Get the Whiskey

So has everybody. Shit happens. Get the whiskey.

—-Bad Times at the El Royale

Bad Times at the El Royale

 

There is nothing better to make the time go by on an airplane than watching a movie on the little screen on the headrest of the seat in front of you. It’s even better than reading – I have trouble reading on the airplane – there are too many interruptions and I can’t really read when I’m that uncomfortable.

On the way out to Boston, all I wanted to do was sleep – so I chose Aquaman. That did the trick, I kept nodding off.

But on the way back I put a little more thought into it. There were some excellent movies to choose from – some I had wanted to see. But I didn’t really want to see those on the little tiny screen with the wonky headphone jack that I had to push on the wire a certain way to get the sound.

I wanted something that wasn’t bad… but wasn’t too good. Something entertaining without having to think too much.

I chose Bad Times at the El Royale.

I chose well.

I remember when that movie came out – it looked very interesting – and was surprised at its lack of box office. It came and went in a flash without leaving much of a trace. Sometimes these can be hidden gens when they make it to streaming. Bad Times at the El Royale isn’t a gem, not by a long shot, but it is an enjoyable way to kill a few miles between La Guardia and DFW.

It’s one of those retro, noir-y thrillers with a simple story made complex by careful manipulation of point-of-view, time-shifting, and vital information not made available to the audience until the proper amount of confusion is generated. There are twists and turns a-plenty and plenty of unexpected, sudden violence. The good guys aren’t going to win in the end because there aren’t really any good guys (well, maybe one). There are listening devices, hidden corridors with one-way mirrors and a big bag of cash hidden in a most clever way.

It all takes place in the El Royale, an almost bankrupt fleabag hotel/motel located right on the border between two states – you can choose a room in the Nevada wing or the California. A cast of misfits check in and are ultimately faced with a fatal game of roulette with the most handsome Manson-like cult leader of all time (a very buff Chris Hemsworth). I read that Matthew McConaughey was originally going to play that part – that might have catapulted the film into greatness.

As it is, greatness isn’t catapulted into – but it is a fun bit of diversion. Especially for someone trapped in a crowded metal tube hurtling along at unimaginable speed thousands of feet in the air.

 

Never Cursed

Welsh rarebit with a poached egg on top. Bacon. Scones, butter, cream, jam. A pot of Lapsang souchong tea…. And some sausages.

—- Reynolds Woodcock, Phantom Thread

 

 

One of the ideas that I had when we decided to Cut the Cord (eliminate cable television) is to rent movies from the library. Free and easy. Our library has a huge selection of DVDs – movies on the ground floor and instructional/educational on the third. I see people, especially families with children, checking out monstrous piles of DVDs – I don’t know how they can watch that many in the seven day allotted period. I used to check out movies, but haven’t in a decade or so.

I can’t believe that I hadn’t seen Phantom Thread yet – a variety of reasons, mostly related to sloth in its various forms. It’s been a year. But as I was at the library on the last day of 2018, returning a stack of books, I looked along the long rows of DVD offerings (shocked at how many I had already seen) until I chose Phantom Thread. It’s Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest film and Daniel Day-Lewis’ last. It was in the running for a number of Oscars – and I don’t give a shit.

I’m a big fan of Paul Thomas Anderson. His work is a gift to the world.

Phantom Thread was reviewed better than his last full film, Inherent Vice. However, I loved Inherent Vice – of course, if you didn’t like it, or you think it was a piece of crap… I won’t argue with you. Paul Thomas Anderson does not know who I am – I have never met him and never will, but somehow he made a film, Inherent Vice, for me individually. If he scanned my dusty noggin and extracted whatever is in there and then made a movie that would resonate… it would be Inherent Vice. Well, actually it would be Gravity’s Rainbow, but it’s impossible to put that on celluloid or nitrate or bits-n-bytes. Inherent Vice is as close as you can get in the real world.

So, I pulled out the DVD player, blew off the thick layer of dust and plopped the library disc in. It took some playing with the various remotes but I managed to get it to play in surprisingly good quality.  Excellent film – really needs to be seen twice because, like all truly good films, the first time through you sit there going “What the fuck is this?” Once you realize it’s a twisted rom-com you can enjoy the belly laughs.

I’ll let you enjoy the humor of a persnickety and slightly effeminate dress designer of a main character with mommy issues and surrounded by women (customers, seamstresses, and his sister) lugging the name Reynolds Woodcock around London. Chekhov’s gun makes an early appearance in a book about mushrooms. And the surface beauty masks the perverse melodrama simmering underneath.

So now – a trip back to the library and the return chute and another walk along the DVD aisle. I can’t plan ahead because the films churn quite a bit. Old-School baby!

 

The Screaming Skull

Jenni Whitlock:
Eric, when you found me, what else was there?

Eric Whitlock:
What do you mean, ‘What else?’

Jenni Whitlock:
A skull?

—-from The Screaming Skull

 

As I learn to adjust to a life without cable television, I explored the nether regions of the hundreds of free streaming channels available on the Roku. I haven’t researched it – but it looks like anyone can cobble their own Roku channel together – and there are lots of them. Unfortunately (but unsurprisingly) these are mostly poorly done and colossal time sucks.

I did stumble across a collection of old, bad, out-of-copyright horror films. These always bring back memories of when I was in sixth grade or so and discovered what that odd round wire antenna-thing that came in the box with new televisions was used for. I had discovered the UHF channels that my parents knew nothing about. I would crawl out of bed after the family was asleep and creep into the darkened kitchen and tune in what I could find on the little portable TV. This included channels dedicated at night to grade Z horror films.

Now, a half-century later, I like to look for these horrid memories from long ago. I thought I remembered one called The Screaming Skull and chose it. Turn’s out I had never seen it – and my life isn’t enriched by seeing it now.

I’m not going to review The Screaming Skull… take my word for it – it’s bad.

 

You know it’s bad from the first scene… a cheap plastic skull rises from a bucket of water bubbling with dry ice and you get:

Narrator:
“The Screaming Skull” is a motion picture that reaches its climax in shocking horror. It’s impact is so terrifying that it may have an unforeseen effect. It may *kill* you! Therefore it’s  producers feel they must assure free burial services to anyone that dies of fright while seeing The Screaming Skull.

I’m sure they didn’t have to pay out… ever. The movie is simply not scary.

The only good thing is that the main character, despite being poor, drives a seriously cool car, a mid-’50s Mercedes-Benz 190SL Gullwing. The movie brightens every time this car appears. I would love to learn the story about how such an exquisite expensive hunk of steel made in into such a low-budget film.

Mercedes-Benz 190SL from The Screaming Skull

And that’s about it. All the rest sucks.

Looking up information on the film – I didn’t realize that it was satirized on Mystery Science Theater 3000. Going to have to watch that… when I have a lot of free time.

Oh, and it is very loosely based on a short story. I found it online here. Not sure if the story is any better than the film….

Anal Vice

Rule 11: Do not bother children when they are skateboarding
—-Jordan Peterson, 12 Rules for Life – An Antidote to Chaos

Back a few months, with Mother’s Day approaching, I was struggling with figuring out what to do.

I checked the Alamo Drafthouse app on my phone and discovered they were having a Mother’s Day brunch along with a showing of “The Sound of Music.” I remembered that Candy had said once, years ago, that this was one of her favorite musicals. It seemed a little pricey (at first) but I went ahead and bought three tickets. Nick would be up from Houston to visit and that would be a nice mother’s day.

I told Candy (couldn’t really keep it a surprise) and she was worried about Nick.
“I don’t think he’ll like the movie,” she said.

She reminded of one time, years ago, when She, Lee, and I were watching The Sound of Music on TV and Nick walked through the living room.

“What are you watching? What kind of sick stuff is this? What are they singing about? Anal Vice?” he said.

The song, of course, was not “Anal Vice,” but “Edelweiss.”

Alamo Drafthouse is the only movie theater chain we will frequent. The food (and drafts) are good, I love the bits they show before the films, but the real attraction are their policies. One, if they catch you talking or using your phone during the film, they throw you out. Two, and the big one for me, is they do not allow anyone to arrive late. It drives me nuts how, at a regular movie theater, people keep streaming in, searching for their seat, twenty minutes after the show starts. Assigned seats and these policies are the only way to make movie-going worthwhile.

I texted Nick to ask if it was OK for him to see The Sound of Music.

“Y’all paint me as some uncultured brute,” he replied. So he was good to go.

As it turned out, the thing was fantastic. It had seemed pricey at first – but the food was amazing and way more than worth the cost all by itself. The staff came out before the film and explained how hard they had worked on the menu (Austrian themed) and hoped we enjoyed ourselves. The film was sold out and the logistics of getting four courses of food (and wine) out to all those seats in the dark, during a film was incredible.

One good thing is that the film had an intermission and that was when they brought out the main course (Schnitzel, poached eggs, asparagus, tomato) so we could eat that with the house lights up a little. Of course, the movie was fantastic. Your forget how much these classic films were designed to be seen in a theater, on a big screen, and not on a television. Really enjoyable.

So, I’m going to keep an eye on the Alamo Drafthouse to see when they will do something like this again. A close eye – this one sold out in hours. It’s a really special special treat.

Just don’t forget to turn your phone off.

What the Pho?

Lee bought a shirt at Bistro B.

Oblique Strategy: Revaluation (a warm feeling)

Bistro B

Everybody has their Christmas traditions. Ours is to have lunch at Bistro B. I checked my blog archives, and I wrote about Christmas at Bistro B six years ago. You can read it here. It hasn’t changed much and my 2011 description is still good:

The place, as always, was packed. We waited for a few minutes, which I enjoyed. I stood by the little altar with the burning incense spiral, the electric-powered prayer wheels, and the little shrines decorated with offerings of change. I looked around at the tables to see what other folks were ordering. There were a lot of butane portable table burners heating hot pots that were being shared by a whole family – three generations or more – packed around the big round tables. I love watching a family eat, the heads bent, concentrating on the food, with a ballet of chopsticks dancing in a circular chorus while everyone picks up their food, talks, and laughs.

Its a noisy, happy place, with an army of black-clad waiters rushing, cleanup crews pushing a big square cart, a thick crowd at the registers – some clutching inscrutable bills, but most there for take-out. Some odd genre of electronic dance music pulses… loud but barely audible over the conversations, and a phalanx of flat-screen televisions incongruously simultaneously shine out an NFL documentary. The kids reported that the restroom was, “Like a nightclub.”

We were earlier than we usually were – so the place wasn’t completely packed. The menus were new – the numbers only going up to 494. And in the last six years the restroom extravaganza has been toned down more than a bit.

As always, the Christmas-day service was a little rough. There is a new “Taco” section in the menu – Candy ordered one of those. “Oh, I’m sorry, that’s new, we haven’t learned how to cook those yet,” was the answer from the waiter. Candy ordered chicken, Nick, Lee, and I ordered Pho. The chicken arrived quickly, but no Pho. A while later, the waiter came by and asked how everything was. “No pho,” we answered. He looked flustered and our three enormous bowls of soup came out in a minute. That’s cool – usually we don’t even get what we order – a busy place with a book for a menu and 494 items – you have to chill a bit.

Spring Rolls and dipping sauce

My soup as it arrived. What mysteries await in these warm waters?

The soup after I added sprouts and other vegetables. Those little eggs were hiding down in a little nest of rice noodles. I don’t know what creature they originally came from

After our food we drove across the city for our second Christmas Tradition – to see a movie. It’s getting so that we will only see films at the Alamo Drafthouse (their no phone-no talking-no arriving late or you will be thrown out is a game-changer) and we took in I,Tonya at the Alamo in the Cedars. They have a nice bar upstairs with a killer view of downtown Dallas.

A nice way to wile away a Christmas day.

The family on the balcony at the Alamo in the Cedars, Dallas, Texas

Cruise the Boulevards Of Regret

“You can only cruise the boulevards of regret so far, and then you’ve got to get back up onto the freeway again.”
― Thomas Pynchon, Inherent Vice

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

Cover of Inherent Vice, by Thomas Pynchon

So, last September I read Inherent Vice by Thomas Pynchon because… well, because it is Thomas Pynchon – but more specifically because I had read that Paul Thomas Anderson (Boogie Nights, Magnolia, There Will Be Blood, The Master) was making a film based on the book and I wanted to experience the text first.

Pynchon has occupied a great many of my thoughts and a large part of my time ever since I first picked up a paperback copy of Gravity’s Rainbow at the KU Bookstore in 1976 or so (I was not able to finish it for a quarter century – not until a summary, an online page by page annotation, and wiki helped me keep the characters straight). I have read most of the rest of his oeuvre (still have an unopened copy of Bleeding Edge on my bookshelf) and am most assuredly a fan.

Up until I read Inherent Vice I considered Pynchon’s fiction to be unfilmable. After reading it, I agreed with PTA in that Inherent Vice was only almost unfilmable. He had tried to adapt Vineland into a movie, but realized that was impossible.

Because of business and inattention to the Internet, I missed the Dallas showings of the film in December, but finally a wider release was in the offing. My son and his friends saw it over the initial weekend, but I wasn’t able to fit the time in so I decided to go after work.

On Monday I logged into the Alamo Drafthouse website (it’s only a stone’s throw from my house and my work) and bought a ticket for that evening. I was tired and it was bitter cold and I knew that if I didn’t buy it ahead of time I would wimp out after work and go home and sleep.

The Alamo Drafthouse is such a nice experience. You get a reserved seat, craft beer (Temptress Baby!) and the food isn’t bad at all. I ordered a hamburger – a Royale With Cheese, of course. Alamo’s policy of no talking and no cellphones is certainly a welcome perk.

So… how was the film.

If you are a fan of Paul Thomas Anderson you will be disappointed. This isn’t a PTA movie; it is a Pynchon movie. PTA’s movies can be weird (Frogs!?) but this one is WEIRD. What makes it crazy making if you don’t know what to expect is that he sets the stage with so many familiar tropes and then abandons them without a moment’s hesitation or regret. From the trailer you might think that it is a detective story – about a search for a missing billionaire and the detective’s old girlfriend – hoary old familiar plot devices -, but from the book I knew that this is a feint – that nothing is going to be explained, nothing is going to make sense, and the mystery will fade away rather than be resolved. What the hell exactly is The Golden Fang anyways?

You might also think that this is going to be a druggie comedy in the style of The Big Lebowski. There are elements of that – but the comedy is overshadowed by Pynchon’s signature paranoia and despair.
But, that said – I thought it was great. It is the kind of thing you will like if you like that kind of thing.

Despite the ending being changed and large sections of the novel excised (you have to do this to get a tolerable running time) it is amazingly faithful to the book – for good and bad.
What was crazy for me is the way the characters speak. I have been reading Pynchon for so long I am very familiar with the unique language a Pynchonian character uses – his cadence, style, and subject matter. I have been reading these letters on the page and hearing them in my head for decades.

Now, to hear these words coming out of another human being’s mouth was astounding. I could only shake my head at this ephemeral world of imagination now come to life on the silver screen.