Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Deadly Violets

When I wrote a little while ago about the Aviation cocktail, I mentioned that it could be made with a little creme de violette. I now have a bottle of Rothman and Winter creme de violette, and I've tried it. It's a little tricky - certain ratios seem to cancel out the flavor. The color is the same way, something between pearly opalescent gray and dishwater. I'm not sure it improves the taste, but it's great for the concept.

My last run-in with violet liqueur was in the 80's. My great-uncle Eddy had left his collection of nip bottles to the family. It included the KLM Delft-style rowhouses filled with Vandermint, and a little Japanese doll filled with something violet.

That New Year's Eve, I tried mixing this violet fluid with champagne. And drinking it.

It was actually very pretty and quite tasty. The next day I felt very very bad.

Possibly, the stuff was old and spoiled. It might not have been very good in the first place (I haven't been able to find out what it was - not even on the internet). Maybe mixing sweet liqueur with cheap American champagne is just a bad idea. Maybe I just drank too much.

So it took a lot of courage to try this again, but I did. The color isn't as good as I remember. It makes a kind of steely gray. So I'll name the drink after Derek Zoolander's famous look:

Blue Steel

Flute of champagne
1/2 oz creme de violette

Sunday, January 27, 2008

Only Anglos Have Wings

Speaking of Aviation, just watched Only Angels Have Wings, Howard Hawks' 1939 jungle aviation film starring Cary Grant, Jean Arthur and Rita Hayworth. I had forgotten how awesome it is - I swear it could hold its own with Casablanca.

The plot: Cary Grant runs a small airstrip in Barranca, a port city in So. America. If they can fly the mail everyday on schedule over dangerous mountain passes, they will get a generous contract. This enterprise has killed two pilots before the start of the movie, and will kill more before the end.

Entertainer Jean Arthur's ship stops for a few hours, but in that time, she falls in love with Grant, and stays on. But he can't let a woman get too close. They will only worry and try to keep him from flying.

Hawks keeps ratcheting up the tension. He makes you like characters, then kills them. He makes you hate characters, then sends them up to die and dares you to root for them. And he loads his characters with huge loads of pain, guilt and choice.

Especially the women. Because, more than once, his characters explain that it is all women's fault, for caring too much or not enough, for distracting pilots, for mourning them, for existing. And Hawks only lets them be happy when they take the blame and submit. OK, so you have to put up with a little misogyny in these old movies.

And then there's the racism. In Barranca, only white Anglos can run serious businesses. The pilots have local women, but they are not to be compared to the white women like Jean Arthur. When Jean Arthur acknowledges one of these women, it's a shock. It never happens again. The local doctor is played for laughs.

I shouldn't even mention Cary Grant's white suit, Panama hat and hand-tooled pistol holsters. I'm pretty sure we're not meant to snicker.

So, brilliant film-making with some baggage from the period? Or painfully insulting movie barely redeemed by craft? For me, the former. But I'm a white male. I first saw this with the future Ms. Spenser in college, and we both loved it. It was part of Our Story. Watching it now, she was not so taken in.

Why don't you be the judge?

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Bourne Again

I don't remember what my take on the Bourne Identity was - I think I liked it but wasn't blown away. I just watched the second in the franchise, the Bourne Supremacy. I've got to say, I'm pretty impressed.

I've expressed my love for modern kinetic action films, for ex. Run Lola Run. This is another, full of fast cuts, handheld shakey-cam, and long action scenes, and Franka Potenta. She's just great here, although older and softer than in RLR. Matt Damon is also pretty easy on the eyes, his face a great slab of torment and angst.

I like the way they manage to get complex ideas across effortlessly. Since Damon's Bourne is a super-spy, he can instantly size up a situation and jump into action. The movie lets you in on it, so when Bourne sees a guy and immediately knows he is a tail, you figure it out at the same time. When Bourne tells fellow assassin Zorn that his unloaded Zorn's gun, Zorn tosses it away and says, "I thought it felt a little light". He doesn't test it by pulling the trigger. He just figures it out. When the movie lets us follow these scenes, it makes us feel smart and pulls us deeper into the action.

  • Action, energy, movement, fast editing
  • Complex, intelligent, emotionally engaging plotlines that you can still follow
  • = Good Movie!
On to Bourne Ultimatum!

Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Scary Houses

This blog is supposed to be about my Netflix queue and cocktails, but I do watch movies from other sources. Not actually in theaters - I gave those up when I saw the line for the first Lord of the Rings movie. Never looked back.

But I also watch movies on airplanes (rarely a good idea) and get DVDs from the library (a great deal). This weekend I got a great batch. Here's the two we watched:

Clue: The first movie based on a board game (there was another?). With a brilliant cast: Christopher Lloyd, Tim Curry, Madeline Kahn, Michael McKean, Martin Mull, Lee Ving (as Mr. Boddy) ... How far did you get before you just put it in your queue? It is set on a stormy night in a great spooky house. The script is full of slapstick and labored jokes, and features 3 endings. We picked one at random, and it was the best part - all the strange happenings of the night all wrapped up with a (relatively) coherent explanation. The movie is full of "old dark house" movie allusions - the mansion is the Hill House, for example, ala Shirley Jackson. Recommended.

The House on Telegraph Hill: Speaking of houses on hills, this movie features a beaut. It's a sort of Rebecca/Gaslight, with amazing early 50s San Francisco locations. Polish Concentration camp survivor Valentina Cortese steals the identity of a deceased friend to get to America, to live as the mother to the son her friend sent to live with her rich aunt. She arrives to find the aunt dead, and the son in care of lawyer Richard Baseheart. To cement her claim, she marries Baseheart.

Or maybe he marries her to cement his claim to the boy, and Aunt Sophie's fortune. He seems a little creepy. And there the boy has a governess who seems to resent the new mother. And the house is a very spooky old ... matte painting. OK, that part is pretty fake, but the rest is all beautiful San Francisco locations. The back yard overlooks the piers on Embarcadero. They visit the Flood Building (probably). There are all kinds of San Francisco street scenes.

If you don't mind a little noir with your women's picture or vice versa, and you love San Francisco, this is for you.

In conclusion:
  • Richard Baseheart! Richard Baseheart!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Strictly Confidential

Another movie that I wanted to see, but was nervous about was L.A. Confidential. I'd enjoyed the James Ellroy novel and heard good things about it, but I was afraid it would be too intense. See, I'm a wuss.

OK, it wasn't that intense. It's basically a character study, set as a police procedural in post-WWII Los Angeles. Russell Crowe is Bud White, a brutal, not-too-honest detective with a soft spot for battered women. Guy Pearce is intense, political and too-damned-honest Ed Exley, who becomes a detective by ratting out the copes who beat a group of Mexicans in lockup. Their captain is James Cromwell as Dudley Smith, who wants smart cops like Exley and brutal ones like Bud White.

They are supported by Kevin Spacey as Detective Jack Vincennes, consultant to TV's Badge of Honor, who takes money from gossip journalist Sid Hudgens, played by Danny DeVito. Danny DeVito acts as sleazy comic relief - No movie that he is in can be too intense. Kim Basinger is the love interest as a prostitute whose specialty is imitating Veronica Lake.

All the characters are great, and there's a twisty mystery and some great shoot-em-ups as well. But the Guy Pearce/Russell Crowe good cop going bad/bad cop going good team are really the core of the movie. I've heard critics talking about how they got inside of the 1940s tough-guy mentality, and the period authenticity of the movie. I didn't really see that - it looked like a 90s period piece to me. But they were solid in the psyche of James Ellroy's characters.

A great movie. I don't know what I was afraid of.

Monday, January 21, 2008

The History of Aviation

The Aviation cocktail goes back to the 1930s or earlier, but has been popular in all the best bars for the last year or so. At least, that's what the bar reviews and cocktail columns say. I never go trendy bars - all I know about them I learned from Cocktail and Coyote Ugly. And I haven't actually watched either of those movies.

I just bought a bottle of maraschino liqueur. It is a clear, sweet liqueur made from the fruit and pits of the Dalmatian Marasca cherry. Maraschino cherries used to be made by soaking cherries in this spirit, but now are just artificially flavored. The liqueur tastes of cherry, of course, but also has woody, peppery, nutty and spicy notes.

It was pretty much unavailable up until a few years ago, and I always wanted to try it. When I stated looking for recipes, I came upon the cult of the Aviation. My 1940's bar guide gives a pretty standard recipe:


2 oz. gin
1/2 oz. lemon juice
1/2 oz. maraschino liqueur

Shake over ice and serve up in a cocktail glass

Another liqueur that was impossible to find that is making a comeback is creme de violette AKA parfait d'amour. Some recipes for the Aviation include a dash of creme de violette to give the cocktail a sky color. I have a bad history with this liqueur, but I fully intend to buy a bottle, and then I'll give you the whole story.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Knocked Out

I'll admit, I was scared to watch Knocked Up. That I suspected a modern comedy to be too emotionally raw for me shows you what kind of pussy I am. That I was pretty much right shows how well Judd Apatow and team did.

The story: Chubby, unemployed loser Ben Stone (Josh Rogan) meets drunk, attractive Alison (Katherine Heigl) and they have unprotected sex. Once sober, she is not attracted to him, since he is pretty repulsive. He goes back to his loser friends and she goes back to living with her bitchy sister, her long suffering brother-in-law and their cute kids. Then she finds out that she is pregnant.

I had heard a lot about this movie, but a lot of it seemed off base.
  1. "Why didn't she just get an abortion? Why wasn't that ever addressed?" Well, it was. It was discussed a lot. Ben assumed she would, but his sweet young punk friend Jay was adamantly against it, offering to help raise the baby. Alison's sister just assumed she would "take care of it" and she is so obnoxious that of course one would do the opposite.
    There was no one reason why Alison wants to have the baby - but it didn't seem arbitrary or mysterious to me.
  2. "Why would a hot chick like Alison ever do a slob like Ben?" Ok, that one stumps me. She wasn't just out of his league, they were in entirely different events. I guess you just have to suspend belief - the media filter that makes all women 50% hotter than in real-life.
What I didn't hear about the movie was the references to Swingers: Ben's love of Vince Vaughan, the trip to Vegas, "You're so money and you don't even know it." It shows up mainly in Ben's group of friends - all played by actors who are friends of Apatow, using their real first names. I think a lot of guys really relate to this crew. I certainly did - but I think that my group of friends from a similar period had a few more women in it.

Alison's sister's family was the other pole of this movie. Her husband Pete is a totally sweet guy who she constantly nags, mainly about his secret desire to get some time away from her nagging. It's a shame that she has to be so evil, because her story is a true one as well, that people could relate to, except she is so evil.

I don't entirely get the whole "guys need time with the guys" and "women want to keep men from their friends" themes. My circle of loser friends always welcomed women, although maybe not to the extent of cleaning or putting on clothes. And you know, not all women mind that. Ms. Beveridge, for ex, thought Ben's friends seemed like a lot of fun.

  • Ben's dad, played by Sam Raimi, is a hoot. The perfect Jewish Buddha about-to-be granddad.
  • No, he isn't played by Sam Raimi, he's played by Harold Ramis. Big difference, I guess.
  • My favorite character was Martin's creepy girl friend, Jody. But that's just me.
  • Alison's sister's daughters are incredibly cute and wise. They are played by her real-life children, by husband Judd Apatow. They steal every scene.
I guess the point of the movie is: It's about the kids. But I would add these morals:
  • Women: Don't have sex with strangers when you are drunk. You might not like the results
  • Men: If you do manage to have sex with a good-looking woman, try to get her pregnant. It will be harder for her to dump you.

Sunday, January 13, 2008

Harry Potter's Army

My main complaint about Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix is that it is only about 2 hours long. It's a great experience to get so wrapped up in a film that after 2 hours, you are wondering when the next installment will come out.

I haven't read any of the Harry Potter books, so I can't say I appreciate the movies properly. But they seem to me to be nearly perfect - the cast is great, especially the "children", the sets/CGI are truly magical, and the emotional issues just get under my skin, tuning into my high-school hindbrain.

I've got some complaints - Cho is so underdeveloped that she might as well be dropped. Harry's potential turn to the dark side seems very unlikely - at worst he gets a little peevish, scarcely evil. He's kind of like Peter Parker that way. And of course, there's the feeling that so much is being left out.

But I loved the Pink Floyd's The Wall style educational critique. The little political digs at conservative educational theory ("passing tests is what education is about"). Professor Umbridge is a lovely villain, maybe more frightening then He-who-must-not, because we've all run into her or one of her kin.

Thursday, January 10, 2008


Man with the Screaming Brain, by Bruce Campbell/Sam Raimi team, is The Man with Two Brains/All of Me with no budget. Or maybe it's The Brain That Wouldn't Die with a bigger budget (but fewer women wrestling in lingerie).

Wealthy industrialist Campbell goes to Bulgaria with his bitchy blonde wife, and meets Russian cab-driver Yegor. Soon, Yegor is doing his wife, but they are all eventually killed by a beautiful gypsy. Mad scientist Stacy Keach and his assistant Ted Raimi mix and match the brains. Keach sounds more like Ish Kabibble then a Bulgarian, and Ted Raimi emulates Jim Varney's Ernest as a Bulgarian hip-hop wannabe.

If I've given you the impression that this is a terrible film, you're right. If I've given the impression that it is totally funny and very fun, right again. With this team and these inspirations, how could it miss?
  • Foreigners or lame white guys trying to be hip-hop: Never funny.
  • Jim Varney: Never funny
  • Ted Raimi imitating Jim Varney as a lame foreigner trying to be hip-hop: Funny
  • Did I mention he has a robot?
  • Yes, the robot does do the Robot
Finally, having 2 brains in your head is a great opportunity for physical comedy.

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Full of Whimsy

I'm not sure why New Year's Eve seems so perfect for Marx Brothers and Three Stooges. Possibly because, in this time outside of the calendar, between the years, misrule and anarchy is meant to prevail. Possibly just because they are so much fun.

For New Year's day, we watched Horse Feathers: Groucho as president of Huxley College. Contains the swordfish sketch and Kalmar and Ruby's "Whatever It Is, I'm Against It" and "Everyone Says I Love You." That's all the review you need, I guess.

Keeping in the 1930's whimsical vein, last night we saw A Midsummer Night's Dream. Austrian ex-pat Max Reinhardt directs a cast of Warner Studio stars to Mendelssohn's score. The look is literally fantastic - amazing moon-lighting effects, crowds of choreographic fairies, an enchanted forest. It was like a b&w live-action Fantasia.

Dick Powell plays a smirky Lysander, Olivia DeHaviland his wet Hermia. The rustic players include Frank McHugh and Hugh Herbert (the "woo-woo" guy) and has James Cagney as Pyramus wooing Joe E. Brown as Thisby ("No one's perfect").

Child actor Mickey Rooney plays a shrill but bouncy Puck. Sometimes he was irritating, but sometimes he could be downright scary, as could Victor Jory, as king of the fairies.

I last saw this on tv in nineteen-sixty-mumble, at my uncle's. I was old enough to get Shakespeare, and young enough to feel the enchantment. We drove home through the start of a series of blizzards that kept us out of school almost the entire month of February. I've associated snowfall and fairies ever since.

Thursday, January 3, 2008

Help! I Need Some Movie that will Play All the Way Through

I spent New Year's Eve with my sister and her family. She has a 1-movie subscription to Netflix, and on my recommendation had ordered Help! for the occasion. All went fine until the "End of Part One", then the DVD started skipping, halting, playing sound only, etc. Investigation showed a badly scratched disk.

No need to say, the evening was ruined. The nephews, who had been coaxed into watching this ancient artifact and had just started to enjoy it, drifted back to their video games and Cartoon Networks. The adults resumed drinking.

Of course, we reported the scratched disk. I wanted to crack it in half to make sure they didn't rent it out again, but I refrained. I hope they withdraw this disk from circulation, but will they?

I wanted to point out the peril of scratched disks, and the moral: Always have a backup selection on hand. Then, I realized that this is a silly, trivial problem. So, Happy New Year, everyone!