Tuesday, April 29, 2008

Couch Surfing

Due to a scheduling snafu, I was left without a DVD last Sunday night. So I decided to try "Play Now" online movies that Netflix offers. The first movie on my queue offered: Bruce Brown's Surfing Hollow Days.

First, I needed to download the viewer and all the little doodads needed to make this work. This took 40 minutes, including the system restart, freeze and restart again. YMMV, but the first time you use this, don't make the popcorn until you're all set up.

Next, picture quality. At full screen, below DVD quality, but not too bad. Most of Surfing Hollow Days was old footage that wasn't crystal clear anyway, so maybe this wasn't a big problem. I don't think it would work for a big screen SFX type movie, though.

Still, a nice benefit to Netflix, and I will continue to watch movies online. I'll keep you informed.

What about the movie? I've loved Bruce Brown's Endless Summer since it first came out, although I've never surfed and can barely swim. This film is not as epic as Endless Summer - it seems to be a collection of clips from Brown's surf safari's around the world (Hawai'i, Tahiti, So. Cal., Australia) from the early 1960s. There are some wrap-around segments of Brown from the 1990's as well.

The waves are great, and so is the surfing. But a big part of it is Brown's narration. It's mostly simple - the location, surfer's name and a comment on the style or waves. Sometimes there's a corny joke. All delivered in a laid back, yet stoked California twang.

Well, I'll admit it. I was watching on the couch, with my laptop on my stomach, after a long day, and, listening to Brown's stories of another wave, another surfer, I drifted off to sleep. I think I missed the part where they discover Pipeline.

Hard Cox

I can't quite accept that Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story doesn't have Will Farrell in it. Of course, neither did Dodgeball, so I guess he hasn't cornered the market on this kind of story.

"This kind of story" is a lot closer to Blades of Glory than, say, Spinal Tap. The Christopher Guest fests are shot in a transparent documentary style, so the mocking is on the characters. Blades and Dodgeball mock the form - the inspirational sports film or bio pic. Walk Hard is also a little loopier, more surreal, more Airplane! than the mockumentaries. Very little like the realistic comedy of Apatow's Knocked Up.

So - funny? I thought I'd die. I haven't seen Walk the Line or Ray, so I probably missed a lot. But the adult sized teenagers ("I'm your 12-year-old girlfriend!"), the self-identified celebrities ("Even I, the Beatles' George Harrison,...") and stunt casting (Jack White as Elvis, Jack Black as Paul McCartney), great gags. Dewey's songs, pulled from the R&B, rockabilly, teen pop, punk, Dylan, Doors and Brian Wilson studiofests, are great - maybe too good to be silly.

Be sure to stay after the credits for a glimpse of the real Dewey Cox. The man, the legend.

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Swashing Buckles

I'm a sucker for swashbucklers, so I figured I couldn't go far wrong with The Count of Monte Cristo. And I was right. Not the best ever, but a solid adventure flick.

Jim Caviezel (Jesus Christ in the Passion) plays Edmund Dantes, betrayed by his friends and thrown into the island prison Chateau d'If for 12 years. The Abbe Faria (charmingly played by Richard Harris) helps him break out and tells him where to find a fortune in gold - on the isle of Monte Cristo. Dantes returns to society disguised as the wealthy and mysterious Count thereof, and proceeds to wreak his vengeance!

His main antagonist is his ex-best friend Fernan, played by Guy Pearce. Since Pearce and Caviezel have very similar faces, the movie is basically clashing cheekbones. I don't think there is much "acting" going on (as opposed to posing in costume, chewing scenery, etc), so a large part of your enjoyment of this movie will be based on how much you like looking at hunky guys with chiseled features. Also, Luis Guzman, a lumpy-faced character actor who plays Dantes' henchman - one of my favorites.

Other strong points:
  • Good art direction: The Chateau d'If looks positively Piranesi-esque in some shots.
  • Naval scenes: Some scenes aboard a ship, more than in some pirate movies
  • Sword, pistol, knife and rock fighting: General swashing of buckles
But in the end, I was a little underwhelmed. Did it lack a coherent vision? Weren't the actors hammy enough? Were the fights too weak? I'm not sure why, but I found this to be only good, not great. What do you think?

Thursday, April 24, 2008

The World of Shochu

I promised to say a few words about shochu cocktails, so I will: sawa, chuhai, and Hi-Likki.

First, shochu, if you aren't familiar. It is a Japanese clear distilled liquor, made from barley or sweet potato or most anything you can ferment. It is pretty low proof for liquor, around 50 proof. It used to be completely low-class and pretty nasty - Japanese white lightning. Around 10-15 years ago, it started getting trendy, and now supports a serious connoisseurship. In America, the Korean version, soju, is more well known.

It's often drunk in cocktails. Aside from shochu and water or hot water (mizu wari and oyu wari), we find:
  • "Sawa": a shochi sour. Shochu, lemon and soda.
  • Chuhai: A shochu highball. Shochu, something and soda. The "something" can be lemon, grapefruit, or orange juice, or something more Japanese, like oolong-cha (iced tea) or ume (pickled plum)
  • Hi-Likki: This is a brand of canned chuhai. I only included it because: 1) they sell this stuff in cans, and 2) don't you love the name?
A typical Japanese dinner usually features beer, wine, sake, whiskey and shochu cocktails. It depends, but I think a lot of drinkers like the chuhai best.

Try it, why don't you?

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

High Corn

Speaking of cruelty, I watched Judy Canova's Lay That Rifle Down the other night. Canova was known as the Queen of Corn, a kind of Minnie Pearl character. She was in vaudeville, had a long running radio show, etc. I'd never heard of her, but I'm always game for that sort of thing. You find a lot of hidden gems.

But not in this case. This one stunk. Judy Canova plays Judy Canova, an orphan girl who slaves for an evil aunt. But she owns a heavily mortgaged ranch, where Gramps the taxi driver and his orphaned grandkids all live rent-free. This ranch looks to be worth big money when some con men come to town.

Judy sings a few songs and does a little slapstick, not well. She talks like a hick, but not in a comic way. The location for the movie isn't specified ("Greebeville"), but it looks a lot more like California than Iowa. The whole thing was just annoying. And I watched it all.

However, it was short. So it wasn't that bad.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Cruelest Cocktail

I not only mix drinks, I also make my own infusions - put some strawberries in a pint of vodka for a week, then throw away the strawberries, drained of all flavor and color, and you have strawberry vodka.

I made up a batch of chili-lime tequila like so:
  • Grate lime peel (one lime)
  • One large jalapeno, quartered
  • One pint tequila
Let marinate for a week, then strain.

This batch came out about as hot as straight Tabasco. A friend had made some clementine liqueur, so I tried to make a Guatemalan Insanity Margarita:
  • 1 shot jalapeno tequila
  • 1 oz. clementine liqueur
  • 1 oz lemon juice
  • Pinch sugar
It was way too spicy to drink. After I diluted it 1-1 with a regular margarita. Brutal. After I poured it out of the glass, and refilled it with a plain margarita without rinsing the glass, it was noticeably spicy.

I saved these cruel cocktails and plan to marinate chicken for grilling in it. And henceforth will use the tequila infusion only like the vermouth in a very dry martini.

Rock and Roll Circus Animals

Rolling Stones: Rock and Roll Circus was made in 1968. You get to see:
  • Jethro Tull, with Ian Anderson acting looney
  • Marianne Faithfull, looking lovely and singing a surrealistic ditty about blue whiskey
  • Taj Mahal singing "Ain't That a Lotta Love" (Sam and Dave by way of the Burrito Bros.), with Jesse Ed Davis on guitar
  • The Who, doing their 9-minute rock opera, "A Quick One (While He's Away)"
  • John Lennon, Eric Clapton, Keith Richards and Mitch Mitchell, playing "Yer Blues". They are later joined by a violinist and Yoko Ono. They encourage her to sing. This doesn't come out so hot.
  • And finally, the Rolling Stones
All this in an intimate circus setting with the audience in strange hats and yellow ponchos. We get to hear "Winston Legthigh" (John Lennon's real name) chatting with Michael Jagger (as Winston likes to call him). We get to see the Who, all singing (the Ox! Moonie!) like choirboys: "You are forgiven!" We get to see Keith, trying to grow into the face he has now.

We get to see very little of Brian Jones. He is present, but will be dead within months. He does a sweet slide on "No Expectations", but is otherwise rather absent.

Of course, Keith Moon is no longer with us, nor John Entwhistle. John Lennon is dead, too young. Jesse Ed Davis is a name you may not know - he was behind Klaus Voorman in The Concert for Bangladesh. He was behind a lot of people, a studio guitarist who made Taj Mahal, John Lee Hooker and Eric Clapton sound good. A Kiowa Indian from Oklahoma, a quiet steady presence. Dead at 44, drugs and alcohol.

But I was listening to Marianne Faithfull singing about blue whiskey, and realized, this is a happy song - Marianne Faithful is still alive. She had some very bad times, but came out the other side. Mick and Keef, still present against all odds. Taj Mahal and Ian Anderson. Eric Clapton, Mitch Mitchell, even Yoko Ono. Bless them all, they survived acute stardom. And though some of them may still succumb to chronic fame, they are all too old to die young.

There are some extras, but the only additional songs were 3 Taj Mahal numbers. They are great, and the camera loves Jesse Ed Davis.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Richard Widmark Tribute

We watched Pickup on South Street to commemorate the passing of Richard Widmark. Too bad we always wait for a funeral to do these retrospectives.

We'd seen Pickup a while ago, but didn't remember much beyond the setup: Richard Widmark picks Jean Peters wallet out of her handbag. But he (and she) didn't know that the wallet contained microfilmed secrets headed for - the commies! The feds had been trailing Peters to find her contact, and now they are after Widmark. When Peters' commie boyfriend finds out, he sends her out to find Widmark as well. The cops and Peters both find Widmark through a little old stool pigeon, played by Thelma Ritter.

What I'd forgotten is how brutal the movie is - of course, Sam Fuller directs. In one of their first scenes together, Widmark slugs Jean Peters, and then spends the rest of the scene caressing her damaged jaw. Of course, she falls for him hard. Of course, he only wants money, and the commie's money is as good as anyone else's.

Fuller's direction is sure throughout, with surprisingly fluid camera work - surprising, because the film has a gritty B-movie quality, where static setups are the rule and the budget doesn't stretch to crane shots. Mostly, he establishes the gritty mood and ratchets up the tension. And particularly, disgust and hatred of the commies. I'm not sure, but I'll bet Fuller was never an unfriendly witness before HUAC.

Widmark seems perfect for the role of unrepentant pickpocket. He has just gotten out of prison after his third conviction. He lives in an abandoned baitshack by the river. But he is always cool, lifting a crate of beer out of the river and offering one to the police when he is rousted. He is unflappable under interrogation, romantic and ruthless with women and just a little sentimental. When he notices that Thelma Ritter has been shopping his name around, he says, "No harm done, she doesn't mean anything by it. She needs to make a living too."

In conclusion, Richard Widmark, rest in peace. Thanks for the great movies.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

Hidden Masterpiece

If you haven't seen The Hidden, I'm not too surprised. I'd never heard of it. But I'm here to tell you, it's brilliant.

LA cop Beck (Michael Nouri) is assigned to an odd case: An ordinary citizen has gone on a 2-week rampage, stealing Ferrari's, robbing banks and killing everyone in his way, while enjoying Hunters and Collectors, Concrete Blonde and Lords of the New Church. Beck gets a partner - Kyle MacLachlan, playing his patented autistic boy scout FBI agent. He won't explain, but he knows that this case is more than it seems.

This movie seems to borrow from dozens of other SciFi/Horror pics, for example, They Live! But it was made in 1987, the year before They Live! It was made before MacLachlan played a bland, quirky FBI agent in Twin Peaks. It might have borrowed the comedy/horror angle and the gleeful bloodlust from The Evil Dead (1982). The chase scenes look like GTA, but decades too soon.

So, you get a great B-grade, low-budget horror film, a sly comedy with an 80's social critique of materialism and society, and references to and previews of all kinds of stuff, like Twin Peaks and X-Files. Why has no one heard of this movie?

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Tequila and grapefruit juice

That's all, just tequila and grapefruit juice. Tastes great with the bitterness in the tequila complimented by the bitter grapefruit. It's easy to make, which makes it a good cocktail for bars that aren't great at cocktails (receptions, for ex). If you salt the rim of the glass, you get a tequila Salty Dog, aka Perro Salado, aka Salty Chihuahua.

I learned this from my parents in the 60s. They threw cool parties, with motorcycles in the yard, skateboards in the house, and a blender on the sideboard. They mixed frozen margaritas, daiquiris, and salty dogs. The kids got the same, without the alcohol - lemon, lime and grapefruit slushies. I remembered the salty dogs as being made from tequila and grapefruit (they are usually made with vodka). Good times.

Remind me to do a cocktail column on Japanese shochu. A couple of places in Tokyo do a nice shochu and grapefruit juice. They give you a half grapefruit and a squeezer, along with a glass, ice and a shot of clear liquor.

Wednesday, April 9, 2008

My Kind of Movie

One kind of movie I really like is the 40's film noir with some comic elements, especially with solid stars, supporting characters and maybe a good musical number. By those standards, His Kind of Woman is my kind of movie.

Gambler Robert Mitchum gets an offer - go to a resort in Mexico, meet someone, and get a lot of money. On his way there, he meets rich girl and sometime singer Jane Russell. (Spoiler alert - she sings "Five Miles from San Berdoo". Things are starting to look dicey.)

At the resort he meets gambler Jim Backus and hunter/movie star Vincent Price. Things are definitely looking up. So we get many scenes in a backlot resort of gambling, Price acting hammy, Russell being shady, etc, until gangster Raymond Burr shows up. He has a nefarious scheme, which Price has to help Mitchum foil.

OK, all that is fine. So what's my problem? I'd have to say - Howard Hughes. You know he produced because Jane Russell is in it. And he was a rotten producer. He just throws everything together, whether it fits or not. Nothing makes sense. There is no balance. The comedy and the drama don't go together. The romance between Mitchum and Russell isn't very convincing. He really liked to use Russell, and she really wasn't very good, was she?

We do see a few of Hughes' famous missile nosecone brassieres, although not on Russell.

So, if you love this kind of movie, you'll at least like His Kind of Woman. It's worth it for Mitchum and Vincent Price, although they would have been better in separate movies. But don't say I didn't warn you.

In conclusion, I ask you: "5 Miles to San Berdoo"? What were they thinking?

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Shooter scores

We were just talking about big, dumb action films. Shooter is smarter than that.

It's an action film, all right, starring Mark Wahlberg as Man Lee Swagger, a trained sniper who loses his buddy to friendly fire on a secret mission in Ethiopia. He retires to the backwoods, but Col. Danny Glover convinces him to come out of retirement to shoot the president. Um, only, make-believe. For the good of the country.

At this point, I think Swagger is not so bright, but actually, Wahlberg is playing him cagey. However, it does come as a surprise when the president is shot and Swagger is set up for it.

The movie's politics are interesting. It is taken for granted that America tortures people, invades countries for oil and is run by corrupt senators like Ned Beatty. But that's only the contractors - the Marines and the FBI are clean (just a little slow to catch on). This is epitomized by FBI agent Mark Pena, a dopey kid fresh out of Academy who is clobbered by Swagger, but believes he is innocent.

The directing is pretty sweet. It slows down when it needs to - snipering involves a lot of waiting, not a lot of car chases. It takes on a dreamlike quality sometimes that is rather poetic. There are a lot of helicopters, though. About par for an action film.

Mark Wahlberg is great, good looking, ripped body, deep and sensitive - that's why I think these movies are chick flicks. Plenty for the ladies to look at. I'm not sure whether he can act; mostly he just has to furrow his brow. But he certainly sells this part.

But that's not what I came to talk about. I wanted to see this movie because it has Levon Helm in a small role. Helm was the drummer for the Band and sang songs like "The Weight" and "Cripple Creek". He had a recent bout with throat cancer that could have silenced him, but he has come back to sing a whole album of old timey songs like "Poor Old Dirt Farmer". He never had a smooth voice, but now it is rough as the Arkansas hills he was born in.

In Shooter, he plays the greatest gunsmith in the world. He lives in the backwoods, looks toothless and is near blind, but sharp as a tack. Well read on all the high-tech 1890's tricks and so on. It's a great role, he performs it beautifully, it's worth the whole movie for this one scene, and by the way, it turns out to have nothing to do with anything. Swagger just wanted to nail down an minor detail in the plot that doesn't implicate or exonerate anyone, and isn't mentioned again.

OK, this would have been a decent movie without Levon. With him, it is awesome.

By the way, Helm is the coal miner in Coal Miner's Daughter.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Friends and Frenzy

My old friend, the Right Rev. Schprock left a proposal for me the other day - that I watch and review Alfred Hitchcock's Frenzy. He didn't give me many hints, except that it was low budget. I assumed it was a gritty, 70's psychological thriller, something a little noir.

I was quite wrong. The film is a romp - a mix of comedy of manners with slapstick, with rape/murders.

The film starts with a politician's speech interrupted by the discovery of a naked woman in the Thames, strangled with a necktie. Someone in the crowd (but not the familiar looking portly gentleman) draws our attention to the pattern on the tie. Cut to our "hero", Richard Blaney, putting on the same tie. He is a shiftless alcoholic divorced womanizing ex-RAF barman in Covent Garden, played by the Alan Bates-looking Jon Finch. When he is fired for taking a drink from the bar, we find that he is pretty much broke, has poor impulse control, and is fooling around with the barmaid. He looks good for the killer.

Later, we meet his old friend Rusk, played Michael-Caine-by-way-of-Gene-Wilder style by Barry Foster. He is trying to help Blaney, but Blaney won't take the help. He won't take help from his ex-wife, the marriage broker, either. That is his angry young man style.

When the barmaid, and later his ex-wife, turn up dead, it looks dark indeed.

However, we know he hasn't done it, in fact, we know who did. I'll skip the spoilers, but let you know that the killer is forced to go back to the corpse he had stuffed in a potato sack and wrestle with it. The scene is pure 3 Stooges, with the naked corpse's foot in the killer's face, and potatoes everywhere.

Not all of the humor is so broad. Most of it is simple observation of 70's London and its character types. It is more drab than swinging, although the fashions are late mod (big prints, sideburns). The women are plain, not chirpy dollybirds. The surroundings are a bit shabby. Life is desperate, but, stiff upper lip, mustn't grumble, make the best of it.

And then, between the slapstick and the observational humor - brutal rape, strangulation and murder. There is a touch of Hitchcock's misogyny here (a large touch - a bad touch), but he seems to show some love for these poor, downtrodden women, almost as if, in death, they have seen the passion that England has deprived them of.

So, in conclusion, big yuks, dead women. Caution - nudity. No caution is needed for the murders, I assume.