a bloody two-fer

In the last two weeks I saw some funny, bloody as hell stuff. One was of course MACHETE, Robert Rodriguez’s hilarious and fun-packed tribute to Danny Trejo and ’70s grindhouse revenge flicks. Like an early ’70s film, it’s not afraid to stick it to the man, this time skewering our ridiculous Catch-22 immigration policy. Danny Trejo gets the role of a lifetime as the biggest bad-ass Mexican Federale, so bad he just uses a huge Machete instead of a gun, for which he is so named. The movie wastes no time, introducing him as he’s about to use his police cruiser as a missile to take out Mexico’s biggest drug kingpin’s lair. But of course, he is betrayed and his family murdered, and three years later finds him as a day laborer in Texas.

As the Dude would say, “shit comes to light,” and after an immigrant-baiting politician played expertly by Robert DeNiro- fucks with the wrong Mexican, he goes on a rampage of revenge. He teams up with Michelle Rodriguez, fights Minutemen, and has a balls-out final battle that makes the campy, explosion-infested finale of DESPERADO seem outdone. Favorite kill? Crushing a redneck with a low-rider. The film never loses its low-budget look, but it also doesn’t try too hard, like parts of GRINDHOUSE did. Is it perfect? As a homage to these films we loved, like THE EXTERMINATOR, it succeeds spectacularly and transcends the films it pays tribute to. It kicks the ass of Stallone’s retro-action flick, as far as I’m concerned. We have a few moments of distraction, but overall we get everything we ask for- blood, booms, and boobies. Lindsay Lohan has a small, perfect role as a rich Paris Hilton wanna-be who turns into a vengeful Catholic valkyrie, and I give her credit for taking the part- and baring all for our benefit, in more ways than one. The media’s never forgiven her for becoming an adult woman, and I say: get over it. She’s not a Disney girl anymore. But moreso than her cameo, I loved De Niro’s W impression, as his Texas accent fades in and out. It was also great seeing Steven Seagal play a bad guy, a role that suits him.

MACHETE is leaving its mark: Firecracker and I went to see the Broadway musical BLOODY BLOODY ANDREW JACKSON and at one point, when the ridiculous, over the top spoof most reminiscent of Matt Stone & Trey Parker’s early masterpiece CANNIBAL: THE MUSICAL gets to Jackson’s skirmishes with the Spanish, one of the Spaniards opens his huge duster coat to reveal dozens of knives, just like Machete does in the trailer. I enjoyed this play a lot. It’s not perfect either; it starts off at 11, campy, crazy and goofy, and ends on a more serious note as Jackson’s populism catches up with him, and he is faced with “The Indian Question,” and becomes one of history’s greatest monsters by giving the people what they want.

I enjoyed the hell out of this musical, which seemed inspired by one of my favorites, EVIL DEAD: THE MUSICAL. It’s risque, ridiculous, and campy. Half the story is told by a narrator in a mechanical wheelchair who suffers all sorts of fourth wall abuses. Andrew Jackson is played like a rock star, including AC/DC style A/J logos on the drum set. The songs are raucous and clever, if not entirely memorable, but full of energy. They make comparisons to W’s administration, Obama’s difficulties with Congress, the Bush/Gore election debacle (because Jackson first lost by electoral votes, and was voted down by the Senate) but it’s not overtly political. Perhaps it should be. It ends on a downer, with Jackson’s joyous populism turning on him, as he must betray the Creek Indians who helped him peacefully move other tribes, and put forth the brutal policies that would lead to the Trail of Tears and other acts of genocide.

My only complaint is that this brave, relentlessly funny show didn’t even plumb deep enough into Jackson’s wikipedia entry for jokes. The best gags are often the hilariously idiotic portrayals of historical figures such as Martin Van Buren, John Calhoun, Henry Clay, and John Quincy Adams as foppish buffoons with Elizabethan collars, when Jackson led an unbelievable life. He fought 13 duels and was shot so many times they said “he rattled like a bag of marbles.” The man on our $20 bill with his flowing silver locks founded the Democratic party, which got its donkey symbol from his opponents calling him a jackass. Like the Republicans have gone a long way from their roots with Lincoln, the Democratic party has wandered far from Jackson’s genocidal populism, and that’s left untouched. But it’s a damn entertaining musical, much like a potty mouthed punk’s daydreams in history class, with a great sense of humor.

© 2010 Tommy Salami

movie compactor

To conserve paper, I have reviewed 5 recent movies in one post. With one week to the Oscars I still haven’t seen a few. I’m hoping to see The White Ribbon this weekend. Gonna skip Crazy Heart, as much as I like Jeff Bridges, because I saw Tender Mercies. But these are worth seeing:

Big Fan
Patton Oswalt as “that guy,” the face-painting home team obsessed freako who lives in mom’s basement and stays up late to rant on the local AM sports talk radio show. Oswalt once again shows his enormous range (you thought I was gonna say ass, didn’t you?) by totally becoming this role. Written and directed by the screenwriter of The Wrestler, we know to expect him to be a busted up shell of a man filling a hole in himself with his fanaticism. He sees his team’s quarterback one night and he and his buddy follow him to a strip club, and work up the guts to approach him. Things happen and he gets assaulted, and must decide just how much he’ll suffer for his home team. It’s a bit weak in the third act and ending, but as a character study it’s pretty gripping. This is one of the better films of last year that was sadly overlooked, and a fine first directorial effort for Onion alumnus Robert D. Siegel.

4 face-painters out of 5

Big Fan on Netflix

The Blind Side
This movie’s getting a lot of hate. Straight up: I enjoyed it. I think we’ve become accustomed to discounting uplifting fare as inherently shallow, and while it may be a stretch to nominate this for Best Picture, if Avatar is up there this has every right to be. The Hollywood take on Michael Oher’s rise to football stardom, this is a sports story with a deeply human element that is unafraid to tell us what we’re supposed to mean when we say “Christian charity.” The Tuohy family is rich; Mr. Tuohy is a former basketball superstar who now runs a gaggle of fast food franchises. The film obliquely points the finger at our millionaire sports heroes to perhaps give a little back, as Mrs. Tuohy- played with organic brilliance by Sandra Bullock, in what will hopefully be a controversial Oscar-winning performance that will bump Marisa Tomei’s win for My Cousin Vinny as the film snobs’ “least deserved award” category- decides to do the right thing and bring the practically-orphaned “Big Mike” Oher under her wing. This is old-school Hollywood storymaking, not unlike Slumdog Millionaire without Danny Boyle’s directorial strength. John Lee Hancock does a workmanlike job. He also wrote the screenplay, which to the real Michael Oher’s chagrin, makes him a sort of football oaf to begin with, when he was rather skilled by the time the Tuohys helped him. The real story is how they overcome their fear and saw Michael as a person, and shared their abundance of both the material and the emotional to make him part of their family. So what if it’s couched in a tale written for the demographic where both sexes love football from birth? It’s uplifting without being smarmy, and isn’t as simple as its critics claim it to be.

4 out of 5 ladies who lunch but also give back to their community

The Blind Side on Netflix

The Road
Adapting Cormac McCarthy is difficult but obviously possible; No Country for Old Men, anyone? This one’s not so easy, as much of the story is internalized. The screenplay veers from the source at times, to give us a female character to please the bean counters; I felt this was a distracting mistake. The story is simple- an unknown disaster has cut the shackles of civilization and returned man to his more bestial state, and a father resolves to protect his son from the ravages of cannibals and nature, so he may “carry the fire” of humanity, and bring hope to the bleak future. How does the world end? In this version we know it’s a bang, when it was left ambiguous before. Does it matter if it’s a whimper, or fire or ice? Not really, in the grand scheme of things. Humanity is consuming itself, literally. What the movie gets right is showing how the father- Viggo Mortensen- loses hope. How can he carry the fire when it has gone out inside him? Like Frank Darabont’s similar take with The Mist, the father’s protective drive has corrupted him. I found this a little too spoonfed, and I didn’t care for the flashbacks to the mother, though I see the parallels and contrasts director John Hillcoat (The Proposition) was making. My suggestion: see this first if you haven’t read the book yet, and let the book expand on it.

4 out of 5 long pig banquets

The Road on Netflix

Everybody’s Fine
Robert DeNiro plays a retired widower, who Harry Chapin was singing about in “The Cat’s in the Cradle.” He drove his children to be ambitious and worked hard while his wife handled family matters, and now that she’s gone, no one has time to visit. It surprised me by shifting alliances, showing the old man’s own flaws and how past wounds run deep. This one rises above the standard tearjerker, but never goes much further. Bobby is always endearing and is perhaps the perfect image of that sort of hard working family man who was always too tired to really give to his family, but I never really felt his sadness, like Jack Nicholson managed in the similar film About Schmidt. This was based on an Italian classic from the 90’s entitled Stanno tutti bene, starring the unequaled Marcello Mastroianni, and the new script has some nice touches. Bobby made PVC casing for telephone wires, and only talks on land lines (rather like Paulie from Goodfellas); his children are well played by Drew Barrymore, Sam Rockwell and Kate Beckinsale. At first they seem like the usual busy, ungrateful kids but bloom into real people. It’ll do well on cable.

3.5 out of 5 million miles of wire

Everybody’s Fine on Netflix

Food, Inc.
Are you eating? Might want to read this later. This should be for the modern food industry what Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle was for turn of the century sausage factories, but I doubt many people saw it. Like the lackluster dramatization Fast Food Nation, this documentary exposes the industrialized network of factory farms and how it accepts disease and death among us, its customers, to serve its bottom line. I bet you expect the FDA to protect you from this, but the fact is they were created to promote and protect “farmers” and “cattlemen,” who are now mostly large corporate conglomerates benefiting from government-sponsored local monopolies. We see the victims of E. coli poisoning from “undercooked” beef- which would be perfectly safe if it wasn’t contaminated with, you know, shit- and E. coli tainted vegetables infected from manure runoff, since these county-sized slaughterhouse operations can’t dispose of the cow shit, which could probably fill one of the Great Lakes. Don’t criticize them too loudly, for they are protected by Federal Law (just ask Oprah, who was prosecuted for saying she wouldn’t eat beef until we tested all our cattle for Mad Cow disease, which we still don’t).

Genetically Modified foods are explored as well; they concentrate on Monsanto, not for abstract fear of “frankenfood” as some call it, but for how they have patented life, cornered the market on soybeans, and made it illegal for farmers who purchase their seed to … plant the seeds that were naturally produced. Plants produce seeds; but you can only plant the ones you buy from Monsanto. Your food now comes with a service agreement. It’s an eye-opening documentary, and while I found The Cove important, this is more so. If you wonder why a McMuffin costs less than a head of broccoli, rent this and find out. And wash and cook your food thoroughly. To quote Fast Food Nation, “everybody has to eat a little shit sometime.” Dig in.

5 out of 5 grass-fed free range organic strip steaks, hold the E. coli

Food, Inc. on Netflix

© 2010 Thomas Pluck.

12 Angry Menses

I’ve been an angry panda lately. Work hasn’t “moved my cheese” to use that idiotic analogy, but they swapped gruyere for a particularly stinky brand of fromunda. I had to get my car repaired and it got delayed, I just got a traffic ticket- first in 15 years. So I’m trying to get like Peter from Office Space and let it all go, before I turn into Gollum and start raving about how I hate the tricksy Bagginses.

But there’s a place in the world for the angry young man, according to Mr. Joel. Here are my favorite dozen who make anger into an art form.

12. Michael Bolton in Office Space
We all like to think we’re righteous when we’re angry, but most of the time we’re just stressed out doofuses like Mike. Maybe we need to smash a printer with a baseball bat? Whatever it takes. No point in being miserable when you can take it out on inanimate objects. Just don’t play any music by that long-haired balladeer around him, or you might find your checking account drained.

11. Kevin Kline in A Fish Called Wanda

Don’t call him stupid. Otto may be a true vulgarian, and if you got the hots for Jamie Lee Curtis he’ll tell you to “pork away, pal!” but insulting his intellect will get you hung out of a window. Sure, he may think the central tenet of Buddhism is “every man for himself,” and Plato is that colorful clay you get in the toy section, but he’s a crack shot with both an insult and a silenced 9mm. Just don’t let him near your fish tank. Asshoooole!

10. Howard Beale in Network
He was mad as hell and he wasn’t gonna take it anymore! Don’t we all want to say that? Well, remember that at the end of the movie he gets shot to boost ratings. Everyone forgets that part. But he had a good run there, and he got his message across.

9. Samuel L. Jackson in anything
Admittedly I have a soft spot for Jules in Pulp Fiction, because he’s trying to deal with his anger. He’s tryin’ real hard to be the shepherd, and not the tyranny of evil men who shoot whiny little white boys. Dave Chapelle made a side business in goofing on how Jackson was always angry in his movies, and even in some of the really good and lesser known ones like The Caveman’s Valentine and The Red Violin, he’s got the angry face going on. Someday he’ll be as typecast as Pacino. Actually wouldn’t it be awesome if they switched parts, and Pacino had to get motherfuckin’ snakes off a motherfuckin’ plane, and Jackson got to be the Devil, or yell in court a lot?

8. Bobby De Niro in Midnight Run
“And I’ve got two words for you, shut the fuck up!” Jack Walsh is an angry bounty hunter. He’s an impatient man whose family doesn’t want to put up with him. Charles Grodin, whose shtick is being a grump, gives the best role of his career by letting Bobby be the angry guy, and drive him crazy. The only guy angrier in this is Dennis Farina, and…

7. Dennis Farina in Snatch.
Dennis Farina was so angry in Midnight Run that they brought him back as the angry mobster for Get Shorty, and then Snatch. He has a true gift at channeling rage from someplace in his bowels that no one should contemplate. Whether he’s threatening to stab someone in the heart with a fuckin’ pencil, or beating the shit out of Gene Hackman with a phone, or guzzling Alka-Seltzer while chasing a stolen diamond, he’s one of cinema’s best angry men. And take his advice, don’t go to England.

6. Momma from Throw Momma from the Train
Anne Ramsey was a classic, and there’ll never be another one like her. Whether she was putting Chuck’s hand in a blender in The Goonies or tormenting Billy Crystal and Danny De Vito here, her gravelly voice was an unforgettable part of the ’80s. Here she’s the grumpiest old woman alive, and you’d better not bring her the unsalted peanuts. They make her choke.

5. Steve Martin in Planes, Trains and Automobiles

Steve Martin used to be funny too, and this is one of his funniest movies. The scene at the car rental desk is a classic, and his apoplectic rage at John Candy never fails to make me smile. Just watch the video, he looks like he’s about to explode into a fireball and destroy the rental lot..

4. Jack Nicholson in The Shining
This has entered the national consicousness for the crazy “Here’s Johnny!” scene, but the rise up to it is so much better. “Wendy… love of my life… I’m not gonna hurt ya. I’m just gonna bash your brains in. Bash ’em right-the-fuck-in.” Scatman Crothers didn’t have a chance, and he was Hong Kong Phooey, number one superdog. Nicholson’s been angry before, as a pissy pianist in Five Easy Pieces who carves a waitress a new asshole, and since, as the Colonel in A Few Good Men, when he told us we can’t handle the truth. But Jack Torrance will always be what he’s remembered for most. He axed his way into our hearts.

3. Ed Norton in 25th Hour

This is more hate than anger, but he certainly hit a nerve because this scene is every white trash Brooklyn boy’s favorite. When you fuck up and there’s no one to blame but yourself, and the fury bubbles from your belly looking for someone to blame, this is the ultimate portrayal of what happens when you want to take it out on the world (or at least New York City).

2. Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada
Angry isn’t always about histrionics. Angry women in cinema are usually cold, seething pots of rage. (Maybe it’s dry ice in the pot, so it can be cold. So don’t fuck with my horrible metaphor). In this movie she’s a demanding boss from hell, but she knows what she wants. Whether it’s a Smith & Wollensky steak or an advance proof of a Harry Potter book, you’d better be shitting her Tiffany cufflinks or her eyes will bore holes through your abdomen and make your innards spill out onto your cheap shoes.

1. R. Lee Ermey in Full Metal Jacket

I don’t think a drill instructor is really that angry- it’s an act to break you down. But Gunnery Sergrant Hartmann has enough rage to power several large cities in this movie. The man is a nuclear power plant of fury, he’s like if you distilled Phil Silvers into a form of heroin, and R. Lee Ermey speedballs it with snorts of powdered Tony Montana from Scarface. Even as an old man, he’s terrifying onscreen. It’s worse now that he has eyebrows like angry badgers snarling from his brow.

Okay now you might have your own favorites but these are mine. Who’s your favorite angry person?

The Winter of Frankie Machine

I recently finished this short novel by Don Winslow and I was duly impressed. Take the humor of the Sopranos, the gritty crime drama of Thief, and move it all to the fresh landscape of San Diego, which hasn’t been played out as a mob city. Frankie Machianno is an old surfer dude who runs the pier’s bait shop, and has a seafood business among the local restaurants. While not exactly a pillar of the community, he’s a well-liked member of it.

But in another life, he was Frankie Machine, a sniper in Vietnam and a legendary hitter for the mob. And as these stories go, someone now wants him dead. But they should have let sleeping dogs lie…

It was a great quick read, a cut above most thrillers and quite funny at times. Winslow has the Italian-American life and lingo down pat, from agita to the obsession over sauce and other little touches of authenticity. It reminded me a bit of older Elmore Leonard, because Frankie Machine is one resourceful old sonofabitch; but he’s no Johnny Sixpack up against the mob, he’s one of their own, and one of the best. A clever hit gets put out on him, and he has to delve into his past to find out why. I don’t want to give away the twists and turns, which are surprises without being too outlandish.

Overall, it’s a gripping thriller with enough character and background to keep it from being one of those “airport paperbacks” that you buzz through and forget about the next day. In fact, it’s being made into a movie next year by Michael Mann, with Bobby DeNiro playing the lead. When I read it, I thought of Ed Harris as the lead, but soon the late Roy Scheider seemed perfect for it. Resurrection being beyond the skills of modern science, Bobby D will do a decent job. Mike Pella, Frankie’s buddy from the old days, is so easily imagined as Joe Pesci that I hope the two get together again, though it’s probably not the best idea.

Originally Marty Scorsese was attached to direct.

I imagine the surfing will be cut out of the movie, unless DeNiro goes back to his old ways of getting into character and learns how to surf a longboard. It’s not an integral part of the tale, but it is part of what makes Frankie Machine a fresh and interesting character. We all know East Coast mob guys with a big tripe and Cadillac. Let’s have an old surfer dude this time. We can forgive Bobby his accent, but I hope he drops it for a California one. He did it for Cape Fear, though I’m afraid that was a long time ago. If Michael Mann can whip a fine performance out of him again, we’ll have a great crime movie to watch next year. In fact, if he looks like he did in that picture, it would be perfect.