Sunday, July 19, 2015

It's Twelve O'clock Somewhere...Pineapple Cinnamon Margarita

Today I am here to share a super delicious cocktail, a Pineapple Cinnamon Margarita, but first you will have to listen to my rambling story about how it was made and what it makes me think of when I drink it.  Skip to the bottom for the recipe if that's how you roll.

Most of my friends couldn't believe I had never been to New York City.  I finally had the chance to visit October 2013, with my brother, D, in a whirlwind, one day trip.  We took the train from Philly, where he lives, and left late that evening.  We walked the High Line, ate pizza in the Village, took the subway to Central Park and gawked at Times Square.  We ended the night in a terrible/wonderful quintessential New York Italian restaurant.  It was awesome.

November 2014, freezing at Battery Park. 

November 2014.
Now that I had the taste of New York, I desperately wanted to go back with K.  As my brother and I walked Central Park on an unseasonably warm October day, I saw all these couples walking together and felt an intense sadness.  I was so happy to see this place with my brother, but I missed K and knew we had to come here together ASAP.  As luck would have it, my parents wanted to spend Thanksgiving in Philadelphia, so in November of 2014, K and I spent the week before Thanksgiving exploring New York.

And we loved it.  We walked the High Line, froze in Central Park, walked down Fifth Avenue and gawked at the Christmas decor.  We went to dive bars in the Village and spotted Ethan Hawke (it was like a dream guys, seriously.  Do you know how much I love the Before trilogy? I saw Jesse!), ate at Momofuku and saw David Chang in the window, walked across the Brooklyn Bridge on an unseasonably warm day.

February 2015, The Citizen M Lobby.  
But, I'm not here to talk about either of those times.  Instead, I am here to share a cocktail with you we discovered on our last trip to New York in February.  We were in town to see Hedwig and the Angry Inch on Broadway (you can find my thoughts about that amazing night here).  When we visited last year, we expected cold weather and save for the first day, it was actually quite warm.  Not so much in February.  Central Park was frozen with snow and everyday we layered on our sweaters and coats and hats and gloves, etc.  Our first trip, we stayed in Tribeca, in a tiny boutique hotel.  This time, wanting to be close to the theatre for the big night, we stayed at the Citizen M close to Time Square.  The Citizen M is an amazing hotel; super modern and Euro, with pod like rooms that are marvels of efficiency and design.  The rooms have an extra large bed that is right next to the window, so you have to crawl over each other to get in and out.  The shower and toilet are in a spaceship like capsule in the middle of the room with mood lighting.  The whole room is controlled by a tablet, you can dim the lights and change the "mood lighting" of the bathroom capsule that lights up the whole room.  It was probably the smallest room I have ever stayed in but it didn't feel cramped, in fact, the storage was great, our luggage was stowed away and there is a huge drawer under the bed for clothes as well as hanging storage.  The lobby is a gorgeous, living room space with a bustling bar and an international crowd.  The rooftop bar is for guests only and completely stunning.

More Citizen M, courtyard.
Despite my begging, K and I didn't end up at the bar the first night of our trip.  We went to dinner at Le Relais de Venise, a steak frites palace from France with outposts in New York and London. They didn't have medium rare, my preferred choice, so I had my steak bleu and discovered how much I love red meat.  Also, I saw my first man bun, so that was exciting.  Afterwards, K and I wandered into Grand Central Station and then found the Belasco Theatre, where we would see Hedwig.  The next day we wandered Central Park, ate pizza at Lombardi's and shopped in Soho.  After dinner in the Village, we ended up in the worst bar in New York, truly.  It was a gross pub that was horror themed, the only place in the Village on a Friday that was only packed, not completely packed.  After the girl who sold jello shots came around, K and I, split (look, I love a dive bar too, but jello shots were too much, plus I needed my Big Gay Ice Cream fix, and what better time to go then on a freezing cold night at 10 p.m.).  When K and I got back to the Citizen M, we wandered upstairs to the rooftop bar.  It was bustling and the views were incredible.  They had these delicious cheese crisps that I couldn't stop eating.  And I ordered some unforgettable drink for my first round.  But the second round, I got the Pineapple Cinnamon Margarita, and it was delicious.

The beloved Rooftop Bar.
We returned to the bar every night for the next two nights, for a nightcap. Saturday was show day and so we didn't do much; wandered a frozen Central Park, ate at an incredibly crowded Shack Shack and returned to the hotel to primp.  We ended up at the Rum Bar for before show drinks and were excited to discover it was featured in the movie Birdman, a movie neither of us loved, but as cinephiles, its  always a fun moment to realize something was filmed where you are.   After the show, I wandered in a daze to The Hourglass Tavern, the carefully chosen restaurant for that night.   Times Square is not known for great food, so I had debated heartily where to go on this very special night, that wasn't too expensive but also wasn't too far away.  We went to a funny little house, where I was so excited I could barely eat.  The table next to us was a fun party of, well their isn't any other way to describe it, old theatre queens.  One of them immediately seized on K and I and proceeded to tease us all night, showing me a crazy picture of his wedding and trying to buy us more drinks.  The food wasn't great, but the atmosphere, and company, was, and I couldn't eat anyway.  Sunday, it snowed all day and after a walk around  the Village in the snow, we decided to retreat to the crappy pub next to our hotel and day drink until our dinner reservation and the long awaited Rubirosa.  I say long awaited because on our first trip to New York, I made a reservation for the wrong days and we couldn't get in.  Luckily this time it exceeded expectations.  Each night K and I debated trying a new bar, but each night, the freezing temperatures deterred us and we returned to our rooftop.  Saturday it was crowded and Sunday it was dead, but each time K and I had fun laughing, eating cheese crisps and walking around the balcony, in the freezing cold.  We sat on the big couches, and talked about our day and looked into the city.  It was lovely, a great way to decompress each night and relax, plus K and I love having a "local" even if its only for a few days.  And when we came home, I knew I had to recreate this drink.

Each time I drink it, it brings me back to the magic of New York.  The pineapple is sweet and the cinnamon is warm and cozy, with the sharp hit of the tequila always in the background.  It is actually a great year round drink, in the winter, the cinnamon has a cozy, holiday taste, in the summer, the pineapple brings out the tropical, Tiki spirit.  This is a drink that requires preparation, but it is incredibly easy.  Cinnamon Simple Syrup must be made in advance, but I do my regular one part sugar, two parts water formula and simply throw in a couple cinnamon sticks.  By the time it is cool and ready to be jarred, the cinnamon has infused wonderfully.  Everything else is a pretty typical margarita, with pineapple in addition to the ever important lime juice.

Pineapple Cinnamon Margarita

1.5 oz Tequila (I have used Blanco and Gold, either is fine
I think I slightly prefer the darker in this margarita)
.5 oz Orange Liqueur
1 oz Pineapple Juice
1 oz Cinnamon Simple Syrup
1 Lime, Juiced

Shake it and serve on the rocks!  Garnish with pineapple.

Drink it and dream of New York.


Wednesday, June 3, 2015

Le Femme on….Hedwig on Broadway

"Bucket list" is not one of my favorite terms.  I find it silly. But I find the idea behind it decidedly un-silly  Some of my dreams I am pretty sure will happen; I will go on an African Safari someday and go in a hot air balloon.  But some of them are more unlikely: I will probably never attend the Oscars or own an apartment in Paris or live in London.  Recently, I looked over at K and said, "it sounds corny, but this was a dream come true".  And you know what, he didn't even make fun of me because he knew I was right.

Hedwig and the Angry Inch is my favorite movie, and I have written about it on this blog before.  But before it was a movie, it was an off-Broadway play.  And so, when it was announced that Hedwig was coming to Broadway, K and I debated about going.  But, Neil Patrick Harris was going to be Hedwig, and although I love NPH, I couldn't justify the cost to see him because I knew I might feel disappointed.  John Cameron Mitchell, the originator of the role and the star of the movie was, is, and will always be, my Hedwig.  Michael C. Hall was playing Hedwig when K and I were in New York in November.   Six Feet Under is possibly my favorite television show ever.  But again, my worlds were colliding.  I didn't know if I could see David Fisher as Hedwig.  So we didn't go see the show.  I wasn't sure if I would regret it or not.  And then, late last year,  it was announced that JCM himself would be reviving the role, and I knew that I would do anything to see him, including selling a kidney or one of my dogs to get there (sorry guys).  Luckily, K agreed and we were on our way at the end of February.

We arrived on Thursday, but we wouldn't see the show until Saturday, and so I made multiple pilgrimages to the Belasco Theatre before the show.  The first was to make sure we could find it easily; the second was because I wanted to see it at night; and the third was embarrassingly for K to take pictures of me in front of it.  But eventually, Saturday night rolled around and we were ready.

The Belasco is small, with only about 1,000 seats.  And they were tiny and uncomfortable, but as  we settled into our seats, my excitement started to grow.  I looked at the program, the unmistakable yellow Playbill marquee across the top, and I wanted to pinch myself.  I had never seen a Broadway show, and here I was about to see my first show, my favorite show.  And then at 7:00 p.m. on the dot, on February 28, 2015, the lights went down.  I wish I could explain what I felt when John Cameron Mitchell was lifted onto the stage in a glittery costume resembling a religious icon, that wicked Hedwig smile, unmistakably lighting up his face.  I could feel my own cheeks stinging with the size of my smile.

Hedwig is essentially a one man/woman show.  The story is simple: Hedwig, a wannabe rock star who was jilted by her young, recently discovered rock star and lover, Tommy Gnosis, is playing a one night only engagement.  See, Hedwig wrote all of Tommy's hits, and Tommy is playing the last night of his tour next door.  So Hedwig is going to throw him some major shade and share the story of how she created him.  But she's also going to tell us the story of her life.  We learn that Hedwig is the victim of a botched sex change operation that she didn't want in the first place (hence the Angry Inch).  In order to marry her American G.I. lover, Hansel, the boy Hedwig was, had to undergo a sex change operation to escape Germany.  After ending up in Junction City, Kansas, she meets a young boy, Tommy, and tries to start over and starts writing music and creating songs with him.  Hedwig thinks she may have found happiness, her other half, the person to complete her.  And once Tommy leaves her, she takes out all her anger on her new husband, Yitzhak, her backup singer who craves the spotlight she just won't give up. 

The infamous Carwash.
Hedwig basically involves John Cameron Mitchell, as Hedwig, talking to the audience, sharing Hedwig's story, interspersed with performances with Hedwig's band, The Angry Inch.  The show lives and dies with the lead.  And JCM did not disappoint; he was engaging and funny and melancholy.  The week before he had been out with a bum leg and had to perform in a leg brace.  That meant that he couldn't dance as energetically as I was expecting and he couldn't give an audience member the infamous "car wash".  A Car Wash is when Hedwig leaps of stage and puts his crotch in the face of an unsuspecting audience member (see the above GIF).  But the leg brace actually added something interesting to his performance.  Hedwig added a story about how she was attacked by Michael C. Hall (who had replaced JCM during his absence) which everyone in the audience loved.  Yitzhak (Lena Hall) also brought Hedwig a crate to rest her leg on and every time she would move she would yell "Crate!"  It added another layer to the incredibly one sided and abusive relationship between Hedwig and Yitzhak and some surprising poignancy.  Mitchell's voice was strong and beautiful. The songs sounded exactly how I expected but he still surprised me with his performance.  He sounded like Hedwig, slightly androgynous, Broadway, punk rock all mixed into one.  He was unfailingly enthusiastic and heartbreaking.  The story is one I know so well but he brought it to life for me all over again.  In the movie I saw Hedwig's bitterness at Tommy for leaving her, but in his performance I saw the earth shattering tragedy of Hedwig's life.

Although I knew what to expect from JCM, I didn't know what to expect the show to look like.  When Hedwig was originally staged off Broadway, I believe it was just him and the band with minimal sets.  One of the aspects that makes the film so incredible is how cinematic he made the story, how varied the sets and were and how kinetic the energy was.  At the Belasco, we walked in and saw a bizarre looking set, an old car was in the middle of the stage, seemingly crashed or ruined.  A middle eastern city made up the backdrop.  Of course, there was the drum kit and instruments for the band, but I was definitely confused.  As we sat in our seats, we had an additional playbill sitting in our seats, "The Hurt Locker: The Musical".  WTF?  As we learned within minutes of Hedwig taking the stage, the conceit was that this musical had closed and she had one night at the theatre to tell her story with the old sets still intact.  Bizarre, but completely fitting with the charm of Hedwig.  In the film, during the amazing "The Origin of Love", gorgeous and evocative animation is seen, illustrating the story being told.  You could imagine my delight when, as this song began, a mesh, screen came down over the stage, and different, but equally beautiful animation began.  You could still see Hedwig still the see through screen and JCM would gesture or interact with the animation.  It was magical.

The last twenty minutes of Hedwig the film is a kinetic, overwhelming, non stop musical number.  Hedwig, having finally achieved some fame, or infamy, begins performing a sad song in a nightclub ("Hedwig's Lament"), that morphs into an aggressive punk song ("Exquisite Corpse"), that then morphs into her breaking down and running out of the club.  The door to that club leads to Tommy's concert where he sings to her which then leads to a gorgeous white room where Hedwig, out of drag, sings a final farewell.  It is so difficult to explain what Hedwig on Broadway did during this sequence but I will try.  The film uses certain techniques to disorient the viewer during the "Exquisite Corpse" part of the song, such as split screen, animation and strobe lights.  When the production at the Belasco did the same thing, projecting animation and split screens behind the stage and having absolutely insane amount of strobe lights, I began to have the strangest sensation.  I suddenly felt like I was in my favorite movie.  Like, I was a participant in this world that I loved.  When Hedwig began the final, amazing song, "Midnight Radio",  I realized my heart was pounding and I had been holding my breath.  I had thought I would burst into tears the moment I saw JCM come on stage but instead I couldn't stop grinning.  But in that moment, listening to the last, gorgeous anthem, knowing this experience was over, this once in a lifetime dream, I have to admit, I started to cry.  And I was so happy.

After leaving the theatre, I felt euphoric, elated, and excited.  We walked out of the theatre and through Time Square, which is usually a nightmare with the bright lights and terrifying people in costumes.  I felt like I was flatting through it, and the lights seemed celebratory instead of gaudy.  It was one of the most perfect nights of my life and I was so happy to have K by my side.  Its not everyday you have a dream come true.  Now, to work on that African safari….


Saturday, April 4, 2015

La Femme Recommends….Jealousy

While it may not be comfortable for an amateur film critic to admit, I have always been vulnerable to the lure of celebrity and prestige.  And hot guys.  My longest and most vital cinematic crush has been Louis Garrel. Ever since I saw him in The Dreamers, I have been a fan girl for him.   I am not embarrassed to admit that I have watched/slogged/suffered/enjoyed movies simply for the joy of seeing my french dream guys face.  I think admiration, desire, that giddy joy one gets from seeing someone they find utterly beautiful, onscreen is one of the great joys of cinema.  Movie star crushes are  one of cinemas most essential pleasures and connection and shouldn't be discounted.  Silly they mean seem, but movies wouldn't be the same without beautiful movie stars and their swooning fans.

Louis Garrel's face is interesting and Gallic and some might call him ugly.  He has a big nose, a fivehead, and moles on his face.  In films and in life he usually wears over sized collared white shirts.  His hair is unruly to the point of looking nearly unkempt.   But all of those things that others find dirty or unattractive or strange, I like (no wonder I call him Monsieur Dirty Hot).  I have always liked a little bit of ugly in my pretty.  And Louis has it.  His hair, unkempt as it is,  may be the greatest to ever grace the silver screen.  It's lush and dark and messy in that impossibly perfect, natural way.  He has a big nose, but it fits his face, and his face is like a Roman statue.  As for his acting skills: one of my favorite critics once called him "indefatigably gormless" and another that I respect, when talking about a surprise cameo he had in literally the last frame of a film said, "Also , Louis Garrel is in the movie, but the movie ends seconds after he appears, which is how all movies featuring Louis Garrel should work". Dessolez Les Haters.   I would say that moment is a perfect heartthrob moment, and Louis definitely doesn't give us many of those.  It showed a great awareness and humor about his persona.  Louis is a subtle performer and he has suffered by never pushing himself outside of his comfort zone, but he has a magnetic screen presence and does that suffering french lover thing, oh, so perfectly.    

Phillipe Garrel isn't just Louis' father. he is in fact a respected filmmaker in his own right.  I have watched multiple P. Garrel  joints only to see that Gallic God that is Louis.  And I have also subjected my poor husband to it.  Regular Lovers was so long and boring, I'm sorry.  And Frontier of Dawn was intriguing for half of it until the electroshock therapy(?!) and then in the last five minutes.  I skipped A Burning Hot Summer even though it had the burning hot Monica Bellucci.  But Philippe's last movie, Jealously was on Netflix streaming and it was only an  hour and fifteen minutes.  And it had Louis.

Phillipe Garrel's films always have fairly simple plots and Jealously is no exception.  The film opens with Louis (this is also his character name.  P. Garrel is big into autobiography in his film) leaving his wife, which is witnessed through a key hole by his daughter, Charlotte.  Louis moves in with his depressive, husky voiced lover, Claudia (Anna Mouglalis).  Both of them betray each other to varying degrees.  We see jealously in all of its forms.  Someone contemplates suicide.  Love is torture.  Etc.  This is pretty much the story of all of the Phillipe Garrel movies I've seen, I think they could all be named "Only Love Can Hurt Like This."  Sounds fun, right?

But at the end of those 80 minutes, I was shocked.  I didn't feel like I wanted to die.  In fact, I kind of liked Jealousy.   It didn't have the oppressive sadness of the other films.  And it looked gorgeous.  And it had a semblance of humor.  It confirms every stereotype you may have had about the French.  That they are cheaters and liars and revel in it or at the very least don't seem to care. That they love baguettes, wear stripes and smoke like chimneys.  But it also has the deep feeling of love that only French people seem to have.  Do you know what I mean, where they declare their love and it seems so serious and so deep and so sexy that you almost swoon and think, oh my god, I want to live in a freezing garret?!  It also has this great warmth, because Louis has this adorable daughter who seems to be an archetype of French childhood.  She wears a striped sweater and asks existential questions.  She is sweet and charming and adorable and heartbreaking.  And even though Phillipe leaves us with that notion that romantic love is fleeting and can only lead to deep unhappiness, this time he gives an alternative.  Paternal love: the real love story at the heart of the film is between father and daughter.   Louis thinks he can't love anyone more than Claudia;  but in the end he realizes that that feeling will pass and the deepest love he will ever feel is for his child.  Its sweet but not in a treacly way.

Anna Mouglais is fantastic as Claudia.  She has this voice that is so deep it almost sounds fake.  But it is so unbelievably sensual and tragic that you completely understand why our protagonist is so taken with her. She may be the other woman, and in some ways the villain of the film, but she is imbued with such humanity in the performance that your heart bleeds for her. Louis has charm on his side in this film.  His scenes with Olga Milshtein as Charlotte are super charming and natural.  He has a natural, easy charisma.  The scene where he chastely holds a stranger's hand in a movie theatre is maybe the sexiest thing you will see all year.   His performance is earthy and confident, and much more mature than anything I've seen him in.

This surprised and heartened me.  Every love story between two adults in P. Garrel's  films ends in tragedy and no one seems particularly happy to be with that person. I swear, I have never seen lovers in his films smile or have fun together.  They always seem on the verge of tears. Louis and Claudia aren't really that different.  She can't find a job and cheats on him when he leaves town for a night.  He kisses his costar and seems indifferent to Claudia's suffering.  Those kind of characters can make it hard to invest in their relationship  But what P. Garrel slyly does it make both characters sympathetic when your first instinct is to detest both of them.  Louis may be a philandering jerk but he genuinely loves his daughter and gets joy from being with her.  Claudia may be insecure and emotionally distant but she dotes on Charlotte and makes friends with Louis' sister.  Charlotte is the glue that holds the film together, she makes us look at all of the characters in a better light.  That may be because in this film, Louis isn't his father's conduit, Charlotte is.  We are seeing the action from the perspective he had when Louis' grandfather, Maurice left his family.   I always felt that Phillipe seemed so hard on Louis, making him play unsympathetic characters who ultimately died horrible deaths but with Jealousy there is a real tenderness that was unexpected and deeply felt.

Its funny, I watched the movie because of my crush on Louis, I'm not afraid to admit it.  And I didn't have much respect for Phillipe as a director.  His films always look fantastic but seem so remote and almost parodies of what people think art films, or particularly French films are.  After watching Jealousy, my love for Louis is as strong as ever but I also gained just a little bit of respect and admiration for his crazy dad.


Saturday, March 21, 2015

It's Twelve O'Clock Somewhere….Meyer Lemon Rum Sour

It may be the first days of spring but winter citrus is insane right now and if you aren't using it in your cocktails, you are missing out.  Honestly, you can get Meyer Lemons all year round, but they are best and most cost effective in the winter.  Meyer Lemons are the sweet and tart love child of lemons and oranges and are amazing for cooking.  But lets be honest, they are better for cocktails.  Much better.

As long time readers may know (hahahahahaha, yes, I have been delinquent with this blog, so thanks Dad for sticking with me!) I love rum and one of the first cocktails I ever featured on this blog was a rum sour.  There are multiple reasons I have given up on my beloved rum sour, at least one of them being that I no longer can stand the taste of bottled sour mix.  The other being an unfortunate night playing the Pitch Perfect Drinking Game on Lopez with my family.  But I digress, the point is, that a sour can still be a delicious cocktail, you just need to use citrus and simple syrup instead.

You can make simple syrup lots of different ways.  Depending on the ratio, you can have a thicker or a thinner syrup.  I like two parts water to one part sugar because I don't like it too thick.  All you do is boil it until the sugar dissolves.  I keep a jar on hand at all times.  You can also infuse it with herbs or citrus or just about anything to make a flavored simple syrup.  Actually Meyer lemon rind would be great in this simple syrup to pump up that lemon flavor even more

For this particular cocktail, I use golden rum or spiced rum and mix it with Meyer Lemon and simple syrup.  Plus a splash of Cointreau or Triple Sec or my new favorite orange liquor, Patron Citronage orange liqueur.  Its simple but delicious.  And fleeting, which makes it taste even better.

Meyer Rum Sour

2 oz Golden Rum
Juice of 2 Meyer Lemons
3/4 oz Simple Syrup
Splash of Orange Liquer (I use the good stuff!)

Shake vigorously in your favorite shaker.  Unlike most sours I enjoy this up!  Garnishing is optional but strongly recommended with some of that gorgeous Meyer Lemon rind.


Tuesday, January 13, 2015

La Femme Recommends…The Babadook

I am a self confessed scaredy cat but I couldn't resist checking out The Babadook, Jennifer Kent's debut film that none other than William Friedkin, director of The Excoricst (a movie I am too scared to watch!) called one of the scariest movies he'd seen.  Psychological horror, a creepy kid and a top hatted demon with a fun name? I'm in!

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a widow who has a thankless job at a nursing home.  She also has a terror of a son, Sam.  All day she takes care of people at her job and then comes home to Sam demanding her complete attention.  He is convinced that there are monsters surrounding him and builds traps for them all over her house, he shrieks, he gets kicked out of school.  Basically, he is a nightmare.  Poor Amelia seems to barely be making it through each day.  Then one night a mysterious  pop up book shows up in his room telling the story of "Mr. Babadook".  Mr. Babadook is a demon who you just can't get rid of, he has a big top hat and fangs and a long coat.  Of course, this terrifies Sam whose behavior only gets worse.  But once she has read him the book, strange things start happening.  I won't say much more about the plot but you can use your imagination to the places it goes.

Only what you imagine may not be exactly what happens.  Jennifer Kent uses sounds and the skill of her actors to great effect in showing us Mr. Babadook.  Many scenes we don't even see or hear anything, but the actors show us that they think something is there.  It was evident that her budget was very small but she was incredibly inventive in thinking of ways to creep out the viewer.  I mean, she basically made a red covered book a terrifying object that I don't want anywhere near me!  At times we aren't sure if the Babadook is real or fake or in the house or in one or more of the characters minds but the tone is so consistent throughout and the movie veers from psychological to supernatural horror and back again seamlessly.
Why do horror movies always have adorable pets?

Perhaps the most interesting part of the film is the way she switches up the viewers perception of the characters.  At first, you can't help but sympathize with Amelia and almost hate Sam.  Noah Wiseman is wonderful in this role, irritating and grating at first but later in the film we see his true love for his mom and his compassion shine through.  Without spoiling much I will say that Essie Davis' performance is a true wonder.  She goes from hero to villain to hero without missing a beat and takes you with her on Amelia's journey into madness.

I don't know if in the end The Babadook ended up scaring me as much as I was worried it would.  But more importantly than being scared is being engrossed and intrigued by a film and The Babadook definitely did both.  But don't be bringing me any kids story books anytime soon.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

La Femme's Top Five…Under the Radar Horror

Last year for Halloween I wrote about five movies that scare me a lot.  This year, I want to write about five more, but I am shying away from Freddy and Jason and Michael and Leatherface.  Instead I am focusing on movies that aren't as well known and maybe even not horror at all but all had images that make me scared in the middle of the night.  Not all of them are super scary, as a horror movie wimp, I shy away from anything too extreme, but I think any of these would make an excellent Halloween night choice! Four out of five of them are available on Netflix Instant!

1.  Kill List (Ben Wheatley, 2011):  I have written about this movie before on this very blog and nearly two years after seeing it, the imagery of this movie still terrifies me.  The film follows incompetent hit man and father who is just trying to take care of his family.  And it ends…well that’s the thing, Kill List has the most shocking, bizarre and unsettling ending of any movie I've seen.  The story starts out quite mundane almost in a typical way, in the realist style, kitchen sink look, with Jay (Neil Maskell) and his mate Gal (Michael Smiley) taking on the fateful, final job before getting out of this killing business for good.  Jay may or may not have committed some kind of atrocity while serving in the army and that may or may not be why he is picked for this job, to kill three people.  Wheatley builds the tension exquisitely as the hits start to go wrong, and get weird and the viewer never really knows exactly what happening.  There are demonic symbols and foreboding figures and a atmospheric and eerie play fight with his son, which feels like foreshadowing but you can’t pinpoint how. Once the first man on the kill list thanks Jay before he shoots him, you know things are going to get worse.  As Jay and Gal try to explicate themselves from this job, the sense that something terrible is going to happen only builds.  And boy does something terrible happen.  Once the hit men encounter the druid / occult / satanic group that hired them, well I will leave it at that.  A slow burn that explodes.

2.  Entrance (Patrick Horvath and Dallas Hallam, 2011):  I think the theme of this top five actually could have been slow burning horror because Entrance is another perfect example of a sense of dread building and building and finally exploding in one virtuoso ending.  Whereas Wheately is more Kubrick, Horvath and Hallam are more Dardenne brothers, following our protagonist, Suziey (I almost want to refuse to spell it that obnoxious way), over her shoulder observing her everyday, very boring life.  Suziey has moved to L.A. and made a few friends but mostly she is lonely and isolated.  She spends her days walking (which in L.A. is strange in itself) and is threatened by men following her around, or are they?  Her paranoia seems misplaced but as a woman I can definitely relate to that fear.  We see a car slow down next to her on an empty road, she hears footsteps behind her, is it harmless or a threat?  After her beloved dog goes missing and she begins to feel more and more anxiety in the city, she decides to move home to the Midwest.  Throughout the film, there is a sustained eeriness and tension, a threat that Suziey and the viewer can’t quite put her finger on.  At her going away party, the power goes out briefly and s*&t gets real we see what has been going on the whole time.  Again, I will refrain from spoiling but the last twenty or so minutes of the film are a single, fluid take and manages to be terrifying and emotional and the last shot is strangely beautiful.

3. Witchfinder General (Michael Reeves, 1968):  I am going to say that Witchfinder General is kind of silly, it’s a Hammer horror film for god sakes.  A small budget, medieval setting, lusty wenches and Vincent Price?  A combination for a good time maybe but a truly scary film, probably not.  But again, the ending has really stuck with me for the last few years and the general tone of the movie.   Vincent Price is the "witchfinder", Michael Hopkins, who goes from village to village torturing and killing women who have confessed to be witches and exploiting the fears of the townspeople.  Price, casts an intimidating but slightly silly form, but still, a megalomaniac.  But as the film goes on, the viewer can see how serious he takes the slightly silly material and the movie takes a dark turn.  Hopkins and his henchman capture and torture a local priest.  His young and beautiful niece offers herself to Hopkins in order to save her uncle.  Instead she is brutally raped by the Igor like henchmen and Hopkins rejects her and executes her uncle.  After the execution of the priest, the young girls soldier fiancĂ© vows revenge and goes after Hopkins.  The inevitable showdown at the end of the movie is almost as f*#&ed up as the aforementioned Kill List, a haunting vision of murder and madness.

4. The House of the Devil:  (Ti West, 2009): Ti West uses the hallmarks of 1980’s horror films to, you guessed it, build exquisite and nail biting tension in this satanic take on the babysitter alone in the house film.  Samantha (Jocelin Donahue) is completely broke and in order to pay for her schooling she takes a job “babysitting” a bed ridden woman in a extremely isolated and extremely creepy house.  Greta Gerwig, my current favorite indie darling, appears as the nosey and skeptical best friend and Tom Noonan is effectively unsettling as the man who hires Samantha. Donahue is pretty forgettable as Samantha, I mean if you have Gerwig, use her, but the atmosphere distracts enough from her uninspired performance.  The standout sequence is when Samantha dances around the house listening to her walk-man, not quite realizing what is behind every door she nearly opens (you will never think of the song that plays, "One Thing Leads to Another" the same way!).  West effectively conjures up the fear of isolation and strangers perfectly and leaves you creeped out at the very last scene (obviously I have a thing for last scenes, in horror movies, I think a shock ending is the way to leave a lasting impression, especially for me, since I have my hands over my eyes half the time anyway!).  A perfect amalgam of haunted house and slasher movies with a bit of Rosemary’s Baby thrown in for good measure, House of the Devil is definitely not a movie I will be revisiting any time soon and on this list, that’s the highest compliment I can pay a film.

5. You’re Next (Adam Wingard, 2013):  You’re Next is a clever and nasty little movie, house invasion story that doesn’t shy away from gore and bloody and creative ways to kill people.  The story begins on an ominous and tongue in cheek note with a man and his much younger, much nuder girlfriend post coitus.  As she mopes around (shirtless, of course, this is a nod to slasher films) he showers.  We can guess what happens next.  As he emerges from the shower he finds You’re Next written in blood.  This isn’t a particularly scary movie but the you’re next motif was certainly the most effective scare of the movie.  And it comes back, just let me tell you.  We then move onto the neighbors, a beautiful country mansion.  The family is arriving to celebrate the parent's anniversary, four children and their significant others.  Tensions are palpable between the siblings, their spouses and the parents, everyone is whinging and .  At first I thought the movie was too mean spirited with the viewer hoping to see the unsympathetic characters killed.  But quickly Erin (Sharni Vinson), girlfriend of Crispian, slightly chubby college professor,  emerges as the prototypical final girl and we have someone to root for and hopefully save the incompetent family. I also got a kick out of seeing Joe Swanberg, indie director in the flesh; he is appropriately smarmy as the eldest brother. There is a twist that I saw coming from a mile away and I didn’t like the egregious and mean spirited last shot but overall You’re Next is a fun dissection of the horror genre that follows the formula but also keeps it fresh.

House of the Devil, You're Next, Kill List,  and Witchfinder General are all available on Netflix Instant if you are looking for a last minute scary choice.  Happy Halloween! 


Thursday, August 14, 2014

La Femme Recommeds…Snowpiercer

The world is frozen in Bong Joon Ho's Snowpiercer, but luckily for the remaining citizens on the title train, an eccentric billionaire, Wilford, (is there any other kind?) built a continuous engine train that goes all around the world in one year and even though the outside world is dead, all of the one percenters who bought a ticket get to live out the apocalypse in nearly unbelievable and ignorant luxury.  The benevolent Wilford even allowed the dirty masses who didn't have tickets to stuff themselves like sardines into the steerage at the back of the train.  Nearly eighteen years later the train is still traveling around the world and the perfect balance of the haves at the front and the have-nots at the back has reached a breaking point. Quite a concept, no?

Like my last movie I recommended, The Grand Budapest Hotel, Snowpiercer is very plot heavy  and as an amateur critic I find it hard to not share every detail, but I will try my best to be concise:  Chris Evans is our hero, Curtis, and boy do the tailies (Lost forever, right?) need one.  Sure, they didn't freeze to death but they live in squalor, survive on repulsive gelatinous protein bars and every once in a while some of the guards come and take a couple kids away.  The tailies wise old guru,  Gilliam (John Hurt), a kind man missing his arms and legs, are itching for a revolt and know the only way anything will change for them is to take over the engine.  The tailies see their opportunity, in fact, its almost too easy at first, and begin the revolt up to the front.  As with any adventure movie, along the way they free Namgoong Minsu and his daughter.  Minsu is an engineer who designed the locks between the cars who is seemingly addicted to Kronole, a charcoal looking drug popular among the elite, but sure seems more interested in collecting it than smoking it.  Together, this motley crew makes their way to the front facing numerous challenges, to say the least.

Describing this movie makes it seem supremely silly.   And it kind of is, when it isn't being overwhelmingly bleak.  Fortunately, Snowpiercer hits some of my cinematic sweet spots: highly ambitious to the point of foolishness,  over the top but pitch perfect performances and lots of pretty stuff to look at.  Although the film exists in shades of grey, Bong uses the confines of the train to great effect.  Bong manages to build a pretty convincing world in this train, he builds great suspense with the "what's behind that door concept", each time, we see the tailies open a door, a weird, funny or even downright terrifying new world awaits them.  They slowly go from the appropriately dingy steerage section to the front of the train, the lavish world the elites live in.  The film is an interesting series of vignettes in which new scene and new car holds a new discovery, from an aquarium to a nightclub to everything in between.  Bong manages to hold the tone somewhere between an action movie (the fight scene between the rebels and an almost medieval army is stunning and scary and ends with a beautiful visual punch when they end up in a tunnel and are thrown into complete darkness, that ends up being lit by night vision and fire) to a dark comedy (the classroom where the children rejoice in a ditty about not freezing and dying).  Its an awful lot of fun for a movie about the end of the world.

Chris Evans doesn't have much charisma as Curtis and it does make the viewer wonder why he is even chosen for such a role.  Although, I do admire Bong for leaving a lot of the character development to essentially the last fifteen minutes of the movie, without an actor with charm and the chops to imply a back story without exposition, it makes him too much of a blank slate.  Luckily the supporting cast makes up for it, Octavvia Spencer, Ewen Bremmer, Jon Hurt and Jamie Bell liven up the dullness of our hero.  And Song Kang-ho and Go Ah-sung are spectacular as father and daughter and give the movie the real emotional stakes it needs.   Kang-ho is unpredictable as Namgoong Minsu, a man with a pretty interesting ulterior motive and Ah-sung is charming as his sweet natured daughter.  But for me, Tilda Swinton steals the show as a ridiculous Margaret Thatcheresque agent of Wilford's, Mason.  She has ridiculous teeth and wigs and makeup and accent and costume, and pretty much everything and she so easily could be caricature and only used for comedy.  When she delivers a speech to the tailies about how they are shoes and she is a hat is is funny and chilling all at once, she may look silly, but she is deathly serious in her devotion to Wilford and her true, slimy nature is revealed piece by piece. She is so fascinating and strange and charismatic that you can't take your eyes off of her.  Swinton is over the top in the best way possible, its the kind of performance that can't help but be memorable.

 Unfortunately in the end, Snowpiercer, like so many ambitious film can't quite make it work.  Its difficult to discuss in this review without spoiling to much so I will be delicate and apologize for being cryptic. Eventually Curtis makes it to the front of the train and confronts Wilford in a perfectly calm antechamber.  All the while, the remaining rebels are in a fight for their lives.  The juxtaposition of complete calm and complete chaos diminishes both.  What bothered me the most though was the conversation between Curtis Wilford and the ultimate reveal about the nature of the train and the rebellion.  What Bong does with this revelation essentially makes nearly the entire film meaningless.  The journey, the deaths of his companions, the people he trusted, all becomes senseless. I understand the need for an "Explanation" of Wilford and his train but the way it was staged, edited and acted sucked all the life out of the movie.  Bong tries to end the film with a bang, but it ends up more like a whimper.  Snowpiercer is a pretty fun journey, but unfortunately the ultimate destination leaves much to be desired.