Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Thank you

I'd like to thank you all for reading this blog for the last year and 3/4, as I've enjoyed writing it very much. Maybe you've noticed that my output has slowed down a little, and stuff like the Arnold Project and my old mainstay of 80's Trash of the Week have fallen by the wayside. The truth be told, I just don't have the time to contribute as much as I used to. My interest in writing fiction has been resparked, and I'm funneling my creativity toward that in the meantime.

This has been a very rewarding blog and I will continue to review movies, beer and burgers here when the mood strikes me, but expect the posts to be fewer and far between. I have some unfinished drafts that I want to get completed, like an exhaustive look at True Lies, but the long rambling thoughts will more likely be replaced by a few choice photographs and placements of the word "slathered," if it happens to be a food review.

Have a Happy Thanksgiving!

two movies about nothing

Last Year at Marienbad is infamous for being an inscrutable art film. Endlessly parodied, it introduces us to three people: A, a beautiful woman, X, the man who says they met last year and planned a tryst this year, and M, who may be the woman's husband or lover. They converse and walk through a dreamy, immense mansion and grounds built around strict geometric patterns, endlessly repeating themselves in variations of what may be the past, fantasies of it, and fantasies of the present and future. In some scenes it seems as if X and A are lovers and did plan a romantic rendezvous, and in others it seems he is pestering her.
Alain Resnais has said the film has no meaning, but it inspires endless conversation. The only other film I've seen of his was Night and Fog, the brutal documentary about the Holocaust that remains the best film made about it. In Marienbad, he makes masterful use of tracking shots, mirrored compositions, reflections and frames where the actors pause while the camera slowly tracks around them. The cinematography makes the mansion seem endless and confusing, the gray outdoor scenes recall a house of purgatory lost in the mist, as in the ghost tale The Others. The slow tracking shots were an obvious influence on Kubrick for The Shining, and like his haunted Overlook Hotel, the very setting here seems dreamlike and unreal.
Like a cross between the ennui of L'Avventura, where the people are so shallow that they might disappear into the background, and the emptiness of the suits in American Psycho, where one can be mistaken for another, Last Year at Marienbad could be about the mutable persistence of memory, as Dali painted it; one party drifts into another, one year of vacationing at Marienbad is like the next, and who's to say what was promised, and who forgot whom? Was someone shot, and did we flirt, and make plans we never meant to keep?
There are obviously many interpretations and this is the kind of film, like Doubt, which claims the final act is the discussion you have afterward. Ebert loves how gripping it is, and it is true- though little happens, like the other infamous film of this sort My Dinner with Andre- which is merely a conversation over a meal- it can be hard to look away. The narration- something Resnais is masterful at using, as in Night and Fog- and the incredible camera work and framing, whether it is A's face or watching the men play endless, fruitless games of matchsticks- draw you in. "Seinfeld" was famously a show about nothing- a bare framework that master comedians and writers used to prove that even with nothing, they could make us laugh. And here, with barest semblance of plot, characters drawn from archetype, and dialogue that circles in on itself and goes nowhere, a masterful director can make us watch.
It helps that A is a stunning beauty, and X, who narrates, is a master seducer. M, by contrast, has a severe brow and resembles Peter Cushing at his most villainous. We are told little, but we begin to think of him as her husband or lover, for he dominates her in some way. M also has an unerring habit of winning all the games he plays, with ruthless skill. The film became a puzzle during its time and it remains as intriguing, though admittedly hearing those who saw it in theaters during its release gush about it is a "you had to be there" situation. What can compare? Will Charlie Kaufman's Synecdoche, New York rise to the challenge? I enjoyed this, it appealed to my love of German Expressionism. Do I know what it means? I like to think Resnais was playing with minimalism, and showing how film techniques can draw us in and make even the gauziest image feel three dimensional.
The exact opposite technique is used in the excellent, ahead of its time, feminist masterpiece: Jeanne Dielman, 23 Quai du Commerce, 1080 Bruxelles. Directed by Chantal Akerman, the camera is beyond static and almost seems to disappear. At the same height, unobtrusively observing the monotonous life that unfolds before it. It is over 3 hours long, and in theaters it was an excruciating test of both bladder and concentration to watch. The maddening rote is its message; Jeanne is a widowed housewife who fends for her son and herself- she prepares and serves dinner thanklessly, cleans the plates, and tends the house. We see three days of her Sisyphean toil.
The first introduces us, and we pore over the minutiae of housewife habitat and behavior. In the early '70s, women were becoming liberated and this is a stark reminder of how few choices they had. That becomes even more evident as we see day two, when a gentleman arrives at the apartment for sex. Her son is unaware of what she does to send him to school, of course, and is even callous in his disregard. He takes his life for granted. When he describes sex as disgusting, and wonders how women can tolerate it, she begins to unravel. Her sacrifices are utterly disrespected. I won't tell you what happens on day 3; you can watch all 210 minutes to find out, but the ending is incredibly powerful.
Director Chantal Akerman surely was a great influence on Michael Haneke, one of my favorite film makers. He's probably best known for Cache and Funny Games, but his film most resembling this one would be The Seventh Continent, which brutally depicts the empty life of a nuclear family. Classic film fans, and fans of Haneke especially, should give Jeanne Diehlman a shot.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Banger Burger

Irish pubs are usually a good stop for grub. The Celtic Harp, outside the Saranac Brewery in Utica, is a great choice. They of course serve their hometown's brews on tap, and they make a good burger.
Sarah opted for the beef stew, which had big tender chunks of beef and creamy mashed potatoes.
I went for the Banger Burger, which comes with a grilled banger sausage on top, and cheese of course. The burger was good, but a little overdone. The sausage made up for it, with great flavor. Nice tasty bun, too. Not mushy and not sweet. The grilled onions were a great touch, too. They had Saranac pumpkin ale on tap, and it's one of my favorite pumpkin brews- lots of flavor without weighing you down.

I wouldn't recommend a road trip for the Harp on its own, but if you're visiting the brewery, it's right around the corner, and has a lively clientele. And they make a good burger.

I'm cleaning up a lot of my half-written drafts, so I'll be playing catch-up and firing them off through the holiday season.

Friday, November 20, 2009


"it's like a Greek tragedy, only I'm the subject"
The moment that sold me on James Toback's excellent documentary, Tyson, was when the former heavyweight champion of the world was holding back tears, murmuring about when he became a fighter, after trainer Cus D'Amato took him under his wing: "He spoke with me every night about discipline and character, and I knew, I knew nobody, noboby physically, um was gonna fuck with me again."
I don't have sympathy for a rapist, but you get a good idea of Tyson the man after watching this film, and he has only just begun to stop being the 12-year old boy who got into his first fight after bullies broke the necks of his homing pigeons. His father abandoned the family when Mike was 2; his mother died when he was 16, when he was still a street tough. Sent to reform school, he thought he was a fighter until a boxer knocked the wind out of him with one shot. When he proved himself through good behavior and discipline, the man taught him to fight, and hooked him up with trainer Cus D'Amato on the outside.
But Mike was a fat little boy who was teased mercilessly in a tough neighborhood, and childhood tears still spring to his face when he talks about it. Much has been said about bullying in schools, and many people still think "it prepares you for life," but unfortunately it also helps make more bullies. When the heavyweight champion of the world has crushingly low self-esteem, it tells you that this isn't something that "prepares you for the unfairness of adulthood." You know what prepares you for that? Good role models, not bullies. Adults who make the difficult choices, who stick their neck out. If Cus D'Amato hadn't died in 1985- the year Mike exploded into stardom- he might have had a moral center to continue his education from boxer into a man.

But instead, fame, fortune, entourages of sycophants, and predatory "wretched, slimy reptilian motherfuckers" like promoter Don King were there as influences. I believe we all know right from wrong by a certain age, and know that we don't like being bullied, and should be able to extrapolate that we shouldn't bully others; but I also know that the wounds of childhood left by emotional abuse and abandonment run deeper than logic, and often leave us broken and hurtful beasts that lash out at those most able to help us. So while I can never forgive Iron Mike for being a rapist and a wifebeater, I can see the desire for redemption in his eyes, now deep set in a puffy face that displays the decades of abuse from opponent's fists and drugs he took on his own.
Toback's documentary is a no-holds-barred look at the man. It was decided that Mike would have no say on the final cut, and filming began as he got out of rehab, in a fragile emotional state but a clear-headed one. It's telling that his tattoos are of Ché Guevara and Mao, revolutionaries who became monsters. Mike revolutionized boxing in his own way, with a lethal combination of power and speed, but in the end he made a mockery of himself. I had no idea that Evander Holyfield was head-butting him- a fact I'm sure he disputes- but can completely understand how a wounded child like Tyson would take that disrespect with such fury that he'd ruin his career by biting the guy's ear. Was it smart? No. But it was an emotionally stunted man lashing out, as he spiraled into self-destruction.

Does this absolve him? Hell no. But it helps give us a view of the man. It was something that should have been so clear, this huge pit bull of a fighter, with the lispy, high pitched voice, that he was fighting every bully who'd ever made fun of him. And like a pit bull, he was probably a friendly guy before they got hold of him, and beat him into something that could only react by lashing out. The film doesn't just dwell on the bad, or his origins; we get to re-live his fantastic rise to stardom as one of the world's premier athletes. 8 second knockouts. The Holmes fight. The Spinks fight. Getting all 3 heavyweight titles and becoming undisputed champion of the world. Mike was a perfect '80s icon- he was tough, and he didn't have the personality of a Muhammad Ali. His opponents could run, but they could not hide.
But this is mostly a picture of a man, like Mike himself said- a Greek tragedy, except he's the subject. Director James Toback- famously independent- decided to show the movie to the opposite of its demographic, older white women who didn't like boxing. According to the IMDb, he offered them $100 if they left in the first 5 minutes; if they stayed longer, they had to watch it all, and discuss it. Not one left, and many were in tears by the finale. I was never much of a fan; the media lingered too much on his "brutality," and ignored the fact that under manager Kevin Rooney, he was actually a skilled fighter who took his opponents down with speed and power. But our casually racist attitude toward black athletes at the time encouraged his portrayal as a beast. Something he would live up to.

like a baby stillborn,
Like a beast with his horn,
I have torn everyone who has reached out for me
-Leonard Cohen, "Bird on a Wire"

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Shonen Knife

I first heard of Shonen Knife back when they covered "Top of the World" for the If I was a Carpenter... tribute album (made re-famous by the inclusion of Sonic Youth's cover of Superstar in the movie Juno) back in the early '90s. I didn't get into them, unfortunately, and unlike my skate-murderer buddy Keith, didn't go see them when they first toured the States. As luck would have it, they returned to the same venue, Maxwell's in Hoboken, last Saturday, and I made sure to go see them.
J-pop has gotten immensely more popular in the States since then, and Shonen Knife is more of a J-Rock group actually. They've performed in Japan as "The Osaka Ramones" tribute band, to give you an idea of their music. Energetic, lots of fun, with the same silly love of life that most Ramones songs have. Do you like fruits and vegetables? Why not sing about it? Do you have a very bad sense of direction? Maybe you need a Mapmaster. And you should write a song about it. That's what Shonen Knife is like, with '60s style guitars and lots of long black hair flying around like Cousin It's become a headbanger.
Opening bands were Girls at Dawn, who I missed some of- but they had a good set. They did a lovely, poppy cover of Misfits "Last Caress" that really stood out, but I'd hear them play again. Unfortunately they were sort of blown off the stage by Nashville duo Jeff the Brotherhood, who manage to rock your face off with a 3 stringed guitar and a set of drums. They reminded me a lot of early Sabbath and the Melvins, and I liked them so much I bought their album Heavy Days on vinyl. Bonus, it's grey vinyl and comes with a free digital download of the album. They were a great opening band with lots of energy, and if only the ceiling were higher I'm sure they would have jumped off the amp:
Then Shonen Knife came on, opening with "Konnichiwa," their standard opening song. Naoko, the guitarist, is the only original gal left, but the new bassist Ritsuko and drummer Etsuko do an amazing job. They have lots of energy too, and you know that they just love rock 'n roll. And it's infectious. They played songs old and new, from their lighter poppy early tunes to many tracks off "Heavy Songs" and their new album "Supergroup," which feel more power punk. As always, they sing in English on American tour, but have Japanese and English versions of their albums. Naoko speaks English well and introduced a lot of the songs, such as "BBQ Party," saying she wrote it because it's one of her favorite American foods. My favorite new one was the aforementioned "Mapmaster," which reminded me of a cross between Ramones and early Jonathan Richman and the Modern Lovers. They put on a great show, and the 75 minute set felt like it flew by. I liked them so much I considered seeing their Brooklyn show last night, but alas, I had to go get beat up at MMA class.
Since I got the tickets, Pete got me a Shonen Knife workout towel- you can see them around their necks in the photo of him with the band:

Here's the band singing "Banana Chips"

I also have a clip of them covering "Daydream Believer," I'll edit this post when it's finished uploading.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

R.I.P. Edward Woodward

Edward Woodward, probably best known as the star of "The Equalizer," has passed on. I remember him best as the chaste and pious policeman researching the missing girl in the cult classic, The Wicker Man; he was also the star of Breaker Morant, which has sat too long in my queue. I'm bumping it to the top.

He was also in the recently reviewed Sitting Target as Inspector Milton, who's chasing down Ollie and Ian, the escaped convicts. He doesn't get much time, but he had the kind of face you remember, and certainly looked the stymied policeman, as he silently contemplated the carnage the boyos left in their wake.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Badass du jour: Oliver Reed, in Sitting Target

"My only regret is that I didn't drink every pub dry and sleep with every woman on the planet." -Oliver Reed
My friend Pita-San wanted to see this movie, Sitting Target, with Oliver Reed and Ian McShane, so I went on the hunt. Turns out it was rated X in Britain when it came out for brutality. They had me at "brutality." Of course I expected it to be tame now, and in many ways it is- there's nothing as racy as Lee Marvin throwing a naked man out a window as in the spectacular Point Blank, or as brutal as um, Lee Marvin smashing a pot of hot coffee in a woman's face, as in The Big Heat (Marvin's a bad-ass among bad-asses). But it remains a gritty and yes, brutal thriller about a crook who busts out of prison to get revenge on his woman when she shacks up with a well-off acquaintance, instead of waiting for him.
That crook is Harry Lomart, played by Oliver Reed, a bad-ass on and off the screen. Let us have a moment of loudness to remember his passing, at the age of 63, during the filming of Gladiator. He was at lunch, drinking 3 bottles of rum, a half dozen beers, and various shots of whiskey and cognac, and had a heart attack after besting five Royal Navy sailors at arm-wrestling. There are method actors, and there are forces of nature that you are lucky enough to capture on film. Ollie "Mr. England" Reed, so self-proclaimed because he was one of few celebrities to flee Britain's high taxes in the '70s, was certainly one of the latter.
Sitting Target begins with Harry getting the bad news from his girl, who's on the other side of the prison glass, talking to him on the phone. When he learns that she's been untrue and is leaving him, he bashes through the barrier with one punch and seizes her by the throat. The guards beat him down with their truncheons, and drag him back to his cell. But he's already been planning a breakout with pal Birdy Williams, played by Ian McShane (you know, Al Swearengen from "Deadwood," among many other roles). Harry does his time by sticking to a cruel training regimen, working out in his cell. In an age when even hunks had the uni-ab, he's got the definition of a Greek statue and he's cold and hard as marble.
He breaks out by hiding during the night roll call, hanging from the ceiling in a feat of physical strength, and swinging down to clobber the guards when they search the cell. They're the same guys who beat him when he choked his wife, and he gets his revenge. To show how driven he is to pay back his wife's betrayal, when they finally escape the prison after dealing with guard dogs, search lights, and climbing across guy wires in the dark, Harry has to climb barbed wire with his bare hands. The other guys used rags to protect themselves, but there's no time. So he does it the hard way.

Tell me he doesn't look like The Terminator?

Once they are out, they are hot and have to leave the country, but not before Harry finishes his business. They break an unspoken rule of "no guns" in the underworld, and pick up a broomhandle Mauser with a removable stock, that can be fired full auto. This leads to a brutal gunfight with motorcycle cops in the back alleys that is probably what gave the film its X certificate. A cycle bursts into flames, and Douglas Hickox's direction makes it seem documentarian and all too real. As Harry hunts down his wife and realizes he's made more enemies with his obsession, double crosses lead to more gunplay and an excellent car chase through a railyard with a Land Rover. It's a forgotten and memorable piece of '70s crime, and while it may not be a classic like Get Carter, it's a fine thriller that stands on its own, and deserves a DVD release.
Artful upside down boobies.

Reed is more famous for starring in Oliver! as Bill Sikes, and the excellent Three Musketeers films of the '70s, and of course as Proximus in Gladiator. He played many colorful roles in everything from Tommy and The Devils to Vulcan in The Adventures of Baron Munchausen. Every once in a while you find an actor who's as colorful off screen as he is on screen, but Reed is one of the true originals. I look forward to watching more of his roles, but I know they can't live up to the man.

"One day I should like to live in Ireland. I love the Irish, the more I see of other races the more I believe the Irish are the only real people left, and apart from that they have space and clear air in which to wander and think and to feel free."

Friday, November 13, 2009

Friday the 13th...

A few years ago Milky & I visited Blairstown, where Friday the 13th was filmed. In the beginning, you see the girls walking through the arches of The Old Mill, and we took some photos there. It's still a nice rural town that doesn't feel like your typical Jersey suburb, and much of the area is farmland. The Appalachian trail goes through this part of the state as well.

Blairstown today

Crystal Lake is on the property of the Boy Scouts and they are vigilant for trespassers for obvious reasons, so we didn't sneak in to take photos of the lake or the cabins used in filming. I'm told most of them have been rebuilt, anyway.
Creepily enough this nearby house has gravestones in their front yard, too. You can click any of the photos for bigger versions. Blairstown is nearby Mt. Hope, site of some old iron mine pits and ruins, a cool place to go hiking. Also home to the Double D Ranch (heh, heh) a nice place to go horseback riding. There's a decent diner in town, this being Jersey. So you can make a decent day trip out of it.

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Modern horror sucks?

Good new horror isn't any more rare; let's face it, there's always been a lot of crap in the genre. The crap is just much more visible, because it makes money. But I watched two goodies from this year recently. Sadly, only one was released in theaters- Sam Raimi's take on the gypsy curse, Drag Me to Hell- while the excellent horror anthology Trick 'r Treat languished for a year until it finally went straight to DVD in time for this Halloween.
Now, I love Sam Raimi's work. Ever since we rented a scrungy copy of The Evil Dead, after seeing the claymation commercial and hearing tell of the infamous tree rape, his morbid sense of humor and Three Stooges comic timing have always tickled my funny bone. My favorite is still Evil Dead 2, mostly because it's still scary, unlike Army of Darkness, which has its own charms. Drag Me to Hell is a lot like ED2. The story? Christine Brown is a loan officer at a bank, hoping for a big promotion; the boss tells her she needs to make tough decisions. So when an old woman wants a third extension on her mortgage, she tells her no. Even when she begs, and throws herself at her feet. Bad move. Poor Christine- a farm girl who's moved to the big city, and wants to cast away her roots- gets ambushed by the old woman in the parking lot, assaulted by her grimy dentures and finally, made the recipient of what turns out to be the nastiest of gypsy curses. That of the lamia, the black goat of the underworld. She doesn't know at first, but when she goes to an Indian psychic, he sees the mark on her soul, Her boyfriend- Mac Guy Justin Long- is ready to pop the big question, but his rich parents look down their snooty noses at the "farm girl," and now her sudden superstitiousness makes everything go awry.
The evil spirit, the psychic tells her, will torment her for three days, then drag her soul to hell. It may be appeased by sacrifice, however... The demon's torments are imaginative, spooky and sometimes downright gross in the Raimi tradition. The story unfolds like a "Tales from the Crypt" episode, and we know Christine is going to pay for her lack of empathy. And who doesn't want to see a banker who's foreclosing on an old lady wake up next to a maggot-ridden corpse? Can she redeem herself? I loved this movie. It's not the scariest, or the funniest, but it's Raimi returning to what he loves, and it's great fun. Alison Lohman, of the underrated Matchstick Men, plays Christine and does a fine job. It's a big difference from her other roles, and she builds a believable, yet archetypal character that suits the story perfectly.
Raimi keeps us guessing to the end if Christine can fend off the lamia, shift its vengeance elsewhere, or appease the gypsy curse, and I loved every minute of it. A few minutes in the second act were tough to love, but who doesn't like falling anvils? The CG effects weren't the best, but they weren't laughable either. This one's a great rental for a spooky night of fun.

Trick 'r Treat is probably the best Creepshow-alike we'll see for a long time. I heard they were gonna remake that, and cringed. This is the way to go; interwoven stories set in a creepy suburban town on Halloween night, made by a storyteller not afraid to send slavering ghouls after children, show us who really wears all those sexy costumes, and have little monsters, both human and non- take bites out of our ankles.
At only 82 minutes, the anthology is trim and lean, yet manages to interweave its tales in a Pulp Fiction fashion without feeling derivative or letting its slip show. We begin with a couple cleaning up their decorations a little early, while a little Jack O'Lantern-headed urchin watches, with mischief in mind. Later, we get to see what a serial killer does on Halloween. And some girls try on costumes, like the favorite Sexy Red Riding Hood, and so on. And get hassled by a creepy vampire fan. Drunken swinger parents answer the door for trick or treaters, kids play pranks on each other, including visiting the local quarry where a bus full of deranged kids plunged into the water 30 years ago... and their spirits are not at rest. All the while, the local monsters are having a party of their own...
There are a lot of surprises in store, and the stories are all linked, so I'm being very tight-lipped about what happens. Just trust me, if you want a good horror anthology, this one's worth a rental. So why was it relegated to direct to DVD hell? The writer-director worked on Bryan Singer's abysmal flop Superman Returns, and this was made by Singer's production company. A damn shame; it's quite good, and lots of fun. I may have liked it even more than Drag Me to Hell! Anna Paquin and Brian Cox, plus the pedo from Happiness whose name I always forget, play very memorable roles.

Monday, November 9, 2009

Yankee Gumbo Foxtrot

This Yankee tried his hand at making gumbo on Sunday night. From scratch, roux and all. It turned out a little more like etoufee in the end because I've only had thick gumbo, and it's supposed to be a little soupy. But I couldn't do that, in light of Soupy Sales's death, so there we are. You start out by browning some andouille sausage in a cast iron pan, I used Trader Joe's chicken andouille to keep things lean. Most recipes tell you to drain the fat anyway, so why not use lean sausage?
In the same pan I put some bacon drippings and then pieces of chicken tenderloin seasoned with Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning, a staple in my house and great for seasoning Louisiana cooking. I didn't bother cooking the chicken fully, since it was going to simmer later.
I was drinking Samuel Adams' chocolatey, malty face-slap of an Imperial Stout. I'd had this at their brewery and was glad it got bottled! I deglazed the pan with it and poured the thick sauce onto the chicken. Then I whipped out my Staub enamel crock pot to make some roux. Amazon had a great sale on these, and still does. I was gonna rave about Staub is family owned, but they are now part of a conglomerate, so oh well.
You'll want to dice your trinity of onions, bell peppers and celery ahead of time, because once you start stirring roux, you can barely stop to scratch your ass, much less cut vegetables, answer the phone, or open another beer. So do all that first. I used two small onions, two small bell peppers, and a cleaned, small bunch of celery heart all cut into small dice.
Next the roux, the important part. Roux is 1 part oil (or butter, if you're brave) and 1 part flour. This recipe calls for 1 cup each. I threw a few pats of butter in the oil and made a cup worth for flavor. Over low-medium heat, you stir constantly, mixing the flour in, and slowly browning it until it looks like a Hershey bar. If you get black specks in the roux or it smells burnt, you ruined it. So use low heat, and be patient. I used a silicone spatula, next time I'll use a whisk as tradition demands.
This is peanut butter color, about halfway there; I chickened out because I saw specks, but it was probably the Tony's! Add the seasoning later. Friend Katy recommended taking half your roux out at the point you get concerned, and browning the rest more; I might try that next time. I didn't have enough flour to start over, so I erred on the side of caution. I thus lost the famous smoky flavor for a rich, buttery popcorn type base.
When you get the desired color, add your trinity. This will cool the roux and keep it from burning, but keep stirring often. When the onions turn translucent, add some minced garlic, and chicken stock. This is where I learned that I don't own a big enough stock pot! It called for 10 cups, I barely got 7 in there. That's why my gumbo isn't soupy. Now that we ate two servings, I might add more to get the right consistency.
This is where you add your seasonings- some Worcestershire sauce, a few shots of Tabasco, Tony Chachere's, salt, pepper, fresh parsley. And add all the meat you cooked earlier, with all the juices, and some tomato sauce or paste. I used a can of tomato paste because it seemed very spicy, but it mellowed overnight. Next time I'd use half as much, and freeze the rest. Let it simmer on low for an hour, after stirring well to dissolve the paste.
There ya go. Gumbo Yankee style. If you can find gumbo filé, which is ground sassafras root for flavor and thickening, you can sprinkle some on last. Tony Chachere makes some, I have it on order from Cajun Grocer- recommended by Caitlin over at the movie blog 1416 and Counting. The base recipe came from Firecracker's Sis, who told me the most important part- don't eat it right away! Keep it in the fridge overnight and let the flavors mingle. It tasted amazing the next night, when we heated it up and ate it over rice with some Abita Pecan Harvest Ale, my favorite of their seasonal brews. I learned some lessons- good gumbo is easy, but great classic gumbo is harder to master. But it's a lot of fun trying.

Ingredients, corrected for what I learned:
1 cup canola oil and 1 tbsp butter
1 cup flour
1 tbsp bacon drippings or cooking oil, for the chicken
1 lb chicken pieces, cut into cubes
1 lb. andouille sausage, sliced
2 small onions,
2 bell peppers,
1 bunch celery all diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
8 cups chicken stock
1/4 cup tomato paste
5 drops Tabasco sauce
5 squirts Worcestershire sauce
3 tsp Tony Chachere's Creole seasoning
handful of fresh parsley, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Some Abita beer for drinking, deglazing, and adding some!

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Staring at goats is funnier than you'd think

The Men Who Stare at Goats has an ad campaign that made me wary. It professed to be just so wacky, that it seemed primed to disappoint. Thankfully, it doesn't. It's not the surprise comedy of the year that Role Models was, but it's refreshingly different, and very funny. The burden rests mostly on the backs of the actors assembled for the task, but director Grant Heslov- probably best remembered as Fazil, the funny sidekick in True Lies- does a good job with an iconoclastic script.
Ewan McGregor plays Bob, a reporter working in Ann Arbor, Michigan who finds a local eccentric who claims to be a psychic who worked for the Army. The man, Stephen Root, has those crazy eyes we've seen Root use, and he drops the names of the most powerful psychic he worked with. Later, when Bob is in Iraq looking for a story on contractors, he recognizes that name: Lyn Cassady, played by George Clooney. Lyn always looks like he's a deer in the headlights, or perhaps a rat in a cage. Clooney excels at creating eccentric characters like Ulysses Everett McGill, or his spook from Syriana, and this is perhaps somewhere in between. Lyn is immediately intriguing, infectiously enthusiastic about his psychic powers once he decides he can trust Bob, and they're off on an adventure across the desert.
So it's partly a road movie, with Bob reading the New Earth Army manual that Lyn gives him, so we learn the history of Psychic Warfare in the U.S. Army through flashback, with its birth in the training of Bill Django, a super-hippie warrior monk played by Jeff Bridges. It's easy to write this performance off as The Dude, but it's much different except for the easygoing acceptance of new age oddities. When Bill and Lyn click during an early, unconventional training session involving the hippy hippy shake, it's perfect. The whole premise is unbelievable now, but in the madness of the Cold War, which gave us Mutual Assured Destruction and other insanities well satirized in Dr. Strangelove, we think it just might have happened. The movie is a fictionalized account, but the opening notation of "You'd be
amazed at how much of this is true."
In structure, it reminds me of Thank You for Smoking, which melded the ridiculous and the morbid, and this is a fun war movie set in Iraq, something I never expected. It has a sort of Three Kings vibe in that way, a "Catch-22" view of the military and keeps a magnificently consistent tone. The villain of the story is Kevin Spacey's Larry Hooper, an L. Rob Hubbard science fiction writer dabbling with the occult, who becomes intrigued with the team, joins it, and becomes its undoing. This is one of Spacey's best roles of recent, a skin he fills naturally. Compared to his Lex Luthor, this is masterful and perfectly played. Ewan McGregor is the outsider and does a good job, despite his American accent sounding a lot like he had the same voice coach as Eddie Izzard for his role in "The Riches." He may have been chosen so we can chuckle every time the psychics call themselves "Jedi," but he manages to hold his own with the big boys who get the crazy roles.
Do they stare at goats? Yes. They also take some digs at Halliburton, Blackwater, torture, and the media. It's enjoyable viewing, and doesn't belabor you about the head with messages. Unlike the idiocy of Buffalo Soldiers, this embraces the mad bureaucracy of the military and its excesses, and makes good fun of it. It introduces us to unbelievable characters that we enjoy the company of, and despite a little shakiness in the third act it's never boring, eye-rolling or inconsistent. I give it great credit for maintaining its wild tone of '60s idealism throughout, without getting sappy.

3.5 out of 5 goat scrotes

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