Friday, May 27, 2011

The Lost Weekend (1945)



by Brian “Straight, No Chaser” Roe

Black-and-white movies are the pure symbolism of my soul. When everything else fails, I put in any monochrome film and I get deep into it. There is an absolute purity to early films that all other movies strive to attain. Our minds work in black and white; color is just a subtle lie. A lie that distracts and misdirects. Reality is black-and-white my friends. And I must always delve deep into the past to find movies that speak with such blatant truth.

The Lost Weekend is truth and lies, real and fake, facade and core, all at once. This is one of those films that I’ve been told is “Great” for so fucking long that it’s become like the buzzing of gnats in my ears. Nobody watches Great movies unless they are forced to. And often once they do they become a part of the Church of Great and then start suppressing other poor bastards with their opinions. But I'll tell you this, boys and girls, The Lost Weekend is truly worth your consideration.

Ray Milland is Don Birnam, the “young man who drinks,” and a failed-because-of-never-really-having-tried writer who loves the hooch. If the guy would just write down the patter that he spews when he’s drinking, he’d never have a problem creating new work. When he drinks he becomes a verbose wordsmith of great magnitude. But when he faces the cold steel of his typewriter, he flounders like a fat kid in a pool. He’s always far too busy wanting to write and creating new reasons not to to ever actually create anything. This is the curse of so many of my most beloved friends. We will be wanting to start on some new project until the day we die. And by then the only things getting any work done will be the worms.

So Don gets a fine young Jane Wyman to fall for him and she defends him with the fierce love of a lioness mother. Don’s brother has tried and tried, blah blah, and can’t take it anymore. If Don is going to get help, he’s going to have to help himself.

And we all know how that little tune whistles don’t we?

Don tanks. He tanks hard. In the always perfect downward spiral of film noir, Don begins a decent that should take him four days. In that time, he will make those that love him to hate him and so on and so forth. The woman who refuses to let him go will do her damnedest to give up on him and his few friends will just walk away. Addicts sometimes take a sadistic if unaware pleasure in seeing how far they can push those that love them. And Don Birnam does his best to become his worst.

I’ll tell you no plot points with this movie. It’s obvious what’s going to happen from the first five minutes and the movie’s title for crying out loud. But I will point out the joys that you might find if you feel up to watching this little gem shine.

Millland is genius here. One minute petulant and childish, the next suave and heroic, he owns this film. The sudden and constant shifting that he pulls as this character is respectable and a great pleasure to watch. Like a well-trained athlete Milland does what needs done to tell us the story of this self-centered bastard and the damage that he does to those around him. And in the end you still give a shit about the guy. There is a silent-film style of facial acting that Milland employs to get his points across, and they work as dynamic spurts of jet fire to move things along. But Milland is not really the main actor in this story.

Professor Roe’s Film Frikkin’ Noir class lesson 12:
The protagonist of a noir has no control over his story path. He can only react to the situations around him, and usually he reacts quite badly.

Don Birnam has no real control over any of the moves he makes during the course of this story. Someone else will say something or do something and these act as triggers to set Birnam off in some new direction. The noir hero is a pinball that is constantly bumped and pinged around by the less mobile forces on the playing field. Yes, sometimes the protagonist can help things along in a particular direction, but normally when the downward spiral has begun, all he can do is hold on, act his part out, and pray.

The secondary characters in The Lost Weekend act as the gears and conveyor belts that feed little Birnam along his path. Like a freaked-out kid on a ghost ride, Birnam is pulled along until the next quandary presents itself. And that’s fine for a film like this. We don’t want to see him straighten up and stop drinking, the film would be far too short in that event. So we watch like we watch nature programs to see the prey make its misstep and get taken down.

Three actors besides Milland deserve your attention.

Jane Wyman as his girlfriend, Helen St. James. Cute, tough, and short, Wyman keeps her character from devolving into sappiness and she implies a fierce passion that attempts to keep Don in check. Too bad that at this time young Wyman was sleeping with fucking Ronald Reagan. She deserved better than that prick.

Howard Da Silva as Nat the bartender. Although he is ethically coerced to keep serving Birnam, he does so with lessons aplenty and a complete contempt for someone whom he sees as having been dealt a pretty good hand whom is also determined to throw it all way. Nat acts as Birnam’s conscience even though he is rarely heeded.

And finally my new crush, Doris Dowling as Gloria, an implied prostitute who takes a shine to Birnam and comes across as one of the most real characters in the movie. I want to punch Ray Milland in the jaw for the way that he plays with her.

So there you go. I’ve told you little about The Lost Weekend and you should appreciate that small kindness. Discover it for yourself. You know the plot already, whether you think you do or not, and the joy in this film is sitting back and finding the resonant moments. These will hit you hard and sweet if you let them in.

So Don Birnam is a failing writer who drinks because of his fear of being a failed writer. This is an eternal conundrum within those who attempt to create worlds and tell stories. Writing is sometimes as easy as writing down what we see; other times, we must become little gods who create and control all of the small lives on our pages. Although this seems like an act of enormous ego, it is actually a mechanism to try to understand the world around us. We don’t write because we want to become gods. We write in the same way that drowning people tread water. We are all afraid and alone all of the time and only by creation are we sometimes reminded that the world is truly a place of joy and not only of pain, loss, and disillusionment. And those of us, for whatever reason, who can’t get the words on the damned page, well, sometimes we drink. The perfumed temples along the banks of The Nile open to us and we find our way by not really trying. And we are so enthralled with the story that we forget to tell it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Bad Lieutenant (1992)



by Alec “It’s snowing in September!” Cizak

There used to be a saying among those in Hollywood that the movie industry was a Jewish business selling Catholic morals to the Protestant masses. That’s no longer true. Hollywood pushes one moral at this point—“Why can’t we all just get along?” And they push it in every single goddamn movie they make.

Anybody old enough remembers where they were the first time they heard that phrase. The early 1990s was marked by a tide of hatred towards law enforcement. I might go so far as to blame the Republicans and their amped-up “war on drugs” for this phenomenon. Just as incompetent as their handling of the AIDS crisis (“don’t have sex!”), the “war on drugs” was propped up by a desire that Americans remain stupid and chatter “just say no” like zombies. Another prescription was to put more cops on the streets and eradicate the Fourth Amendment (nobody wrote about this better than Hunter S. Thompson). Pretty soon, people were losing their property based solely on suspicion and they rarely got it back, even after they were proven innocent. We were entering the age of America as a Police State and folks, especially young folks (like me, at the time), were pissed off.

In those days I carried a copy of N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton in my car and if I rolled up next to a cop, I put the tape (pre-queued) in and blasted “Fuck tha Police.” Of course, I was a punk-ass white boy, and if the cops even knew what the hell the song was coming from my shitty little Chevy, they just laughed and probably said, “There goes another punk-ass white boy supporting the sadistic side of the music industry.” But I knew I was part of a movement that culminated in the events that unfolded in Los Angeles. First the beating, then the bogus trial, and finally, The Riots (Reginald Denny should be part of that story, but the way his attackers were so obviously let go in compensation makes me sick, so I, like the rest of the country, pretend that part didn’t happen). When I moved to Koreatown in 2001, the ghosts of those turbulent days lingered, nearly a decade later. Korean shop owners were quick to tell their stories of protecting their stores. They sounded like war veterans. Half of the Ralph’s at Third and Vermont is still missing because it was burned down in the riots and nobody bothered to rebuild it.

But, as I often do, I digress…

Showing up in my hometown, Indianapolis, just after the L.A. riots, was Abel Ferrara’s Bad Lieutenant. It played at the Irving, a rundown artsy-fartsy joint on the east side that showed all the movies my Bible-thumping neighbors wished didn’t exist. It’s too bad they dismissed it so quickly, calling it ‘trash’ and ‘subhuman’ without even seeing it. Bad Lieutenant is a very religious movie about cops, coke, and Catholics. Ferrara had said a few things about Catholicism in an earlier film called Ms. 45, but that belongs in a different category, so I won’t waste much time on it here.

The story is framed by a playoff series between the Mets and the Dodgers. Our hero, known only as The Lieutenant (Harvey Keitel), has many addictions and gambling is the one that will ultimately do him in. Throughout the film he second-guesses the gods of baseball and builds an enormous debt he’ll never recover from. We see early on that he has kids. He takes his sons to school, admonishing them for not telling their aunt what to do—“Are you men or mice?” he asks them, suggesting they tell their aunt to “get the fuck outta the bathroom!” when she’s keeping them from getting ready for school. If his use of the word ‘fuck’ every two seconds in front of his boys doesn’t tell us what kind of parent he is, perhaps when the kids get out of his car and he decides to snort some coke in the parking lot of their school will. Right away, Ferrara makes sure we don’t think he titled his movie inappropriately. And for those of us who had come to suspect cops as the real bad guys, our opinions were instantly justified.

The movie foreshadows its conclusion when the Lieutenant shows up at a double-shooting. Two girls are dead in a car. The Lieutenant looks them over for a moment, then goes to talk gambling with some other officers. Next on his to-do list is pretend to chase down a crack dealer in a shitty apartment building where he trades some hits of rocked-up coke for an evidence bag filled with powder. When a woman in the hallway complains, the Lieutenant tells her to go back into her apartment, demanding he’s engaged in “police activity.” After taking some of the powder for himself, he visits a woman with a fantastic body and someone who looks so gender-free we have no idea if it’s a man or a woman, where he engages in a bizarre threesome. While the girl and the gender-less wonder mock-fuck on the bed, the Lieutenant pours some vodka in a shot glass and then tilts the bottle to take a real shot. The Lieutenant dances with the other two and then, naked, holds his arms out like Jesus Christ, preparing the audience for the film’s Catholic message.

After taking money stolen by small-time thugs at an Asian grocery store, the Lieutenant goes to visit an anorexic redhead who freebases heroin with him. While the Lieutenant is enjoying the fantastic mix of chemicals in his system, a nun is raped. We get a brief scene in the Lieutenant’s home, though we never get any sense of which one of the grown women there is actually his wife. Nor, for that matter, do we ever see the Lieutenant at a police station doing paperwork (the staple of a good cop movie, according to Billy Friedkin). No, he just strolls through New York City doing blow and smack and drinking and banging strange chicks and gambling. Kind of makes you want to be a cop!

Just before learning about the raping of the nun, the Lieutenant visits another crime scene where a hooker tells him there’s a bag of coke behind the back seat. He tries to get it out and into his jacket but drops it on the ground and has to act like a real cop and introduce it as evidence. When he’s told about the rape, he accuses the church of being “a racket,” no different than the mafia. He assures his fellow officers that he’s a Catholic despite his suspicion of the church.

The Lieutenant becomes obsessed with the nun, maybe out of good old Catholic guilt, or maybe because the same mob he owes money to is offering a reward for the capture of her attackers. He stares at her in the hospital while she’s naked on a table. Before going to the scene of the crime, he stops and redefines sexual harassment when he pulls two teenaged girls over and threatens to call their fathers if one doesn’t show him her ass while the other pantomimes a blow job. The Lieutenant jerks off, right there in the street and walks away. This is one of a few scenes that earned the film an NC-17 rating. Some might wonder what purpose it serves, other than to continue the theme that this cop is a real scumbag. Because it comes (no pun intended) halfway through the movie, I believe there is a comparison being made to the two girls who were found dead in the beginning of the film. Ferrara seems to be equating the Lieutenant with the killer, suggesting they are equally dangerous. This will help the audience accept the film’s stunning conclusion.

The Lieutenant goes to the church where the nun was raped. He passes out and wakes up while ‘good’ cops are actually investigating the scene, gathering evidence. He does nothing to help them. Instead, he drives around listening to the next game in the playoff series, snorting coke and drinking vodka from a pint he carries in his jacket. When the game goes bad, he shoots his radio and screams racial slurs at Daryl Strawberry (a real life crack junky). The Lieutenant attends services with his family and is threatened by a representative of his bookie in the back of the church, basically giving weight to the Lieutenant’s contention that there is no difference between a Don Capo and the Pope. We see the extent of the Lieutenant’s disregard for his family when he snorts coke right off of a stack of family photos. He pulls more dust up his nose at a club and then, in one of the most inexplicable scenes in the movie, visits a Hispanic family that gives him thirty-thousand dollars to pay off some of his debt. He smokes some crack in the hallway, pointing his gun at a woman who steps out of her apartment, then goes home and sets up a meeting with his bookie. He visits the redheaded woman one more time. This time they shoot the heroin directly into their blood, showing the film’s progression from mild to lethal drug use which, in turn, drives home the point that the Lieutenant is on a mission of self-destruction. The woman lets loose some bizarre philosophy about junkies and, perhaps, American society in general—“We gotta eat away at ourselves…until there’s nothing left but appetite.” Hmm, sounds profound. Might make more sense if I was on junk as well.

The Lieutenant confronts the nun, demanding, “How could you forgive these mother… these guys?” She reminds him what it means to be a Catholic and leaves the Lieutenant to break down before the altar where we get a good dose of Harvey Keitel’s famous crying. He hallucinates Jesus, standing in the aisle, who then turns out to be a black woman, which makes a lot of sense since black women in America are probably treated worse than any other U.S. Census category of people. Why anybody would think Jesus would waste his time in New York City is beyond me, but that’s another discussion for another time. The woman takes him to the boys who raped the nun. While the audience is hoping the Lieutenant will either shoot them in their faces or bring them in for “justice,” the Lieutenant has, instead, found religion. Whether it’s before or after he shares a rock of really good crack with the rapists, we don’t know. It may not be important.

He puts the kids on a bus and gives them the thirty-grand and sends them off to start their lives over. Parked outside of Madison Square Garden, underneath a sign that says “It All Happens Here,” some mobsters roll up and shoot the Lieutenant dead in his car where he will be found, just like the girls in the beginning of the film, by cops with more important things on their minds than who the victim is and why he was killed. In the final moments of the movie, the Lieutenant becomes Jesus, sacrificing himself in the name of forgiveness.

I know there are some bad-ass sons of bitches who will scoff at this movie’s finale, but I think they’re posers. I think this movie meanders in a stoned and drunken stupor towards a very powerful revelation about what makes Catholicism a philosophically profound set of beliefs. Yes, the church itself is corrupt, but the power to forgive is holy and sacred and very hard to accomplish. It’s the reason we can call the Lieutenant a hero after all the terrible things he’s done to himself and other people. Bad Lieutenant is one of the last great independent films this country has produced. And if you like movies about people getting wasted, this one certainly won’t fail you.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Shakes the Clown (1991)



by Jimmy "The Doormat" Callaway

You'll often hear people remark on the irony that comedians are generally pretty miserable. It does seem odd that people whose job it is to make others laugh can often be fairly humorless and bitter, or just kinda fucked in the head. Apparently, Chevy Chase is a complete and utter asshole. George Carlin seemed to only get angrier as he aged, which was a tall order even for a crankypants like him. Bill Cosby isn't even immune to this (although I guess if my only son got murdered, I'd be pretty bitter, too).

I think this perceived irony is indicative of the attitude that most people have towards comedians and comedy, that it is a lower art form. For a painter or literary author to be moody and unpredictable is a sure sign of his or her genius, in a lot of eyes. For comedians to be the same way just makes them big weirdoes. I will grant that since comedians' stock-in-trade is laughter, it seems counterproductive to be such a bummer all the time. But comedians are artists, just the same as Van Gogh or Diego Rivera or Hemingway or any of the other assholes the so-called finer arts have produced.

And like a lot of artists, comedians will sometimes party themselves to death. Belushi, Farley, Hedburg, and who the hell knows how many more. Again, it's all romance when Dylan Thomas or even a hack like Jim Morrison medicates himself into the great beyond. But all Lenny Bruce gets is a kinda boring bio-pic made of him.

You don't have to be much more than an armchair psychologist to see how all these behaviors are related. The drive to create is often produced by a need for approval, a need which is all encompassing and therefore doomed to go not completely met from the word go. When even creative success is not enough to please the artist, the artist will often turn to drink and drugs to numb the pain or become a bitter crank to protect him/herself from further emotional damage, usually a combination of the two, and usually to the same lonely end. It's a big depressing cycle that can seem unbreakable.

The only way to make it really funny is to add clowns. I've never been one of these guys who's scared of clowns. I dunno, I guess I can kinda see where folks might get creeped out by these charlatans of chuckle, but I guess there were lots scarier things to me as a kid, like poltergeists or Dobermans. Regardless, the juxtaposition of comedians as tortured artists is only all the more highlighted and hilarious when it is acted out by a buncha guys in clown outfits, as it is in Bobcat Goldthwait's directorial debut, Shakes the Clown.

The opening image of the film is a broken record. It's the morning after a big party, and the young son of the hostess awakes to a dog eating pizza off the coffee table and a drunken clown in his bathroom. The first thing the kid does, though, is take the needle off the record. So, the way I'm reading this, the record represents the seemingly unbreakable cycle we've been talking about, this constant treadmill ride for some sort of brass ring of love that just drives you nuts. This flick also has a nice undercurrent about children and innocence that's always hovered around my viewings of it before, but has only become clearer this time around.

See, the way I look at artists is that they act as sorts of champions for the beauty of human experience, the innocence often lost. Comedians especially fall under this since their work is often in the vein of what can be considered juvenile or silly. So comedians have attained this status in my mind of hero, in that they were something of a salvation to me from the normal, eat-your-vegetables grown-ups that I was surrounded by. And what I've come to notice as I've gotten older is that this is a reciprocal situation. Comedians tend to work from a painful place, and often that pain derives from an innocence lost. In Shakes's case, as we find later in the film, his father was trampled to death by elephants. So Shakes entertains children at birthday parties, an environment in which we see him truly thrive, and in return, the joy he spreads salves the loss of his own childhood joy.

This is what I see when little Billy removes the needle from the broken record. Shakes has a need to create, to entertain, in order to keep himself sane, to tame the chaos in his life. When that isn't enough, he hits the sauce, and how. By the film's end, when everything has been rendered okay in the world, he has realized that the work is enough, that he does far more good as a clown than as a drunk. Doing it for the kids is a worthy cause, possibly the worthiest of them all, and it will redeem him.

This theme of innocence lost is only reinforced here by Florence Henderson as Billy's mother, the anonymous woman Shakes has nailed the night before. Taking the materfamilias of that staple of good, wholesome television, The Brady Bunch, and tarting her up like this is played up for laughs (and Henderson herself, God bless her, has been doing such in a ton of other roles satirizing her most famous part). But it's also a clear indication of the lost innocence we're dealing with here: Mrs. Brady reduced to drunkenly banging birthday party clowns without even learning their names first.

There's then a fairly touching slo-mo shot of kids playing in a lawn sprinkler as the theme from A Summer Place plays. Again, we have happy smiling children in a direct visual counterpoint to an unshaven, hung-over clown. It's also here that I realize that this is one of the few times we see Shakes not in full make-up, when he's hung-over. This could easily be taken as showing how the guy's not himself when he's not a clown, but I think it's more accurate to say that he's not himself when he's sober. Whether drunk on adoration or drunk on Amstel Light, Shakes cannot function when sober.

It also makes a nice visual when he emerges from the gas station men's room in full clown regalia. Now Shakes is in command, and his role as defender of the innocent is brought to light. As he arrives late at the birthday party he's to be working, he's immediately confronted by a typical tight-assed suburban father, excellently played by Tim Kazurinsky (and it makes me feel warm seeing these two together again for the first time since Hot to Trot)(though I admit, I can't remember if they had a scene together in that. They must have though, right?). Shakes gets right back in his face and backs him down, striking one for the little guy right away. It's a very brief role, but like I say, Kazurinksy nails it completely with his face and his voice tempered right in the part of the throat that I heard my dad and all my friends' dads yell at us from (when later Shakes puts an extra party hat on Kazurinsky's head, effectively giving him horns, this just drives home who's really the bad guy here).

Then as Shakes emerges into the backyard, he's greeted by a party of utterly bored kids. But now their friend Shakes the Clown is here, and with his bag of tricks and goofy japes and gibes, everybody's having a good time. Yes, Shakes is more than likely buzzed, but he's also just really enjoying his work. And this I'd say is kind of a smaller tragedy within the larger, namely alcoholism will really put a dent in your drinking. Like when Dink, one of Shakes's buddies, later wonders why the guy just can't drink normally, y'know, have fun with it. It all makes me grateful that I've never gotten so bad off that I had to quit altogether. Karaoke would be a lot less fun, for one thing.

Take, for example, the music montage scene of Shakes and Dink and Stenchy driving around, drinkin' beers and raisin' hell. I think overall the scene is supposed to show that these guys can kinda be dickheads, but man, it still looks like a lot of fun (although, I can do without NRBQ on the tape deck, personally). Like, I guarantee audiences cheered or at least smiled widely at the sight of Shakes and the boys beating up a buncha mimes. But technically, mimes are also artists (even if they generally represent a prissier, au francais kinda art that guys like me, who may have artistic inclinations themselves, still find kinda fruity), and as Shakes finds out, mimes are people, too. Without the keen insight of Mime Jerry (as played brilliantly by Robin Williams)(quoth my old roommate upon seeing this scene: "Man, Robin Williams should really get back on coke."), Shakes would never have been able to figure out who really killed his boss, Mr. Cheese, and thereby clear his name.

The real murderer and the clown who frames our hero is the vile antagonist, Binky the Clown, portrayed by Tom Kenny (in what is probably one of my top three personal favorite film performances ever). Binky acts as an excellent foil for Shakes in that Binky is not an artist, he "can't even throw a fuckin' pie straight." By having beaten Shakes out for a plum role as host of the afternoon TV cartoon show, Binky has succeeded only in drawing attention to himself. Binky cares little for art--as his stage manager tells the children in the studio audience, "We're all older, we know what's funny." This notion that Binky is purely an egomaniac is reinforced by his base treatment of his henchclowns, Boots and Hoho, his desire to look cool in front of the coke-dealing rodeo clowns, and most especially in his pursuit of Judy, Shakes's girlfriend. The fact that Judy continuously brushes Binky's puerile sexual advances back drives Binky into a homicidal rage, and while in the throes of which, he attempts to murder Judy in front of the boys and girls in the studio and those at home. Binky revels in his total disregard for humanity, for beauty, and works as an excellent counter-point to Shakes: Shakes may be "a drunk and a bad lay," but Binky is a stone-cold psychopath.

So overall, the moral of Shakes the Clown is art first. Shakes's drinking is only the catalyst for all his woes, but it's when it begins to affect his work that the damage starts to become near-indelible. There is one scene where Shakes goes off on a kid, calling him a loser and insisting that his parents "had to pay grown men to come and play with you today, because kids collectively, on a whole, think you suck." Yes, the kid may have been acting like a brat, but this is not Shakes, the defender of the innocent, the artist. The fact that he's sober at this point only belies the importance of creativity over sobriety, I'd say. Shakes had to go into a rehab program in order to continue his work, but the closing shot--a young boy, laughing and cheering--illustrates that this is what is the most important thing.

Battle not with clowns, kids. Just keep 'em laughing, and I promise you, it'll all work out.

Sunday, January 30, 2011

Fandango (1985)



by Josh "Ripcord" Converse

Fandango is an '80s movie about the '70s. It centers around the draft, Vietnam, and a group of college drinking buddies known as "The Groovers," out for one last fling on the road. Did I mention it’s an '80s movie? Did I really need to?

This flick marks the first in a series of collaborations between director Kevin Reynolds and Kevin Costner, who would go on to dazzle us with Waterworld, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and the upcoming Learning Italian. I know, I know. Scorsese and DeNiro, it ain’t. Hell, it ain’t even Scorsese and DiCaprio. It is, however, a movie about a bunch of dudes getting shithammered, so cover it we must.

Starts out at a party of the college variety. Graduation night. We are introduced to perennial screw-up Gardner Barnes, the ringleader, played by the ever-affable Costner. We are also introduced to the first in a long series of horrible accents perpetrated upon the ticket-buying public lo these many years by the aforementioned Kevin, this the precursor to the one he used eight years later in A Perfect World, and not all that different from the one he used just before that in JFK, and oddly enough, just a lilt off the one he used as Robin Hood. It also marks the debut of what I like to call Costner’s signature "dammit of no dammit" move, in which he lets his mouth hang open and sharply bobs his head as one would when saying "dammit," but he doesn’t actually say anything. Ever catch that? It’s his approximation of outrage and he’s used it in everything he’s ever done, oil spill clean-ups included.

Judd Nelson does well as the weenie Phil Hicks, an ROTC geek and fortunate son whom nobody in the crew really respects. Consider it a precursor to the weenie he went on to play in St. Elmo’s Fire. Also at the party, comically fat and quiet guy Dorman, played by Chuck Bush, and skinny, quieter guy Lester Griffin, who will go on to spend virtually the entire film unconscious and stuffed in the back window of the car, played by Brian Cesak.

Rounding out the Groovers is Kenneth Waggener (Sam Robards), who shows up late to the party sporting a hang-dog. Looks like Ken, freshly graduated, has been nailed by Uncle Sam, and is due to report for boot camp Monday morning. As a result, Ken has decided to break off his engagement.

This is all music to Gardner’s ears who, having fallen short on his own bid to graduate, has also been drafted, is also expected at boot camp on Monday morning. Solution to all our ills? Howsabout one last alcohol-fueled run for the border, in which we grasp for the glory days, dig up an old, buried secret, and learn the proper way to deploy a reserve parachute? Takers? C’mon, then. The fat guy can drive.

The film succeeds on a lot of levels. It’s a rowdy good time, filled with all the requisite hijinks that one would expect from a road comedy of this era. Performances are solid all around, with plenty of good-hearted, good ol’ boy grab-assing to keep you in the giggles. The scene in which Judd Nelson is goaded into taking skydiving lessons is the indisputable comic high point, due largely to a standout turn by Marvin J. McIntyre as freaked-out pilot and parachuting instructor Truman Sparks.

Kevin Reynolds, working under the auspices of Amblin Entertainment, lays on a tasteful but thick dose of Spielbergian magic hour sappiness. The Groovers’ bottle rocket fight in the middle of a darkened graveyard, foreshadowing their coming trials and tribulations on the field of battle in Vietnam, is particularly heavy-handed, but not without aesthetic grace. Most of the film’s other gags are played for laughs, so muscle through. Spoiler Alert: As the film draws to a close, expect to be strong-armed into a poignant, reflective catharsis, as everybody simultaneously, instantaneously grows up.

The movie is available now on the Netflix Instant Queue and, likely, the discount bins at your neighborhood Marshall’s, and is a good time to be had by most. Feel free to toss a few back before you press play.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Strange Brew (1983)



by Jimmy "Radiation has made me an enemy of civilization" Callaway

Strange Brew is the very definition of a classic, a movie that defined a generation. It is wholly of its time and yet timeless. A very difficult film to approach for a project such as this, but I feel in following the sketchy model I have laid out for the Let's Exploit Everybody! quartet, Strange Brew will herein be examined for its constant breaking of the fourth wall and what that means to me. It certainly was not the first or last film to do so, nor the first or last that would bring these ideas to the fore for me, but it certainly was/is as far as I was/am concerned.

One of my earliest childhood memories is of my mind being blown. Naturally, it's pretty easy to blow a seven-year-old's mind, but tell that to the seven-year-old. By 1983, '84, I was well familiar with the roaring-lion MGM logo, but it most often was followed by either a Tom and Jerry cartoon or The Wizard of Oz. Anything else would be, well, mind-blowing.

I here refer to, of course, the opening scene of Strange Brew (technically, this is the subtitle to The Adventures of Bob and Doug McKenzie, but seeing as how [sadly] there have yet to be any follow-ups, the subtitle has taken its place in the annals of history). After the lion roars (read: belches), the camera pans around to find the rest of the lion laying on a platform and two goofy drunken Canadians egging each other on to "crank his tail, eh?"

I don't think I am a capable enough writer to convey how my tiny mind snapped at that moment. This sort of thing may happen in the cartoons I so dearly loved at that age, or on The Muppet Show perhaps. But in a live-action movie? Yeah, that's a greenstick fracture on my brain.

There is much more of this throughout the flick, played up for laughs. By 1983, movie-going was well established as a past-time, and all the attendant clich├ęs and modes of story-telling held fast in the minds of millions. Also by this time, the boomers had grown up and were beginning to make their mark on the popular arts, celebrating the commonality of their suburban, post-modernist upbringing. Everybody had been raised by movies, everybody had been taught by movies. Everybody knows where movies went wrong.

So I like to think that when my parents watched this movie for the first time, they smiled wryly as Bob and Doug discussed how people in movies never seem to pay attention to the road while they're driving, while simultaneously not paying attention to the road while they're driving. Or when Doug points out the plot convenience of a secret tunnel to the brewery just when escape is of the utmost. It was cute, y'know. A sorta "Oh, yeah, that's true, huh?" reaction.

Yeah, well, for me and (I'd imagine) many others, this was a revelation along the level of fuckin' Plato, bringing us all out of that cave and into the light of those philosopher-kings and their baby mice in beer bottles. Believe me, I know how nutty that sounds. But howzabout this: the real revelation to me then was that maybe--just maybe--every grown-up in the world isn't such a no-fun shithead.

See, cartoons and puppets and things like that always made me more comfortable when I was a kid (and still do, really) because it seemed unlikely that they'd flip out on me for getting Bubble Yum in the upholstery of their new pick-up, say. It's a childish conceit, I guess, to think that you can just dance your cares away down at Fraggle Rock. But the grown-up world that I was exposed to almost exclusively as a boy was loud and violent and generally just a fucking bummer. The opposite side of that coin was animated and lively and constantly pumped into my living room via the cathode-ray machine.

So when guys like Steve Martin and Bill Murray and (obviously) Rick Moranis and Dave Thomas would show up and start acting like insane lunatics, they weren't just breaking the fourth wall of drama; they were breaking the fourth wall of my nascent consciousness. Trust me, some days, this development does not feel that it has been for my betterment. It's exceedingly difficult to wedge yourself into a world that is still loud and violent and bummer-y when you've been shown early on that it really doesn't have to be, and that wedging really only seems to be getting more difficult as I get older here.

Which leads us to the next question: who's the insane lunatic around here anyways?

I was talking to my friend and cohort Alexander Kraft a few months back about Deadpool. For those of you not in the loop, Deadpool is Marvel Comics' merry mutant merc-with-a-mouth, an insane idiot of a superhero. He constantly breaks the fourth wall, addressing not only the reader directly, but also the fact that he is a character in a comic book. And although I guess I must have realized this in some way, it was Kraft who actually articulated that it was pretty neat, having an insane idiot character who actually knows more about the reality of things than any of the other characters.

Imagine that. Two drunken dingbats that no one really takes seriously, yet it turns out they're technically smarter than anybody else in the movie. They know their place in the scheme of things, and even though they act out their parts (like Bob crying when separated from his brother), they know it's all gonna turn out okay, eh? So, like, don't worry about it, eh?

All right, let's just make sure we're all caught up (actually, I just want to make sure I'm all caught up, but it makes me feel better about myself if I include all of you in that): a boy is thrust, screaming and naked, into this world. Early on, he grasps that this group of befleshed, red-faced humans over here often bring shrillness and cacophony into his life, while this group of colorful, "make-believe" characters over here mostly just want to sing songs at him. Okay, good. But then a group of befleshed and red-faced yet colorful and "make-believe" characters make themselves known to him, which kinda puts a monkey wrench in things for our boy, but eventually he gets them somewhat sorted into this beatific, goofy ├ťbermenschen who look like they could bring harm if they wanted, but don't. Okay, kinda weird, but still doable.

Then it turns out they're smarter than everybody, that the fools on the hill see the sun going down. Man. I mean, I still can't get the rest of my mind around that concept, y'know? But on a gut level, I really feel that this is the right path, the logical path, and that I have to keep following it. It's the hero's journey here, but the hero is not the dead brewery owner's daughter or the emotionally scrambled ex-hockey player. It's a couple of lovable morons who only want to hang out and drink beer.

That's fine by me, eh?

Friday, November 26, 2010

New Jack City (1991)



by Brian “D.A.R.E.” Roe

Oh crack, remember when you were the scourge of a people? Do you remember when everybody from Keith Haring to Nancy Reagan warned us about how you were “wack” and we should “just say no”? Do you remember those halcyon days of yore when you ruined thousands of lives, entire communities, not to mention a few generations of people in ways that alcohol, marijuana, or heroin never had the ability to? Yeah crack, back in the eighties, you were the big bad motherfucker when it came to messing up people all the while convincing them that they could fly or some such shit.

Then that upstart crystal meth came around and stole your thunder faster than you could say “suck a glass dick.”

But in the early 1990s, crack still had some mojo left and was the centerpiece of New Jack City, a film directed by Mario Van Peebles and starring proto-stars Wesley Snipes, Ice T, and Chris Rock. Oh, and Judd Nelson’s in it, but he’s irrelevant.

Now when your dad’s the guy who created Sweet Sweetback's Baadasssss Song, you’ve got some history to live up to. And instead of copying his dad’s formula of constantly talking about his dick, Mario goes with a loftier version of black masculinity by casting himself as the young upstart detective who really gets the ball rolling here. Little Van Peebles does a decent job of putting things on screen, but the overall cinematography looks a bit like a live-action role-playing group. And coupled with a few non-actors trying to act, this can cause some pretty bland scenes and odd interactions.

The first fly-by shot shows us the New York that we’ve grown to love as a setting for crime films. Who cares if you shoot all the scenes in Toronto, as long as you start with a long, loving helicopter shot of NYC, we’re pretty much onboard. As we fly along, news radio gives a concise overview of the economic failures of the Reagan era as the chopper keeps on going over the main areas of Manhattan. Then a white guy gets thrown off of a bridge. I mention this scene and the fellow’s race for two reasons. One, the actual stunt is pretty impressive and elicits a good sense of vertigo. And two, white people are in this movie in the same way they often are in 1970s blaxploitation movies, as bad guys and throw-away characters.

The next series of shots are far more disturbing. With a title that just reads “The City 1986,” we begin a different kind of fly-over, one that shows the absolute desolation and destruction of the slums of New York. My first thought upon seeing this was that this couldn’t be a place in The U.S. Upon realizing that it was, my second thought was that it shouldn’t be, no one should ever have to live in these places. And amongst the burned out cars and rotten buildings, lives are taking place. Probably lives that reek of urine and Night Train, but lives nonetheless.

So MVP (ooh nice initials) already has me somewhat on his side. I see that people shouldn’t live in a hell like these ghettoes. Even if the people acting like bums fighting over bottles of booze are actually um, actors, it doesn’t excuse the fact that they could find places that looked this destroyed to film.

Okay enough social crap. On to entertainment!

Ice-T, as Detective Scotty Appleton, looks so damned young in this. Not the scrawny, ditch-weed young of Colors, but trim and badass young. The problem is he’s still not an actor. Yes, he can “front” like any rap performer, but that’s pretty much what he does for any scene. Head twist, look down nose, puff out chest. This serves him well from threatening people to hanging out in a nightclub. One thing that you can say about Ice T is that he’s consistent. And Chris Rock looks like he’s twelve. Which is probably not far off.

The real star of this show, in more ways than one, is Wesley motherfuckin’ Snipes. Yes, the poor sap forgot to pay taxes, so the Man’s about to put him in the joint, but back in the early nineties, Snipes was a powerhouse with the character of Nino Brown, small-time drug lord about to hit the big time. He conveys a powerful ego that makes the other actors around him seem better. When all the other characters come across as comic book deep caricatures, Snipes has the role down. His physical movements alone usually convey what he needs to say. Yes, I’m fucking impressed with the guy. After sitting through the Blade movies, I had forgotten that Snipes was once a gifted young actor. Who forgot to pay his taxes.

There are so many types of movie that Van Peebles tried to make with New Jack City that it’s easy to get lost. Social documentary, call to action, buddy cop, legal, drama, hell, frickin’ musical theater. Sometimes it comes across as a cameo-heavy talent show and not a concise, driving movie. It is cool to see so many recognizable faces like Fab Five Freddy, Flava Flav, etc, but it still feels like Van Peebles was trying to get all his cool friends to be in his movie to up the salability. But seriously Mario, make your movie and quit sticking little music videos everywhere. And if you want chicks to make goo-goo eyes at Keith Sweat, at least have them be actors who can really make the goo-goo eyes.

The script for NJC was written by a middle aged white guy. Again with the race thing but only a middle aged white guy would throw in lines like: “Some George Raft, James Cagney type'a shit.” I’m not saying that people of color might not embrace 50 year old films, but this line reads like somebody’s dad trying to be “down” and it name checks a couple of film geek darlings. And it just comes across as stilted even when delivered by a talented young actor named Wesley Snipes.

The main storyline involves Nino Brown and the Cash Money Brothers basically creating The Best Little Crackhouse in NYC except it ain’t so little. Brown and the CMB take over an entire city apartment block and run it like a private island in New York’s vast, overcrowded sprawl. Van Peebles, playing Detective Stone, recruits loose cannons Scotty Appleton and Nick Peretti (played by Judd Nelson at his absolute most forgettable) to get some evidence or something and the other cops won’t arrest Brown and some other stuff happens. It’s best not to think too much about the idea of an entire city block being turned into a giant crackhouse. Although I’m sure somebody will tell me it was based on a real place. Great. I’m glad.

Besides the human actors and the City of New York, New Jack City has another very important character. This movie stars the fucking Nineteen-Eighties. Back when fat gold chains were how you showed, Kanga caps perched atop nigh every head, and fat laced Adidas cradled every foot. Suits could be cobalt blue, damnit, a young man’s hair could be cut into a tall-assed box cut with stripes on the side, and urban gangsters still had not started the fucking ludicrous habit of holding their fucking pistols sideways like a bunch of idiotic fuckwits! (Sorry, I hate that crap.)

I’ll say a good thing and a bad thing about New Jack City, and then I get a RAM chip.

Good Thing: Unlike a lot of white-guy produced and directed blaxploitation, the mostly African-American cast don’t come across as idiots (for the most part) and the whole enterprise is well produced and shot for a film from the early nineties. Although it takes place in the eighties, it doesn’t have the neon-stink of films shot at that time. So good basics if still a little stilted (Chris Rock’s “clean and sober” montage, and Chris Rock’s death scene are particularly wooden).

Bad Thing: Like most mafia-centric crime films it makes selling drugs, killing people, and being an ego-driven cockhead seem like a really good idea. Nino Brown gets what he wants when he wants it and he still has absolute devotion from his underlings. The detectives bicker at each other like old married people and can’t get any cooperation from the rest of the police. The message is clear: doing things legally is for chumps; only law-breaking, crack-selling, community-destroying assholes get to fuck the hot chicks.

So the bad thing here really sucks any enjoyment out of this film. I’m pretty sure that New Jack City alone created gangsta rap and all the other permutations of the vile worship of criminals. And yes, like any good morality play, the bad guy gets it in the end. But not before he lives a richer and more interesting life, however brief, than the rest of us can ever imagine. The only time that Ice-T gets any tail in this movie is when he goes undercover with Nino’s gang. And although he talks a good talk about saving his community and such, he seems totally all right with lounging around Nino’s crib, drinking Courvoisier, and nailing Asian whores, all the while keeping his moral high ground hard-on that he’s doing the right thing.

New Jack City is pure comic-book simple fantasy. Especially if you fantasize about being a despicable, drug-dealing, community-destroying, egomaniacal shithead.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Grandma's Boy (2006)



by Laura "Don't judge me, monkey" Roberts

When Callaway told me he was finally starting a Let's Drink Everybody! companion to the influential Let's [Blank] Everybody! empire, the first flick on my To Do list was Grandma's Boy. An epic tale of nerdy proportions, this one's a cult classic for many reasons: the hardcore video gaming, the sexual fetishes rarely discussed in even the most Savage of sex columns and, of course, the massive marijuana consumption.

Obviously, stoners love Grandma's Boy for its near-constant drug references. Undoubtedly, they're smoking joints every time someone in the film lights up, in much the same way dull normals play drinking games on lonely Friday nights. I'd hate to see the state of these poor stoners' brainpans after the penultimate puff, however. If they're literally playing along to combine many types of weed into The Mother Of All Spliffs, things could get ugly. That ringing in your ears? Might actually be a phone call from the devil.

But let's start at the beginning, my little cannabis fiends, shall we?

Alex is a software tester for Brainasium, a company in the midst of production on their latest video game, Eternal Death Slayer III (aka EDS3). Run by New Age stereotype Mr. Cheezle, the company has brought in a hot chick from New York named Samantha to keep the “sea of virgins” (aka testers) on track. After being evicted from his apartment, Alex is looking for a place to crash, and his grandmother offers him a room at her house, which she currently shares with two elderly female boarders. At first Alex declines the offer, but he eventually takes Grandma up on the deal, as the title of this film dictates, thanks to a hilarious mishap that results from air-mattress-surfing at the home of a co-worker who still lives with his parents.

At work, Alex tries to conceal his awkward new living situation by claiming he is staying with “this hot chick he's known for a long time and her two crazy roommates,” making up stories about wild orgies to cover further accidents caused by the perils of living with a woman who doesn't own a microwave. Of course, he's eventually found out when Grandma and the gals stop by to deliver him lunch, and she alludes to his “new toy”—i.e. a game called Demonik he's been designing in his free time, and which Grandma loves to play while he's at work, accidentally giving the impression that Alex and his meemaw have been getting a little too intimate.

To make a long plot synopsis short(er), so-called prodigy/EDS creator JP tries to steal Alex's game after offering to give him a few notes. Alex quits Brainasium when he can't prove the game is really his, and hits up Dante for a fuck-it toke from hell (the penultimate puff, mentioned previously). Samantha gets Grandma to prove it's Alex's game by waging a video game face-off with JP, and all's well that ends well as Grandma kicks JP's robot-lovin' ass.

While there are many, many brilliant things about this film, most people who haven't seen it likely dismiss it as another stoner film. These people are missing the point, not only because weed is just a minor plot point, but also because you don't have to be high to find this flick hilarious. In the interest of full disclosure, I must admit that this film is in heavy rotation at my house, though I've never been much for the demon weed. Upon first viewing, I wasn't sure I'd be interested in the doings of a bunch of video game dorks, much less in a production helmed by Adam Sandler, but goddamn if the thing hasn't grown on me to the point where I feel the need to pop it in once every few weeks.

The truth is, whether you're a Grandma's Boy virgin or a raving fanboy, there are plenty of life lessons to be gleaned from this film. I've devised a list of the top ten, and if you haven't yet realized the film is genius, I prescribe weekly viewings until enlightenment is achieved.

1. When your roommate tells you to write him a check every month, saying he'll take the responsibility for delivering the rent, be sure he's not addicted to Filipino hooker/massage therapists first. Unless you want your testicles removed through your anus by some beefcakes hired by your irate landlord.
2. “You can't be an accountant and smoke weed.” So you'll just have to man up and tell your dad that you quit, and then become a video game tester. Where, for the record, you can definitely smoke weed. And collect as many figurines from Star Wars as the space on your desk will allow.
3. “How much do clothes cost in The Matrix?” According to the Halloween ad for Party City I received today, only $24.99! Somehow I suspect JP overpaid for his own leather trenchcoat.
4. “Jerking off on my mom is one thing, but fucking your grandmother and her two friends is legendary.” This is all Lara Croft's fault.
5. “Never throw a bong, kid. EVER!” Dealers know. You should too.
6. Never cook or re-heat food in an oven while high. 'Nuff said.
7. Stashing your weed in a tin that formerly belonged to an elderly woman is a recipe for mayhem. And the plot of this movie.
8. Meetings, even in video game offices, are usually not about farting. But sometimes you can get your co-workers to teach you how to do armpit farts, in between meetings.
9. When your grandmother asks you to do “a few chores,” you should shut up and do whatever she asks of you. Don't worry: you can still operate a vacuum while you're high.
10. You can learn a lot about owning a lion by not owning a lion. Or, in the case of Alex's pot-smoking dealer friend, Dante, you can meet a dude named Doctor Shakalu from the heart of the rainforest at a cock fight in Pomona, who will get you a lion no problem. And then you can wonder why the King of the Jungle is terrorizing your neighbors, and decide that a Karate Monkey is a better idea after all.

Thankfully, you can just kick it at your crib and watch Grandma's Boy, avoiding these nasty situations altogether while also scoring bonus features including hot nerdy chicks karaokeing to “Push It” before falling over while trying to lick their own tits. LET'S RAGE!