1954’s Godzilla is the paterfamilias of the giant monster from the sea concept, spawning a half century’s worth of remakes, reboots and rip-offs. Directed with grim relish by Ishiro Honda, with special effects by Eiji Tsuburaya, Godzilla is built on the stuff of nightmares, and it’s a fitting karmic justice for man’s greedy and foolhardy tinkering with the dark side of science. While often derided as imitative of such American-made creature features as The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms and Them - an odd criticism since all of these films were actually made at about the same time - Godzilla upped the ante by cashing in not only on a nation’s primal fears, but its recent experience with mysterious forces of mass destruction. As the enormous monster runs amok, reducing the splendors of Tokyo to finely crushed rubble, the citizenry can only watch in helpless terror. Japan’s military defenses are powerless against this humongous lizard, just as they were a decade ago in Hiroshima, when another devastating hellfire rained from the sky.
Romanian director Radu Muntean delivers near perfect realism in TUESDAY, AFTER CHRISTMAS. In the opening scene, Paul (Mimi Branescu) banters in bed with his pretty young lover, Raluka (Maria Popistasu). Then we meet Paul's wife and adolescent daughter. The story here is how they all get through the Christmas holidays, and the method of revealing the emotional impact of a cracking marriage is through careful observation of small details, rather than through histrionics or back-story.
Paul is a very attractive, successful man who never loses it, and it is this very coolness under pressure that makes him something of a hollow man. He is, ultimately, the quintessential egocentric cad, and he treats the women in his life like props in a play. One of the most revealing moments in this smart, engaging film is when Paul's friend is leaning back on Raluka's bed with a beer, after helping to move some things. He shares a little “guy” moment with Paul that requires no words for them to agree on men and the nature of life. Watch carefully, or you might miss the significance of this small gesture that really is the final word on the meaning of Paul's actions in the film. Eschewing the hyper-realistic approach of a director like Michael Haneke or the more bombastic approach of someone like Ozon or Pasolini, Muntean simply, subtly, quietly, nails the truth.
Somewhere in the annals of real estate marketing exists a set of gold tablets bearing the names and phone numbers of People Who Will Sit Through a Timeshare Sales Pitch, and apparently my name is engraved close to the top. Over the years, Mrs. Undies and I have been seduced by this profession’s siren songs, promising free weekend lodging in Paradise provided we are willing to attend a presentation of approximately 90 minutes. Truth be told, we’ve always gotten the better of the deal, enjoying the splendors of Myrtle Beach, Scottsdale, Sedona and Santa Barbara, to name a few, completely gratis. And sometimes a sumptuous breakfast is included.
Yes, we do have to endure a tour of the facilities and the inevitable high pressure “sit”, but this family has always resisted temptation and pushed ourselves away from the table without ever taking pen to paper. Our “sales consultant”, denied yet another plum contract, eventually gives up and, with a handshake and a forced smile, decides to cut his losses and move on to the next sucker.
The fact of the matter is that I will never buy a timeshare, plain and simple. For one thing, the idea of taking a vacation at the exact same place at the exact same time every year is kind of depressing, and seems like a terribly uncreative way to spend one’s leisure. And yes, supposedly you can trade for weeks at other properties, but the exact methodology of doing this is never explained, and the whole thing seems so exhausting you might be better off just spending a quiet week at home.
I also doubt the worth and reliability of a product with such a wildly varying price. Most time shares cost about $30,000 at the beginning of the sit but, by the constant shaking of one’s head, it will eventually drop to $4,000. The desperate New-Age commune in Sedona even got down to $2,400 before finally throwing in the towel and branding us irredeemable cheapskates.
Now, before you think ill of me for wasting the valuable time of commissioned agents, I make my intentions quite clear in the early going, and state unequivocally that we are only here for the free digs and greasy bacon. Some reps understand this, and go about their pro-forma pitch with a breezy, devil-may-care casualness. Others are convinced they can change our minds, and commence to aggressively proselytize for their resort, pointing out perks and benefits only an idiot would refuse.
Unfortunately we had one of the latter during a recent junket to Las Vegas. I received a call one afternoon from Amalgamated Acme Zenith Resorts International, or some such claptrap, promising a free stay at one of their magnificent condos overlooking the Strip. We would be given access to all amenities provided we let a salesman beat on us – well she didn’t use those exact words – for 90 minutes And, if I agreed right now, good ol’ Amalgamated would throw in two tickets to a popular show.
Well, as regular readers of this space know, the past year has been a rather crappy one so the idea of a free weekend in Sin City took on a certain luster. After a brief consultation with my much better half, I consented and a few days later we were wheeling up US 93, our sights set on a weekend of depraved debauchery which, at our age, consists of penny-slots and overeating.
The location, as promised, was indeed right on the Strip, in a gleaming new high rise. Upon our arrival though it was clear something was missing; namely, no casino and no restaurants. It was a typically generic apartment building foyer - a wall of mailboxes, a few potted palms and quiet as a crypt – perfectly fine for Chicago or Cincinnati, but certainly none of the decadent glitz that lures millions of visitors to Las Vegas each year.
A moderately surly concierge oversaw our check-in – after assuring me that this was, indeed, the right place – and after a brief elevator flight we found ourselves in our lovely 600 sq. ft. home away from home. Again, as promised, there was a view of Las Vegas Boulevard, at least of The Stratosphere, our neighboring property to the north, and its gigantic electronic billboard where a scantily clad lass pretended to be Brittany Speers in a video segment so flashily edited I was afraid it would induce some type of seizure.
The Stratosphere has never been one of my favorite Vegas haunts. I’m sure it’s a perfectly fine casino, but to me the adjacent tower has always looked too flimsy to support the giant gold ball that adorns its roof. Still, it’s been operating for decades with presumably minimal fatalities so what do I know. To the northeast were the remains of the recently closed Sahara, a classic Vegas joint from the Rat Pack days, which unsuccessfully tried to reinvent itself as a NASCAR themed pleasure dome. When the economic bubble burst a few years ago, the Sahara circled the drain resiliently for awhile, but ultimately it was sucked down into the sewer of the overleveraged.
Since I wanted to get our personal bloodletting over with early, we returned to the lobby where I had arranged for our dutiful sales consultant to meet us straight away. The moderately surly concierge informed us that we would be meeting with Brice, and in short order, a younger, hip-hopper, barely legal version of Mitt Romney greeted us with beaming, enthusiastic hellos and tendon-ripping handshakes. Brice escorted us through some sliding doors that he activated with a top-secret buzzing device, and we soon took our place at a set of utilitarian plastic chairs around a slick Formica table; just the right height for signing reams of contract papers. After an overly lengthy exchange of pleasantries, Brice finally applied his gelled head to the task at hand.
“So, how’s your apartment?”
I conceded it was very nice and spacious. I then informed Brice that I never had the slightest intent to purchase anything on this trip, and we were only here to take advantage of the freebies. And I would certainly never buy a Vegas condo that offered none of the things people actually come to Vegas for. So, he could relax during this pitch and if he could see fit to cut it a bit short, all parties would benefit.
“What do you mean none of the things people come to Vegas for?”
“Brice, there’s no casino”
“But there are casinos all around! We’ve got the Stratosphere right next door!”
“My husband is afraid of the Stratosphere,” Mrs. Undies said helpfully.
“I’m not afraid of it…”
“Well, if that’s too scary” Brice interrupted, “There’s Circus Circus just down the street!”
“Brice, have you ever been to Circus Circus? I have. It smells like pee. I have a theory. Years ago, some patron with superb kidney function relived himself smack dab in the middle of the casino. By the time a maintenance crew arrived, the acidic urine had eaten through both carpet and pad all the way to the structure’s cement slab, where it was permanently absorbed like a concrete etching stain.”
“Wow, when was this?”
“He’s making a joke, Brice” Mrs. Undies clarified, having heard my Circus Circus theory many times.
I pressed on. “And what about restaurants, Brice? There’s nowhere here to eat…”
Brice chuckled, “This is Las Vegas, guys! There’s a great restaurant on every corner. And if you get hungry, we sell snacks at the front desk!”
“Yes, a fine selection of Cokes and cheese doodles” I harrumphed, while Brice nodded approvingly. It was at this point that I realized we were dealing with a moronic corporate jingoist, and argumentative to boot!
“Well, let me show you the rest of the property. We’re in the middle of a multi-million dollar renovation, which means these units are currently offered at an outstanding discount. But you’ve got to hurry, because once the work is done the price will go waaaaaayyyyy up!”
With a quick brandish of his magical buzzer, another set of doors opened, and soon we were walking the grounds with Brice in full throated pitch mode. He escorted us past an empty swimming pool where a plastering crew had recently held forth, their machinery and implements scattered hither and yon but, currently, no workmen to be found. Brice assured us that the pool would be ready soon, refitted with solar heating, a waterfall and open until 10 pm.
He then led us past an exercise room complete with the best fitness equipment one could buy 20 years ago. Brice informed us that the workout room would be remodeled as well, and outfitted with modern, state-of-the-art gizmos that would allow patrons to check emails while tread-milling. I conceded that an exercise room was a good idea, especially since there was no gambling, eating or partying and we’d need something to do all day.
We were then shown a phalanx of empty assembly rooms, perfect for those corporate meetings we all know and dread. Everything was as expected; but there was no excitement or pizzazz, none of that thrilling sense of possibility that makes Las Vegas a popular destination. We might as well have been touring a Holiday Inn in Oklahoma City.
Meanwhile, enthusiastic young Brice continued his prattle and eventually we were led to the “Party Room”, a cavernous renovated space that he clearly considered the resort’s Killer App.
“As you can see guys, this room is awesome. We’ve got 14 TVs, with NFL Season Ticket. There’s a bar over there with a commercial refrigerator and icemaker. We’ve got café seating for 150, a pool table and a wall of dart boards. And best of all, as owners you can rent the space whenever you want. Just think! So many possibilities! Birthday parties, family reunions or just hangin’ with your homeys…”
The thought of flying ancient Aunt Elizabeth across America to watch television and eat cheese doodles caused a brief intestinal distress, and an apparent brain freeze, because the only response I could think of was “Homey don’t play dat.”
This prompted gales of laughter in Brice. “Homey don’t play dat! Wow I haven’t heard that in forever! It’s like from the Eighties! Man, that’s old school!”
Brice’s ninety minutes were up.
“Of course it’s old school, you nitwit. I’m fifty-five freaking years old. Everything that passes through my addled brain is old school. Now, if you don’t mind, we elders would like to spend the little time we have left on this Earth not listening to an empty haircut bullshit us into buying a timeshare at the one building in Nevada where fun is forbidden! I know gambling is not allowed here, but I’ll make you a bet. Your beloved Amalgamated International HooHa will go bankrupt before the first drop of water goes in the pool. Mark my words!”
After a few moments of stunned silence, Brice apologized for offending us in any way, and assured us it was not intentional. He also apologized for the resort not fulfilling our needs and offered his total understanding of our desire to “go in another direction.” He would end the presentation now, and he hoped we would enjoy the rest of our free weekend.
As we turned to leave, a slight glimmer of guilt rising in my gullet, Brice said, “Oh guys…wait a minute.”
He then reached into his shirt pocket and produced a small envelope. “Here’s the show tickets we promised you. Have a great time.”
On the quiet elevator ride back to our perfectly nice free apartment, I felt quite awful. I’d been way too hard on ol’ Brice. He was just doing a job, and a thankless one at that. I then opened the envelope where I found two tickets to the NASCAR Experience at the Sahara. The late, lamented Sahara.
The Help is one of those movies you root for. It has a wonderful cast of impressively credentialed but largely unknown actresses. It deals with an important and endlessly fascinating subject: America’s tortured history on race. The film sits us down at a beautifully set banquet table, where we expect multiple courses of penetrating and profound insights on America’s original sin. Instead, by aggressive wallowing in frothy rom-com aesthetics, the film serves up a cold plate of yesterday’s fried boloney.
Set in Jackson, Mississippi circa 1963 - the soundtrack blares the Johnny Cash/June Carter duet “Jackson” just to make sure we get it – the film centers on the fragile relationship between a group of 30-ish prisspot former debutantes and their revolving door of black housekeepers. The stark contrasts are drawn in the early going, as the debs lead charmed lives of Junior League and Bridge Club, while their domestic counterparts attend to the drudgery of chicken frying and rugrat supervision.
But one such maid named Aibilene (Viola Davis) has lost her sunny Aunt Jemima cheerfulness, and goes about her daily chores under a gloomy emotional cloud. Aibilene’s adult son has recently died, and her only solace from crushing grief is her 3 year old charge Mae Mobley (played interchangeably by twins Emma and Eleanor Henry), who Aibilene showers with a deep love that borders on the obsessive.
Stylistically, the film often resembles a bourgeois-cracker version of Mad Men, although director Tate Taylor’s lack of attention to detail would not be worthy of that fine TV series. We first meet the majority of the characters during a party at the home of Aibilene’s employer Elizabeth (Ahna O’Reilly), where the idle housewives gossip and cackle like hens, with varying degrees of accent slippage. Taylor’s pale princesses speak an odd patois of Los Angeles-laced Dixie, and at times it’s hard to know if The Help is taking place in Mississippi or Anaheim.
Eventually we meet Skeeter (Emma Stone), Elizabeth’s unmarried friend who Wants To Write, and whose waters run a lot deeper than her faded cheerleader contemporaries. Skeeter has the idea to amass the personal stories of Jackson’s faceless black domestics into an anonymous expose of Southern perfidy, an idea that excites her guilty liberal New York publisher (Mary Steenburgen) to no end. Indeed, there is no brush too broad for Tate Taylor.
By this time, The Help abandons any pretext of a serious motion picture, and becomes just another hokey flick about Southern female empowerment. The tragedy of Medgar Evers is glossed over as quickly as possible, and becomes simply a means for Skeeter and Aibilene to advance their ambitions. However, if one can ignore Taylor’s sloppiness, there are some enjoyable performances that will make the sit worthwhile.
Jessica Chastain displays tremendous control as a white trash nouveau riche treated by the rest of the wives as a pariah, and nimbly walks the razor’s edge in a performance that nearly goes over the top. Yet, as in The Tree of Life, she injects her role with a mystical sensuality that seems to stop time, and here she transcends The Help’s shallow momentum. And, although Taylor only utilizes her character for comic relief, Sissy Spacek has the time of her life as a scene-stealing matriarch in the early stages of Alzheimer’s.
But Viola Davis creates The Help’s most interesting dramatic textures. This is not surprising, for over the years Davis has logged a number of strong, sometimes breathtaking performances; just check out her turn as a traumatized scientist in George Clooney’s remake of Solaris for starters. And, unlike its producers, she seems to understand what The Help is actually about. The story could have been a compelling ode to that generation of Southern slave descendants, born early in the 20th century, who lived their formative years without benefit of civil rights protections or Martin Luther King’s inspirational oratory.
They bravely carved out the best lives they could, given their era’s lack of opportunity, dependant and vulnerable to the caprices of their white employers. This generation would see slow advances from the civil rights movement, but change would come too late to be of much practical effect. If Taylor set out to make nothing more than a glib chick-flick using 1960s race issues as a backdrop – and that’s likely the case – then the film must be considered a success. But there’s the gnawing feeling that The Help leaves way too much on the table.
There’s nothing like a steaming bowl of onion soup on a cold winter night. This genius dish, designed to give new life to stale bread and long-stored onions, is very easy to make and so good it’s fou. This recipe serves 4 as a first course or 2 as an entrée.
3 slices bacon (you can substitute 4 tbsp. olive oil or butter)
3 medium onions
1 cup red wine
4 cups chicken or beef stock
1 tsp. Herbs d’Provence
8 slices hard, stale old baguette
8 slices (or thereabouts) cheese – Racette, Gruyere or Stilton work great, but just about any kind you like will do.
Fry the bacon in a good heavy Dutch oven. Meanwhile, peel the onions, cut them in half and slice into fine half-rings.
Remove bacon when it is done and set aside. Put onions into the bacon drippings and fry over medium high heat until they start to wilt and become a little stringy.
Add Herbs d’Provence and wine to the onions and cook, stirring occasionally until all the wine is absorbed.
Add the stock and bring to a boil (I nuke the stock while the wine is reducing to jump start this process) and simmer about 10 minutes, or until onions are completely done.
Turn on the broiler
Place 4 serving bowls onto a cookie sheet and ladle equal amounts of soup into each one
Top each bowl with a couple slices of bread and cheese.
Place cookie sheet with bowls under the broiler and toast until bread is brown and cheese is melted, usually a just minute or so.
A cool weather French film is perfect the accompaniment. May we suggest?
J. Hoberman, film critic for the Village Voice for 30 years - and a personal hero - was fired Wednesday in a cost cutting move. Since he also works as a teacher and lecturer, I'm sure Mr. Hoberman will be just fine, but it's a sad day for thoughtful, intelligent journalism.
Love Crime is a nifty little thriller, all about two bloodthirsty, white collar power wenches (Kristen Scott Thomas, Ludivine Sagnier), and their increasingly desperate games of one-upmanship atop a Paris skyscraper. Directed by Alain Cormeau, who has worked in a variety of genres over his lengthy career, the film takes a harrowing look at the mentor-apprentice relationship, and the complications that arise when the student outshines the teacher.
Not surprisingly, Thomas is quite good as a master manipulator, whose thorough knowledge of the corporate game allows her to skillfully make or break her subordinates through a web of hypocrisy and shifting alliances. Sagnier, as a rising but still innocent executive star, seems willfully blind to Thomas’ machinations in the early going out of a misplaced sense of company rah-rah. As Thomas eyes a plum promotion in New York, she becomes even more willing to take credit for the work of others, especially the industrious Sagnier, and is not opposed to stooping to extortion to achieve her goals.
Love Crime then becomes a tale of slow, carefully plotted revenge, dependent on a few willing suspensions of disbelief along the way. It’s first and foremost a caper film, and those willing to play along will have their patience rewarded when the plot’s serpentine and puzzling twists are finally given context in the final reels. The film successfully straddles a thin line of rationality, and Cormeau manages to avoid any serious missteps in his delicate narrative dance. That said, there a few groan-inducing moments when Cormeau underestimates his audience. Staging a scene in America’s capital in front of a sign that says “Washington DC” is a typical redline offense, but given the plot’s complexity and dodgy foundations it’s a relief to have some elements clearly spelled out.
Now in her 30s, it appears Sagnier is not going to completely outgrow her sexy street urchin persona anytime soon. Having built her career as home wrecking jailbait, she must now carve out a new, mature niche. This role is a step in right direction, trading in her bed rumpled allure for a new found vulnerability, and Sagnier proves her skill at pulling it off. Love Crime is not a great film by any means, but it offers some strong performances in service of a B grade property. And like the best of Bs, it’s just plain fun to watch.
Alexander Payne returns with his first feature since the highly celebrated and slightly overrated Sideways, but this time he manages to cut through any cutesy clutter and reach some genuine emotion. Set in Hawaii, the movie is all about a family’s reaction to loss, both past and impending, and captures a true sense of the solemn responsibilities and mortal fears caused by generational change. George Clooney does some of his best work ever as a laid-back lawyer attempting to care for his distracted teen daughters (Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller) while their mother lies comatose in the hospital after an accident. He’s also trying to settle the family patriarch’s enormous estate, while keeping a slew of eccentric siblings and useless cousins happy in the process. There’s comic relief aplenty, much of it deriving from Hawaiians’ refusal to wear proper shoes. But Payne doesn’t pull any punches with the film’s coda, and its air of vulnerability mixed with sobering finality feels profoundly real. Don’t be surprised if The Descendants does well on Oscar night.
This tale of shifting romance set in London seems like a script that accidently fell out of Woody Allen’s portfolio. Writer-Director-Star Mike Binder is a highly competent creator of rom-coms, and his work here perfectly ok, if a little safe. He has the good sense to generally get out of the way and let his real stars, Colin Firth and Irene Jacob, do the heavy lifting. The story concerns a group of TV industry professionals who spend the next 87 minutes falling in and out of love with each other. Mariel Hemingway is on board as well, completing the Allen adumbrations, and Steven Fry is a scream as a labor mediator pressed into service as a marriage counselor. It’s all fun and relaxing fluff, with Jacob and Firth doing what they do best – pushing the envelope of adorableness.
César and Rosalie (1972)****
No one’s invented a time machine yet, but this film is an acceptable substitute for those nostalgic for the 1970s, especially that era’s emergent mainstream feminism. Yves Montand and Romy Schneider portray the title couple - he a wealthy bourgeois scrap dealer and she a free spirited divorcee – and the film deals with their often changing dynamics and expectations. Adding a decisive complication is the return to Paris of David (Sami Frey), a chisel-jawed publisher of underground comics and the wrecker of Rosalie’s marriage. As Frey and Schneider rekindle their feelings, Montand, pushing middle-age, finds himself in a strange world where women no longer have any interest in subservience or monogamy, nor will they cook his supper. Adding to the fun are the ridiculously young Isabelle Huppert and Bernard Le Coq, barely recognizable in the roles that would launch their lengthy careers. Schneider’s ultimate solution is perfect for 1972; like something from a Helen Reddy song. Unearth this hypnotic time capsule and enjoy.