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!

Sunday, September 26, 2010

Animal House (1978)



by Jimmy Callaway and the Knights

Thing is, National Lampoon just didn't really do it for me like Mad did when I was a kid. The easy-to-get cartoons and picture stories in the Lampoon, those were only a part of the magazine. But they also ran actual ads (what? In a humor mag?), and these big, long-winded articles that used ten-dollar words. Basically, it was all over my head.

This is also kind of how I came to Animal House. For one thing, I didn't even see it until I was 19 or 20, so I hadn't grown up on it like a lotta guys I know. And when I did finally see it, it had that sorta anecdotal plotline that threw me off, not like the teen comedies I was used to, where there was usually a boy-meets-girl sort of sub-plot to string together the normals-vs.-weirdoes storyline. But really, what it came down to, was that I just wasn't smart enough to appreciate it. Sounds weird to say about a movie dedicated to being fat, drunk, and stupid. But man, there is so much sub-text in this movie, it makes me really glad I was sober enough (just enough) in college that I can see it now.

We open on Pinto and Flounder (although they're still just Larry and Kent at this point) walking across campus at Faber College. The statue of Emil Faber on the grounds has a plaque that reads "Knowledge Is Good." Combine this with Sutherland's little Milton monologue later on, and we have the basic premise of the flick. Knowledge, mostly by way of misbehaving (i.e. tasting of the forbidden fruit), is what sets us apart from the animals. The animal house in this flick is not the Deltas', with their toga parties and Negro music--these guys have the knowledge, the experience, to lay claim to a deeper humanity than most.

Pinto and Flounder are our guides to this movie's world, and they fill the position admirably. Two nice, slightly stupid teenagers who really want to fit in but also want to enjoy themselves--it'd be difficult not to relate. In fact, anyone who couldn't relate at all probably wouldn't even bother with this flick in the first place. The Omegas and the Deltas are rivals, but both are already fairly secure in their positions as college-world-weary students. The Omegas know what their rightful place is--the lily-white upper class--and they are going to stay there. Even young white kids like Larry and Kent might as well be from Harlem, since they are after all "a wimp and a blimp."

It's just this resistance to the Other that is the downfall of the Omegas and their ilk, I'd say. Greg Marmalard takes Dean Wormer's abuse with a smile because he wants to fit in, he wants to go along with the program. Douglas C. Neidermeyer pushes around his inferiors in the ROTC because that's what you do in the military: you make everybody the same by destroying any remnants of personality. This may make them more effective killers, but it doesn't make them much fun to be around. And if Dean Wormer had just laid off these normal young kids, his homecoming parade would have gone off without a hitch. Or at least, less of a hitch than it ended up going off with.

Speaking of the Omegas, though, what I noticed this time around is that Mandy Pepperidge is definitely the exception to test the rule. We can only guess as to why she's hanging around with a slippery little shit like Marmalard, but it's not too crazy to assume she's merely hedging her bets as the real world encroaches. But as we can tell from the cafeteria scene, she has a sense of humor and knows from good sex, unlike the rest of her clique. The fact that she ends up married to Senator Blutarsky is really not that much of surprise, when you think about it.

As Larry and Kent arrive at the Delta House, Bluto pisses on them and immediately marks them as Delta's own (I know I said they weren't the animals here, but bear [har!] with me). Pinto, despite his earlier reticence to join the "worst fraternity on campus," easily slides into his new lifestyle, trying pot for the first time, getting laid finally, and just generally enjoying himself. It can be really awkward at times, but hell, if that's the price one has to pay for new experiences and hedonism writ large, then that's not much of a price at all.

Flounder is by far the more interesting protagonist of the duo, I'd say. He's a really nice guy and just wants to be liked. The fact that the scumbags of Faber College have accepted him as one of their own matters little to him. In fact, even though the Deltas treat Flounder like an overweight doormat a lot of the time, they all genuinely love him, I think. And this nurturing environment is what leads to Flounder eventually becoming a sensitivity trainer, and being able to help others as he has been himself. And what could make a nurturing environment even better than copious amounts of substance abuse?

D-Day claims the motto of Delta House is "Don't get mad; get even." A more accurate motto might be "Don't get mad; get super drunk and naked." And actually, if we accept the premise that living well is the best revenge, the Deltas do get even, always. On double secret probation? Then, toga party. Get all your stuff confiscated? Then, road trip. To paraphrase Eric "Otter" Stratton, the Dean and all the authority figures, they make the rules because it's their game. We, the rest of us slack-asses and no-accounts, we're never gonna win. So let's just have a good time. It's gotta be better than the homo-erotic bondage the Omegas participate in rather than getting high and fucking.

Pinto is pretty much the main protagonist, but the real hero of Animal House is without a doubt Eric Stratton, rush chairman, damn glad to meet you. I can say without great fear of hyperbole that nearly every word out of his mouth is no less than sainted wisdom from on high and applicable to anybody who sees life for what it is: a really vague, goofy, pretty much pointless existence that can still be exploited for maximum joy and happiness.

When Boon says he needs to work on his golf game, Otter says to not think of it as work, but that "the whole point is just to enjoy yourself." The whole point here, folks. It ain't just a golf tip. When you don't enjoy yourself, that's when trouble really happens. Marmalard, Neidermeyer, Wormer, all the antagonists, for them it all comes down to simple repression. The Deltas may be total fuck-ups, but they enjoy themselves and never hurt anybody.

But when Babs suckers Marmalard into thinking Otter is nailing his steady girl, the Omegas lure him into a trap and beat the living tar out of him. And why?

"They're just animals, I guess."

The Omega House is full of animals. Not in the natural, normal way that the Delta House is, full of young, alive, human animals, primed to breed but not having to, all natural impulses met and savored. The Omegas, on the other hand, are animals in the derivative sense: unfeeling, cold-blooded, eager to kill.

A bunch of animals, yet they're running the world. Well, to be more exact, they're running their world. The one full of rules and discipline and punishment. I dunno about you, but me, I prefer what I like to think of as the real world: random, frustrating, but at the same time, full of wonder and orgasms.

More Stratton wisdom: when Flounder fucks up by trusting his frat brothers with his biological brother's car, Otter consoles him: "You can't spend your whole life worrying about your mistakes" (Frankly, I'm embarrassed to admit that I had to pay a guy just recently to convince me of this [although I do feel much better these days, either way]). And of course, when the Deltas are on the ropes, when the foot that is Dean Wormer finally comes down on them, it is the "futile and stupid gesture" of Otter's, the utter destruction of the homecoming parade (that ages-old symbol of all that is good and wholesome and mid-America), that makes everything okay.

Life is a futile and stupid gesture. Sure, you can play by the rules and end up raped or dead like the Omegas all eventually do. Or you can just have a good time, since things are all gonna work out okay anyways. Because even when things are at their bleakest, a good time can still be had.

Toga, I say to thee. Simply, Toga.