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July 30, 2008

Casual dining goes belly up

Bennigans closes

Continuing the downward trend of the "casual dining" industry, pretend-Irish chain restaurant Bennigan's has declared bankruptcy and is closing. So is a chain called Steak and Ale (these don't exist around here. I think I saw one in Atlanta once?) which is owned by the same parent company, Metromedia Restaurant Group.

The NY Times reported that the whole industry was in trouble last fall, due to rising costs, shrinking family budgets, and Americans realizing that paying $18 for mass-produced microwaved entrées is idiotic. Restaurants like this going out of business helps restore my faith in America.

Bennigan's hasn't had a presence in NYC for a few years now. Sometime in 2005, one opened on the corner of 8th Ave and 47th St, replacing an independent casual family restaurant that had been struggling there for years. It lasted about 10 months, then closed. Now the space is (you guessed it) a Duane Reade. In a troubled retail real estate market, all roads lead to Duane Reade.

Besides having a business model that asks customers to pay inflated prices for cheap food, the problem with the casual dining industry is that it's an outdated trend that has finally started to fall out of favor. Restaurant consultant Bob Goldin says, "All these bar and grill concepts are very, very similar. They have the same kind of menu, décor, appeal." Another restaurant consultant in Chicago says, "The stores got old and the concept got tired."

The Simpsons made its episode about chain restaurants back in 1995 (back when the show was still a cultural barometer) when Moe opened his short-lived family restaurant Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag in "Bart Sells His Soul."

Here's the clip. It's still funny. Especially Marge's wonder at the décor: "An alligator wearing sunglasses?! Now I've seen everything!"

Uncle Moe's Family Feedbag

July 28, 2008

Can rock change the world?


If you watched MTV in August 1989, you probably remember all the news reports about the Moscow Music Peace Festival, or in the words of Sebastian Bach, "Rocknost". The concert, which happened just a few months before the Berlin Wall came down, was the first huge western rock concert in the Soviet Union and represented its unstoppable shift toward democracy and cultural freedom.

Of course, it was a metal concert. The bands included Motley Crue, Cinderella, Ozzy Osbourne, Bon Jovi, and Skid Row, and showed that the great unifier that spanned the Iron Curtain was big hair and guitar solos. Ironically, the supposed message of the concert was the war on drugs, which wasn't exactly reflected in the bands' behavior. Ozzy says that it was after this concert that he got so drunk that he famously tried to kill his wife, Sharon.

But the legacy of cultural and political change through music remains. A few years ago, Lionel Ritchie did a concert in the newly pro-Western Libya. In an interview, he shared his belief that music can be a more powerful force than diplomacy in mending political differences:

"I have seen it where in many many populations of the world, politics they couldn't agree on, religion they couldn't agree on. You bring a musical artist in, it translates totally into another realm, and I think that what's going to happen now, that by this being the door to open, you're going to see a change in this country, I can almost guarantee it."

Lionel Ritchie is apparently also huge in Iraq: "Iraqis who do not understand a word of English can sing an entire Lionel Richie song."

So now Iran, a country in which all Western pop music with lyrics is banned and the government censors Iranian albums before they're released, has agreed to host a concert with Western artists. Who is going to represent freedom and democracy at this pivotal cultural event, our decade's Rocknost?

Chris de Burgh. The man who gave wretched life to a leading contender for the Worst Song Ever, "Lady in Red", will perform later this year at a stadium in Tehran, with an Iranian band. Apparently he's very popular.

Despite this devastating blow to the prospect of mutual understanding between the East and the West, I think the concept still holds promise. While Chris de Burgh is obviously a terrible choice for this Iranian concert, other artists could make some real progress in bridging our differences. Metal is universally and timelessly loved by teens around the world, especially kids who live in an oppressive political environment that's on the verge of a huge cultural shift. Basically, if the US considers a country our enemy, then that nation's kids are the world's biggest metal fans.

Slate has an article today ("Rock the Mullahs") about metal in the Islamic world, featuring videos by hard rock and metal bands from Morocco to Israel to Iran. A new book by political historian and metalhead Mark LeVine, called Heavy Metal Islam, demonstrates that just like Soviet teens in the '80's, the pissed-off kids in Muslim countries who want their world to change are the ones in Mastodon t-shirts:

A member of Iran's most popular metal band, Tarantist, tells LeVine, "Metal is in our blood. It's not entertainment, it's our pain, and also an antidote to the hypocrisy of religion that is injected into all of us from the moment we're born."

One of the patriarchs of Morocco's heavy metal scene, Reda Zine, puts it this way: "We play heavy metal because our lives are heavy metal."

The photo above of a so-called "Muhajababe" is from a good NPR story about LeVine's book and the Middle Eastern metal scene.

Ahmadinejad may welcome Chris de Burgh with open arms, but it sounds like he'd have better ticket sales with Ozzfest. Or go local-- Acrassicauda, Iraq's biggest metal band, is the subject of a new documentary Heavy Metal in Baghdad.

July 25, 2008

This week's movies

Step Brothers

Loads of notable movies come out today. Unfortunately, the reviews for the big ones that I've been looking forward to (X-Files, Step Brothers, Baghead, American Teen, Brideshead Revisited) aren't all that good. The Times hardly likes anything this week, but a few other reviewers come through with positive words.

The X-Files: I Want to Believe. Manohla at the Times is unimpressed: "Baggy, draggy, oddly timed and strangely off the mark." Roger Ebert likes the way it explores morality and the complex choices Mulder and Scully have to make, and notes positively that there are no explosions or CGI. His review gives away a LOT of the plot though, so don't read it if you want to be surprised.

I've been excited about American Teen since it was playing at Sundance, and it still sounds pretty good despite lukewarm reviews from A.O. Scott, who thinks it feels weirdly contrived, and NY Mag's David Edelstein, who says it just reinforces everything you assume to be true about the stereotypical teen types when going in. Yeah, well, I'm seeing it anyway.

Baghead looks like a sort of goofy indie parody of people-getting-stabbed-in-the-woods horror movies that's also a little bit scary. The Times' Stephen Holden seems to like the strained relationships between the 4 characters OK, but as he often does, he mostly just describes the plot and style without quite saying if it's good or bad. David Edelstein decides that "fumblecore" is a better name for the genre than "mumblecore", and confirms that the gentle satire of horror movies is actually scary in itself. This one I will definitely see.

Step Brothers. Everybody already knows exactly what this Farrell-Reilly-Apatow movie is like, and for the most part they already hate it. Like Manohla Dargis, whose review is scorchingly disdainful: "Dudes, I understand: You have penises. You’re nice and sort of blobby and you don’t look like Tom Cruise, but you’re real men. Hot-blooded, anatomically correct men, and no one should ever forget it, least of all the ladies that you can’t stop talking dirty about and hope one day to marry because, well, that’s the kind of good, hot-blooded, anatomically correct guys you are."

Ebert really lets rip, linking the movie's gross-out humor and general vulgarity to the moral degradation of our society. His disgust is pretty intense: "Sometimes I think I am living in a nightmare. All about me, standards are collapsing, manners are evaporating, people show no respect for themselves. I am not a moralistic nut. I'm proud of the X-rated movie I once wrote. I like vulgarity if it's funny or serves a purpose. But what is going on here?"

Over at the Washington Post, Stephen Hunter finds depths of nuance and an "undertow of melancholy" in the characters and thinks the crude jokes are a riot. So who knows.

Brideshead Revisited. Everyone agrees: it's stuffy and insincere and not as good as the BBC version from the 80's. (A.O. Scott: "tedious, confused and banal.")

The movies that sound really good are the little ones. The Order of Myths is a documentary about the all-white and all-black Mardi Gras celebrations in Mobile, AL, by the same woman who did the Townes Van Zandt doc a few years ago. Manohla and Davy E. both love it.

But I can't seem to get excited about Man on Wire, a documentary about the French guy who tightrope-walked between the Twin Towers in the 70's that everybody says is good.

July 24, 2008

Rocky Horror recast

Tim Curry in Rocky Horror Picture Show

MTV has joined with Fox Television to do a remake of every high school Drama Club geek's favorite midnight movie, Rocky Horror Picture Show. I guess it will be for TV?

OK, it's not very cool to admit that I have been to a few of these screenings, complete with a shadow cast in front of the screen, props, and a theater full of assistant stage managers singing along to "Time Warp". A long time ago. But I agree with some of the very indignant Wired commenters that this will be a tough remake to pull off without enraging a lot of devoted fans.

So let's think about recasting. The cast for a Rocky Horror remake needs to be energetic and funny and able to camp it up and dance in heels and fishnets. And ideally also sing.

Here's what I've got:

Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Tim Curry was in the original. I want to see Alan Cumming, who could generate the appropriate level of drag flamboyance (as he demonstrated in the Lincoln Center production of The Bacchae recently.) Or maybe, and I know I'm going out on a limb here, Robert Downey, Jr. He's gotten himself together now, but I think he's still just unhinged enough to make it work.

Brad, the Eagle Scout do-gooder waiting to be corrupted. Barry Bostwick in the original, who later went onto "Spin City" and the forthcoming Hannah Montana movie. I think this would be perfect for Chris Klein, who needs a good comeback. Or how about this one: Justin Timberlake! He was great in Southland Tales and Black Snake Moan and has no problem with campy choreography. I'd love to see him in drag.

Janet. A very young Susan Sarandon in the original, which is still hard to believe. I'd like to see Amy Adams in the remake. She's really funny, so she'll be good at the blushing, nice-girl part at the start of the movie, and I bet she can vamp it up for the slutty transformation.

Riff Raff. Richard O'Brien in the original. We need someone who can play a sort of weirdly sexy creepy ghoul from outer space. I'm going for Rhys Ifans, or, even better, Seth Green.

Magenta. Patricia Quinn in the original, who I definitely haven't seen in anything else she's done since RHPS. We need a scary/sexy alien for this one. How about either Asia Argento, who is terrifying and hot, or maybe Pink, who is mostly just terrifying.

Eddie. It was good old Meat Loaf in the original. Kid Rock could do a good job as a crazy undead rockabilly lobotomy victim, but I think an aging, puffy, crinkly Sebastian Bach might be good too.

Columbia. Nell Campbell in the original, whose career has not taken off since. Best choice is Scarlett Johansson. I've really lost faith in her movie choices lately, but I bet she's still good in comedies, and would look great in a gold-sequined tap dancing outfit.

Then Brian Cox can play old Dr. Scott in the wheelchair.

What about Rocky? The blonde sexbot hunk of chiseled beef? Either some nameless gay porn star could do it (the original Rocky didn't have much of a legitimate career, either) or a prettyboy heartthrob, like Chace Crawford from Gossip Girl. Is he hunky enough?

July 22, 2008

American food trends: desserts vs. vegetables

Bite-size desserts vs. vegetable garden

dessert photo by pam3la

Local food, it's all the rage. It tastes better and it's better for the environment, so the thinking goes. The Times has an article today on growing demand for locally grown food, which has become so important to overworked rich people that they are having vegetable gardens installed in their urban backyards so that someone else can come over to grow and harvest food for them. Sort of like being a gentleman farmer in San Francisco. Those of more modest means are ordering locally-grown food online to have it delivered to their cubicles.

But even as grocery stores are putting big LOCAL stickers on the milk that has always been locally sourced, the local trend might not have that radical an impact on what regular people buy and eat. Organic food has been widely available for years, but still represents only 3% of total food sales.

Also, the Times reports that a recent survey of chain restaurant and big food company chefs found that locally grown produce is now the second biggest food trend in America.

Number one is bite-size desserts.

Hm. As food trends go, it looks like the Treats Truck is going to crush community supported agriculture every time.

July 21, 2008

Viva Viagra?


I don't usually watch ads on TV, but I happened to be watching baseball tonight (TV for older men?) and caught this Viagra ad, which apparently has been playing for some time:


It features a bunch of dudes sitting around singing Viva Viagra to the tune of Viva Las Vegas. These are the manly lyrics:

Got me a honey gonna set my soul, gonna set my soul on fire!
At the end of the day, I'm not a guy to stray
because she's my heart desire.

Now this lonesome toad is sick of the road
I can't wait

CHORUS; Can't wait!

I can't wait to go home.

CHORUS: Viva Viagra! Viva, Viva, VIVA VIAGRA!

Apparently some people are worried that the Viva Viagra terminology encourages the use of Viagra as a party drug. I'm more concerned that the ad might make people think that Viagra will turn them into Elvis (the Pelvis).

Also, you may want to check out this before and after chart from Pfizer, celebrating ten years of Viagra.

July 17, 2008


McConaughey does yoga on the beach

If you think of Matthew McConaughey as a celebrity product, he's one of the most consistently branded and immediately recognizable products on the planet. In most photos, he is a) on a beach, b) in shorts, c) holding a surfboard, d) wearing a do-rag, e) drunk, or most often f) a combination of at least 3 of these.

Matthew McConaughey is his own logo, and it looks like this:

McConaughey skating and surfing

or maybe like this:

McConaughey with bongos

Since Matthew McConaughey's branding is so consistent, it becomes easy to predict the details of new business ventures he's getting into. For example, if you hear that Matthew McConaughey has started a record label, what genre would you guess his first artist is in?

That's right: Reggae! The first single is "Here Comes Da Train" by Mishka.

Here's another one: What do you think his upcoming movie that he stars in and produced might be about?

Yes: surfing! Surfer Dude comes out later this year. It's also features Woody Harrelson and Willie Nelson and is about a surfer on a mystical journey. So actually, if your guess had been "smoking weed" you also would have been right.

From the IMDb message board for Surfer Dude:

Got a chance to go to an early screening... It's essentially Dazed and Confused with old dudes "soul" surfing and LOTS of weed... The whole movie's pretty much just McConaughey and Woody Harrelson getting blazed with the occasional gratuitous tits shot. I think there was one scene where it was just boobies, lots and lots of boobies for like 8 minutes.

See what I mean? The man is a rigorously disciplined marketing genius.

UPDATE: I just noticed that the director of Surfer Dude is S.R. Bindler, whose only other movie is maybe the greatest documentary ever made, Hands on a Hard Body. So yes, it will be awesome. It looks like Bindler and Matthew McConaughey were in high school together in Texas.

July 14, 2008

(53rd + 3rd) = (hookers x 2 boroughs)

53rd and 3rd, Manhattan version

The Daily News has a story on a woman who was walking to the emergency room last fall to get some help with her asthma, while wearing a long winter coat, and got picked up by the cops for prostitution. It was 2:30 AM, and she was walking alone on 3rd Avenue near 53rd St, an area the Daily News says is popular with prostitutes. You may know the Ramones song "53rd & 3rd", a song by Dee Dee Ramone about hustling for drug money back in the '70's.

Except the woman who got arrested was at 53rd and 3rd in Brooklyn. She was going to Lutheran Medical Center in Sunset Park.

Amazing. Is there some kind of cross-borough predisposition for certain intersections to attract the same kinds of people? I wonder if some South Brooklyn hookers knew the reputation of Manhattan's 53rd and 3rd and decided to base their operations at their local intersection to solicit confused old-school punk fans.

It looks like the Manhattan 53rd and 3rd hasn't changed so much since the 70's: when a big prostitution ring was busted in March (not the Spitzer one, the other one), one of its brothels was at 229 E 53rd St, just a few doors down from 3rd Avenue.

All charges were dropped against the Brooklyn woman who was mistakenly arrested last fall, and she's issued a complaint against the cop who brought her in.

July 11, 2008

Today's Times

wooden rollercoaster

The Times has a lot of especially good stuff today:

  • A response from Rep. Charles Rangel about his 4 rent-stabilized apartments in a luxury building, which the Times exposed this morning. He fails to explain why he gets to have all 4 when one is the legal limit, and pretty much just comes right out and says that Harlem should be glad he still lives there.
  • A piece on the Bronx Zoo visitors trapped in a broken-down tram, and their newfound sympathy for the animals they were there to see: "I can understand what animals feel,” one woman said. "You have no say in what happens to you. You lose all control."
  • Amazingly in-depth piece on wooden roller coasters in Pennsylvania, which have a "different psychology of fear" than steel ones. (I agree--they're scarier.)
  • Positive comments from New Yorkers about the city's plan to use two lanes of Broadway between Times Square and 34 St as a pedestrian park. Opening in August!
  • New debate over who wrote the Serenity Prayer--a Protestant theologian? Aristotle? St. Francis?
  • Obama gets in trouble for saying Americans should learn other languages; McCain gets in trouble for saying Social Security is "a disgrace."
  • A court interpreter for Spanish-speakers wrote an essay saying that many immigrant defendants don't understand the charges brought against them or their legal rights.
  • A.O. Scott tries to avoid thrill-ride comparisons in his review of Journey to the Center of the Earth. He fails. But he does note that one of the coolest uses of 3-D in the movie is when Brendan Fraser spits into the sink while brushing his teeth.

July 10, 2008

Who's Older?™: 70's edition

Florence Henderson, blueprint for generations of TV moms, says that her Brady son Christopher Knight was pressured by VH1 into marrying his America's Next Top Model wife to boost ratings for their show My Fair Brady, a spin-off of Surreal Life 4--a reality show 3-car pile-up.

Faye Dunaway, one of the greatest actresses of her generation, has been starring in straight-to-video movies lately, and has scary hands.

Florence HendersonFaye Dunaway at Baby Mama premiere

In today's Who's Older?, take a look at the two celebrities whose careers peaked in the 70's, guess which is older, then click on their names to see if you are right.

Who's Older?™

Florence Henderson or Faye Dunaway?

July 9, 2008

Ice cream + booze

Whiskey ice cream

Governor Patterson signed a whole slew of bills into law today, which will bring a few changes to New York state: there will be a new casino in the Catskills, wine tastings can start at 10:00 AM on Sundays, and the same penalties for using brass knuckles now apply to plastic knuckles, too.

He also allowed wine-flavored ice cream to be made and sold in the state, to people over 21 who are interested in eating a gross-sounding dessert.

Wine ice cream is already being made by Mercer's and Glacé de Vino in flavors, or, excuse me, "varietals", like Peach White Zinfandel and Cherry Merlot.

But really, dairy plus wine? Ew. If you're going to add a frozen dessert to wine, I think sherbet would be better.

I have no problem with other kinds of booze in ice cream, though, like whiskey. I guess now is the time to trademark my signature dessert-drink college cafeteria recipe: the Frosty Wah™.

The Frosty Wah™ is made by sneaking a bottle of whiskey into a college cafeteria, or any setting in which you have access to a soft-serve ice cream dispenser, filling a glass about 2/3 of the way with vanilla soft-serve, then adding a bunch of whiskey. Stir and drink.

Actually, this is probably one of those disgusting drinks that you would only ever consider drinking if you are actually under 21. Like wine coolers.

But at least with the Frosty Wah™ you've got a reasonably high alcohol content. With this wine ice cream, you would need to eat two whole gallons of it to equal one glass of actual wine, according to Gothamist.

Some enterprising folks over at Ice Cream Ireland have developed a recipe for chocolate whiskey ice cream that sounds very delicious, though there's only a touch of whiskey per serving. Though if you use too much whiskey in ice cream it would probably mess up the freezing process.

So the next logical step is beer ice cream: here's a recipe for Guinness ice cream, and a NY Times article about a guy in Brooklyn who makes beer-infused ice cream, though it doesn't sound like it's literally ice cream made from beer. I'm happy with the traditional and delicious Guinness float.

July 7, 2008


In today's Who'dat?™, we bring you a celebrity who has been a little out of the loop lately. He also avoids using email or cellphones, hadn't heard about Radiohead's "In Rainbows" album, and named his daughter Tuesday.

To play, try to guess who this celebrity is, then click on the photo to see if you're right.


July 2, 2008

James Brown's stuff, for sale at Christie's

James Brown's SEX jumpsuit

One result of the ongoing uncertainties and fighting over James Brown's estate is that many of his personal possessions are being auctioned off. Christie's has the full catalog online, and amidst the many jumpsuits, leather sofas, awards, original paintings, and "GFOS"-emblazoned accessories are many really personal letters and notes, and a few mementos from the darker years of his life.

Here are a few notable items up for sale.

Standard flamboyant celebrity clothing:

Some items I would love to bid on:

Really personal/cool/strange/sad stuff:

The auction is on July 17. Starting on July 12 you can go to Christie's and look at all this stuff in person.

July 1, 2008

My new favorite New Yorker: Randy Credico

The many faces of Randy Credico

The greatest guy in NYC* might be renegade drug-policy activist and stand-up comedian Randy Credico. Today's Times has a feature about him and his strategy of protesting small-time marijuana arrests. He sits on his stoop on Gay Street in the West Village, a quiet block where pot-smokers like to go, and warns people not to smoke there because the cops will likely bust them.

A pretty harmless campaign, and as Mr. Credico puts it, "Listen, I don’t want people committing crimes on my street and I tell them not to." But he also spent a night in the Tombs a few weeks ago after yelling at officers and telling them "that that they should be 'solving murders,' not making marijuana arrests."

He may claim that his warnings to pot smokers are just a crime-fighting strategy, but Credico is a much cooler and stranger guy that. He's the same one who randomly offered Shawn Kovell $25,000 for bail when she was arrested along with "preppy killer" Robert Chambers--one of my favorite stories from last year. She ended up turning down his offer for unclear reasons (she said she would have preferred rent money), but Credico's generosity seemed to stem from his desire to decriminalize drugs and get people in trouble like Shawn Kovell out of jail and into treatment.

Turns out the Times has been covering Credico's one-man crusade for some time now. Three years ago, they did another profile of him, which reveals the origins of his activism: trying to quit cocaine and happening to hear about the large number of black and Latino people in prison due to New York state's Rockefeller laws:

"I felt like I had dodged a bullet, because I'd violated those laws a million times but never came close to being arrested," he says. He was insulated, he claims, by his milieu: white, privileged and connected. "If I were black or Latino I'd be in prison right now. I feel like a lot of these guys are doing my time. Fighting these laws, which are unjust and racist, was a perfect platform for me: the antiwar movement is 0 for 50, you can't stop a war, but a movement to repeal the Rockefeller laws is something local. You can put a face on it."

When he's not on the comedy circuit, he works at the Kunstler Fund for Racial Justice, a legal aid service that fights the racially-based structure of our drug laws, and also hangs outside 100 Centre St taking pictures of judges in drug cases and undercover cops bringing in drug arrests--"Pretty easy to spot," he said. "The cops are usually white and the perps are almost always people of color." In his stand-up routine, he jokes that "Bloomberg" is Yiddish for "Giuliani".

There's also a great video of Credico in today's piece where we see him talking to cops, complaining about the drug laws, and smoking a big cigar.

*besides Christopher X. Brodeur, that is

About July 2008

This page contains all entries posted to Amy's Robot in July 2008. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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