab. But back in town, their wives feel like they are being watched, even when in public. The townsfolk seem to be giving them the evil eye. And it turns out to be true, for when they return to the RV, Loretta's pooch has been killed and hanged from the door.
And worse, once they're on the highway they find some new pets in the trailer, rattlesnakes! After nearly crashing and killing everyone, Warren Oates decides to fight back. Fonda is eclipsed by his fury, and plays the quiet husband who can barely believe what's going on. They buy a 12 gauge at the general store, but the game is on, and the highway out of town is beset on all sides by the iniquities of the selfish and the tyranny of evil men. And about a billion Satanists in pickup trucks with molotov cocktails! The long chases in the RV as trucks full of cultists hop on and try to set it on fire definitely influenced The Road Warrior a few years later, and are pretty exciting. The film has a dark ending, but it comes so abruptly that you wonder if they ran out of money. After Rosemary's Baby, the Devil winning seems a bit like a cop-out, but it's a lot of fun while it lasts.

Rating: Worthy

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Terror in a Texas Town movie wallpaper

I reviewed this back here and Turner Classics is re-showing it, and offering this awesome wallpaper. The review is also at the excellent classic Westerns blog Decisions at Sundown.

Friday, August 21, 2009

organic feels good, but does it taste good?

The Burger Battle of the Best continues...

Elevation Burger is a newer chain that's finally arrived in Montclair New Jersey. They advertise free range, grass fed, organic beef; french fries cooked in olive oil; and fresh, local-sourced ingredients "when practical." While I haven't drank the organic Kool-Aid, I did want to try a grass-fed burger, so Milky and I gave them a try.
I consider Five Guys Burgers & Fries (visit & review here) the burger chain against which all others should be compared. They make things fresh, serve them simply, and let you go to hell with yourself with toppings. Elevation Burger is their organic cousin. You walk up to the counter to place your order, but here they deliver it on a steel tray. They offer shakes and malts, organic cookies, pre-made side salads, and they have veggie burgers on the menu. Like the Shake Shack- which has a portabello burger- you can mix & match to have a meat & veg burger, which should make my British readers snicker.
The burger comes wrapped in paper with a handy sack. The standard is a double, but you can "elevate" your burger up to 10 patties high in fine In-N-Out Burger style. A double with fries and a root beer was plenty filling, but go for it. So, how's it taste? I give the aged cheddar cheese high marks, and grass-fed ground beef has a stronger beefy flavor that reminded me of the ground-to-order sirloin in my favorite burger, the one Tony Bourdain slings at his downtown NYC location of Les Halles (I haven't had the one at the Park Ave location, but a friend told me it wasn't as good). But it didn't have the mouth feel of a good grilled burger, something Five Guys gets right every time. For toppings, I had hot pepper relish, pickles, caramelized onions and Elevation sauce. The pickles were very thinly sliced longways and I couldn't get any snap or flavor from them. The hot relish was a little mild, and I couldn't tell what the Elevation sauce was. Next time I'll get a standard burger with sauce, lettuce & tomato to find out.
So that does mean I will return, a good sign. Their fries cooked in olive oil were a bit thin- shoe strings- but had good flavor. Olive oil burns quickly and they seemed a bit over browned, almost like sweet potato fries, but the flavor was good. The flavor of grass fed beef is an acquired one, but it's almost steak-like. I liked it. The texture was just different, perhaps ground too finely. For a chain or franchise, this was an excellent burger, and I recommend trying it out. Especially if you want to try an organic, grass-fed free range burger for a change. I'm not convinced it's that much better for you, but it does show in the taste. If Elevation Burger reads this, I'd suggest some crunchy toppings. Bacon, which was oddly absent, given the availability of Niman Ranch free range bacon; crunchy pickles, or fresh jalapenos (something I love on a Five Guys burger). You've got a tasty burger, but it needs some snap. Good job on bringing grass-fed beef to the burger crowd.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

even Kurosawa made sequels

Sanjuro (1962)

They Just Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore

This review is part of the Akira Kurosawa installment of LAMBs in the Director's Chair sponsored by the Large Association of Movie Blogs.

Even Akira Kurosawa could be cajoled by the studio into making a sequel. With the rampant success of Yojimbo, Toshirō Mifune's clever ronin had to make a return; and in Sanjuro, he must keep his sword in check to unravel a plot of political intrigue within a village clan. The Yojimbo saga came about when Kurosawa was trying to adapt the story "Peaceful Days" to the screen, which was about nine young samurai who team with two ronin to set two factions against one another, rather than die fighting them. He took some of this and mingled it with Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest, which pitted his hardboiled gumshoe the Continental Op against a "bad town" with two warring kingpins, a story that has been retold a dozen times in the movies. That became Yojimbo, and Mifune's wolfish ronin became hugely popular for using his wits and his sword to take down an entire village of corruption.
He calls himself Sanjûrô, which means "30," because he asks thirty ryo in payment for work. He was the original "Man with No Name," and Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone would famously adapt his story into A Fistful of Dollars and create their own beloved anti-hero. Kurosawa went back to adapt "Peaceful Days," and took the story's tale of internal clan intrigue and the nine young samurai who want to save their clan, but cannot hope to fight the villains within it, and replaced the two ronin with Sanjuro. He is squatting in the building they choose to meet and discuss their plans; he overhears them praise the handsome Superintendent, and side against the "horse faced" Chamberlain. Once he's dropped enough eaves to be a co-conspirator, he emerges to share his gruff wisdom with the young hot heads.

They've sided with the sly and handsome Superintendent and against the Chamberlain, who will accept mistreatment to avoid bloodshed; he doesn't jive with the conceptions of honor they've grown up to expect. The story is less bleak than its predecessor and much less iconic, but it is still an enjoyable tale of the Edo period. It's also enjoyable to watch Mifune and Kurosawa work with lighter material. It's much more sentimental and even seems crafted to speak to young men who saw Yojimbo and were excited by his wits and violence! I prefer to see it as the older ronin regretting his violent past and trying to pass on some of the knowledge he's learned to the nine, in whom he sees his reckless younger self.

When he rescues the kidnapped Chamberlain's family, the man's wife seems amused by her situation and unafraid of the consequences. She asks him his first name, and he looks out the window and sees the camellias in bloom, so he says it is Tsubaki. Mifune's as-usual masterful expressions inform us that he made it up, and is embarrassed by her frankness. This character trait, the skilled killer being socially uncomfortable, would become a staple in stories of this type. Ed Harris in Appaloosa, and the "shucks, ma'am" of every cowboy. She chides him for his quick reliance on his blade, and poetically compares him to "a glittering sword. But the best swords are kept in their sheaths." To put this in context, samurai would not use an heirloom in battle where it could be damaged; they had less ornate battle swords for that purpose. You can practically feel Sanjuro's blush, and he promises to not kill unless he has to.
But amusingly enough, the body count is actually higher than Yojimbo! Those pesky hot-headed kids keep interfering with his cunning plans and making him fight. Even though I'd seen it before, the convolutions of the plot, and how the factions play against one another to not show any public hint of corruption is quite clever and entertaining. Sanjuro meets his match with a mercenary samurai named Hanbei, who is working for the devilish Superintendent Kikui. He knows he is corrupt, and hopes to demote him to a figurehead once the conspiracy is completed. Sanjuro tricks him so many times, that we know a showdown is inevitable. Eventually the kids meddle so much that he has to slaughter an entire house of samurai and then make the kids tie him up. Stuff we've seen a lot since, and probably before- a Shakespeare play comes to mind, but my English major sense is failing me- but it works out as believable here.
The film is relatively bloodless, the slain fall down grimacing. But the final duel with Hanbei is the one exception, because that actually means something to Sanjuro. He sees himself in Hanbei, if he were not a ronin. He doesn't want to fight, but the man's honor demands it. Kurosawa used a pressure hose for the explosive bloodspray, which nearly knocked the actor off his feet. It's shocking and unexpected; we expect Hanbei to stare emptily, take his final steps, and make peace with his own honor. It's a final wag of the finger to the young samurai and young viewers, bringing a grisly reality to the excitement we've had. Sanjuro says, "He was exactly like me. A naked sword. He didn't stay in his sheath." He admonishes the boys to "stay in their sheaths," with all its amusing sexual connotations, and struts off down the road with his terse signature farewell.
Sanjuro may not be one of Kurosawa's groundbreaking films, but it shows that he could make a good story out of what's essentially a moneymaking fun venture. There's quite a bit of humor thrown in, such as the rescued Chamberlain saying "once when I was riding, someone said the rider's face is longer than the horse's." But it never dips into slapstick or broad comic gestures. If anything, there's a healthy dose of irony as bloodthirsty Sanjuro tries to use his cunning to avoid slaughter, and has his hand forced time and time again. While it may not have been as influential as The Hidden Fortress- which along with The Dam Busters became one of George Lucas's inspirations for Star Wars- or Yojimbo, it's a memorable and enjoyable return of the iconic ronin who gives the film its name. Anyone who enjoys Kurosawa's period pictures owes it to themselves to give it its due.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

taking a rest for a while.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Funny People got no reason to smile

Funny People has lost some steam now, but we had some free passes, and I liked the trailer. Despite not being much of a Sandler fan outside of Punch-Drunk Love, I thought I'd give him a chance. He's pretty good here, but the script is about a half hour too long and feels like an Apatow version of The Royal Tenenbaums' basic premise at times. I enjoyed the first 90 minutes thoroughly, but kept looking at my watch once the second act rug-yank occurs. Oh, you'll laugh a lot. The film lives up to its title, but Apatow's third film as director shows little growth. He's gone from virgin to father to dying, but still has an undescended testicle.
I thought Seth Rogen showed some good range as an actor in this one, and while playing a young comedian looking for his break isn't a big stretch for the new star, he nails it and never feels like he's playing himself. Adam Sandler tries really hard to not be Adam Sandler, but it's obvious the part was written for him. He does a very good job with it, but it takes a long time for any depth to come to his character. The faults are with the screenplay, which takes an interesting premise- what does a famous comedian do when faced with death- and turns into a different movie by the end. I was enjoying the idea of George Simmons, the multimillionaire comedian turned actor who learns he has an 8% chance of surviving the year. He's lonely at the top, has made many mistakes and lives alone in a big house with the occasional starfucker he has limo'd out in the morning. When he shows up at an improv club and goes before a struggling young comic named Ira (Rogen), he likes how the "kid" reacts to this turn of bad luck and takes him on as a writer. And then, an assistant.

The film shines during the scenes of comedians in their natural habitat. Ira lives with a successful up and coming comedian named Leo (Jonah Hill) and one whose already transitioned to a popular but lame TV show (Jason Schwartzman) and it's very entertaining watching them riff off one another. We get a lot of cameos once Simmons lets people know about his illness, everyone from Paul Reiser and Charles Fleischer (more famous for voicing Roger Rabbit nowadays, but his stand up act is hilarious) to Norm Macdonald, Dave Atell and Sarah Silverman show up. They act like we imagine comedians would act around each other, a zillion laughs a minute. How true it is I don't know, but it has that veneer of realism. We only get hints at the pain behind the need to make people laugh. One of the first things George asks Ira about is his childhood; his parents are divorced, George says he never could make his father laugh. When he does make his father laugh, it's almost an afterthought.
The last 30 minutes of the movie are about George trying to get with the love of his life, Judd Apatow's wife Leslie Mann. I like her a lot- she was great in Knocked Up- but this storyline feels almost tacked on to give Judd's family screentime. His kids play the kids too. They were also in Knocked Up, and they're still cute and not annoying. But it's the kind of thing that gets distracting when you do it twice. Also, it seems like a movie in itself, jammed into a half hour, where Eric Bana and Adam Sandler vie for her affections. Ira does play the part of a child of divorce, trying to stop George from breaking up a family, but it doesn't have the comfortable feel the first two acts had. We've seen comics deal with death in Man on the Moon, Memories of Me and Tribute, but it would have been worth exploring again. Instead, we get a more familiar story about a jerk who learns he's a jerk, and tries to stop being a jerk. Scent of a Comedian? I wasn't expecting The King of Comedy either, but he flirts with the competitiveness of comics, the pain behind the laughs, the need to be loved taken to its celebrity extreme, and does nothing with it.
Just as the Director's Cut of 40 Year Old Virgin loses the tight pacing and meanders, this comes pre-extended. I don't want to know what the DVD with extra footage will be like. I've read that Aziz Ansari, who plays a comedian who jumps around a lot and says boy-eeee and generally acts like a caricature of a suburban white boy rapper fan, will be getting a starring role to explore this character. Russell Brand will also reprise his role from Forgetting Sarah Marshall as the pop singer, with Jonah Hill as his wrangler. Apatowland is starting to feel like SNL, spinning off of itself. I'd rather see Aubrey Plaza get some more work. This was a good, if not great movie but it was in dire need of an editor, or perhaps even a rewrite of Act III. Sometimes you see people who've impressed you begin to fail because no one has the balls to tell them something's not working, and they've lost that self-doubt that makes you strive to improve. They mock this in the movie with Simmons's acting career, but it happens with directors too. The guy who gave us Stripes and Ghostbusters? His last movie was My Super-Ex-Girlfriend.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Dillinger duo, and the last movie he saw

They Just Don't Write 'Em Like That Anymore

Dillinger (1945)

Probably best remembered for Lawrence Tierney's stone cold portrayal of the bank robber, this 70 minute biopic is a bit muddled but gives the least romantic vision of the cultural icon. Tierney also played Joe, the criminal ringleader in Reservoir Dogs, but he's unrecognizable here. The film opens with Dillinger's father touring to speak about his son's crimes, and how he never liked an honest day's work. This one is accurate, quick and brutal- the tommyguns fire fast and furious- but it comes off as too short, and fudges Dillinger's end.
Photo from Only the Cinema's excellent review

Those who want to make him into a Robin Hood dislike Tierney's portrayal, but all it lacks is his desire for notoriety. It has the chilling brutality of a pre-code gangster film of the '30s, and caught a lot of flack for it. Tierney's real-life hot temper simmers through his fedora, and Dillinger's infamous "fake gun" escape is re-enacted well here. Although now it's believed the guards were bribed and the fake gun was only made to cover their tails, they didn't know that in '45. And for its time, this unlikely film from a B movie house is surprisingly accurate and shocking.

Manhattan Melodrama (1934)

This was the movie John Dillinger saw right before he was gunned down. You can see the appeal; the bank robber did resemble Clark Gable, and here he plays one of two orphans who grow up to be a gangster and a District Attorney. William Powell gets to play the good guy, and Myrna Loy plays the gal torn between them. You can see the chemistry that would blossom into Nick and Nora Charles and lead to 14 pairings for the two. But Gable is the interesting one, the crook, dapper and devilish.

It says melodrama right in the title and it doesn't disappoint- we meet the two as kids on the steamer General Slocum, which catches fire and orphans them both. Blackie, a little gambling trickster who grows up to be Gable; and Jim, the straightlaced young boy who grows up to be District Attorney, destined to prosecute his own friend for the murder of another gangster. Gable had just come off It Happened One Night and won the Oscar; this cemented his stardom as the rakish type we love, but probably wouldn't leave alone with our daughter. The film was a surprise hit even before Dillinger's death immortalized it, and it holds up today with its classic story. Its lone Oscar was for original screenplay, and it would serve as the template for many similar tales, such as Angels with Dirty Faces and Heat.

Some of Blackie's lines must have reverberated with Dillinger: "Die the way you live," and "If I can't live the way I want, then at least let me die when I want." He'd surely have wanted Gable to play him instead of Tierney. This minor classic has more to offer than the trivia of it being the last movie he ever saw, and its story told by Powell, Loy and Gable make it still worth seeing today.

Dillinger (1973)

John Milius's first feature film came five years after Bonnie and Clyde (full review), and manages to strip any vestige of romance from the gangster era. Told from the perspective of Melvin Purvis, it is episodic and inevitable as he guns down the list of criminals who massacred his men at a shoot-out earlier. Ben Johnson plays him as a laconic and cold killer with balls of steel. We're introduced to him outside a farmhouse where a gunman is holed up. Purvis gloves up, takes two .45's, and has his cigar lit for him before stalking in with calm sense of duty. Shots ring out, and the gangster walks out bloody. Purvis comes out without a word.
This makes for good cinema, but it doesn't seem right for a man who'd commit suicide after Hoover disgraced him, after using him as a hired killer of sorts. But taken as the myth that it is- Hoover demanded changes be made to the script to flatter the FBI- it's an entertaining diversion. Milius has made some very memorable films, but works better in the realm of fantasy, as in Conan the Barbarian and Red Dawn. Here he seems like a boy playing at being Peckinpah. What holds things together is a fine choice of actors: Warren Oates plays Dillinger, and not only looks like him but manages most of his mannerisms quite well. The script lacks his most famous line, "we're here for the bank's money, not yours" and strips him of any Robin Hood pretensions. He takes their money as well, and is more interested in being the best bank robber than a celebrity.
The supporting cast is well rounded, with Harry Dean Stanton and Geoffrey Lewis both part of Dillinger's gang; Richard Dreyfus plays the murderous "Baby Face" Nelson surprisingly well. Oddly, Dillinger is portrayed as frustrated by Purvis's cool and suffering delusions of immortality; the more recent Public Enemies made him a little too dreamy and the '45 version was perhaps a little too much a cautionary tale, but Milius seems too enamored of Purvis for this to be called Dillinger. In fact, when the men meet with their ladies at a fancy Chicago restaurant, the G-Man sends over a magnum of champagne and a note saying that the next time they meet will be their last. What does really shine are the gun battles, as expected from a director who used to be partly paid in rare or expensive rifles.

I love Warren Oates, but he gets few chances to stand out here; Milius seems more concerned with his law & order mentality of glorifying the FBI's shoot to kill policy, and even puts a gun in Dillinger's hand outside the Biograph Theater, when he was shot unarmed. Perhaps that was at Hoover's urging; a voiceover after the credits recites J. Edgar's thoughts on any film glamorizing these men and "leading young people more stray than they are already." Even Billie Frechette comes off as a misguided hippie in the S.L.A. instead of a gun moll. But this is a tasty slice of '70s violence and a decent period picture, it just feels aimless. Milius would do better later, when he had something more to say.
So, what Dillinger movie can I recommend? I enjoyed Public Enemies, but I think it glamorized him somewhat. Milius excoriated him, and Tierney perhaps was a little too Cagney. Like Jack the Ripper, Dillinger's a character in our own minds and a portrayal will be hard pressed to satisfy us all. Maybe that's as it should be.

Saturday, August 15, 2009

The Quest for the Sonoran Hot Dog

NPR recently wrote about Sonoran hot dogs, a variation on my favorite food that I'd never heard of before. They've been around since the '60s as a Tex-Mex combination, a bacon-wrapped hot dog atop refried beans in a soft steamed bun, topped with tomatoes, onions, jalapeno sauces, mayo and mustard. Recent variations include the Tex Mex staples of sour cream, guacamole and chile sauces; radishes, cucumber and mushrooms.

So this is where the bacon-wrapped hot dog, that I first tried at NYC's Crif Dogs (full review) first came to be. It's amazing, the great foods that are made at the borders. Unfortunately I don't know of any in the NYC area, but I asked on Chowhound. A place on Washington St. in Bergenfield has bacon-wrapped dogs, one step closer to perfection! Let the quest begin!

Friday, August 14, 2009

80's Trash of the Week: Firewalker

In the '80s you knew were in for a stupid good time when the first words on the screen were "a Golan-Globus Production." The Cannon Group gave us unforgettable films like Lifeforce, Bloodsport, and Masters of the Universe. Those were some of their big budget efforts- Enter the Ninja, The Last American Virgin, and Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo are more what they're known for. And Firewalker- an Indiana Jones style adventure starring Chuck Norris and Louis Gossett Jr. as treasure hunters on a gold-seeking caper full of wacky hijinks.

The last thing you will ever see.

It's a much needed dash of humor in Norris's run of '80s kickfests. We meet adventurers Max Donigan and Leo Porter in a Jeep in the desert as they flee a convoy of gunmen in dune buggies. They've been partners a long time and bicker like husband and wife. Leo says to turn left; Max makes the rather astute observation that in a desert, does it really matter? But it does, because they make a right turn at Albuquerque and crash right into an oasis. They are captured and staked out over convenient ant hills by their nemesis The General, who is a Chinese general, as you might imagine. The comic tone is set early on as Max (Norris) says, "he'll probably say something cheesy like 'Gentlemen, we meet again,'" and he proceeds to do exactly that.
Perrier is Chuck Norris's Kryptonite.

The story may be slapdash and derivative, the lines hackneyed, the stunts and effects cheesy and low budget, but there's genuine comic chemistry between Max and Leo that sort of holds things together. Gossett has always excelled as the second lead and he makes great use of what little he's given here. And hell, Chuck Norris to me has always worked best with a little tongue in cheek. While I don't have the tolerance of Jason over at Invasion of the B Movies, who had a whole Norris month, I've watched some of his goodies and baddies like Good Guys Wear Black, Lone Wolf McQuade, Code of Silence, and The Hero and the Terror. Where would I rate Firewalker? Somewhere in the middle.
Another Stakeout

For one, Melody Anderson, who played Dale Arden in Dino De Laurentiis's Flash Gordon flick- you know, the one with the Queen soundtrack- plays Patricia, who hires Max and Leo to help her find a lost treasure of gold. She's not the greatest actress, but manages to be funny here and there, like when she's dressed as a nun to sneak through the Nameless South American Dictatorship- let's call it Val Verde- that they must traverse. Max and Leo dress as priests, and Gossett has to give last rites in Pig Latin, which sounds funnier than it is. Director J. Lee Thompson, who gave us The Guns of Navarone and Cape Fear, coasted for a long time after those hits and this is smack in the middle of a period where his most memorable movies are the '80s horror holiday flick Happy Birthday to Me and the so-bad-it's-good Death Wish IV: The Crackdown.
I get to dress like Indy? And drive a camo Beetle with balloons? Sign me up!

But Firewalker is not without its charms. Being a Chuck Norris movie, he has to kick the asses of an entire bar full of patrons, but it says something when it's more fun watching Louis Gossett Jr. get knocked around because he won't ask for help. They find an Indian medicine man, played by Will Sampson of Poltergeist II: The Other Side and One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest in his final role, who tells them how to find the treasure. And to beware of its guardian, the Firewalker. I think. The bad guy is called El Coyote, and played by Sonny Landham- Billy from Predator- and like Mola Ram from Temple of Doom, he can pull your brain out through your nostrils with his fingers. At least that's what it looked like; maybe he was just digging for gold.
I ain't afraid of no man. Or his boogers.

Along the way, they get rescued by old friend Corky Taylor- John "Sallah" Rhys-Davies with an absolutely hilarious Southern drawl- so there are some small rewards for suffering through this movie. It's just unfortunately pretty boring and predictable; the script is threadbare and the director doesn't know much about comic timing, to give his actors their due. I've certainly watched worse movies from the '80s, but without Norris and Gossett bickering this would be intolerable. It's barely worth making fun of, because you feel bad for them. They really tried, but you can't polish a turd. Golan-Globus did best when they went full-on exploitation as in Lifeforce; this kid-friendly flick might have appealed to young'uns who liked Norris, but otherwise it's best forgotten.

Beers Required to Enjoy: 4
Could it be remade today? It was, with a Crystal Skull
Quotability Rating: zip
Cheese Factor: Nacho Grande
High Points: Norris and Gossett Jr. bickering.
Low Point: Spray painted gold treasure
Gratuitous Boobies: None

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