Sunday, November 30, 2008

The Signing Detective - Parts 2 and 3 ("Heat" and "Lonely Days")

*This is part two of a series of reviews on the 1986 British mini-series written by Dennis Potter, directed by Jon Amiel, and starring Michael Gambon

After the first episode, I surmised that things could be heading in a bad direction for Mr. Marlow. But that may not be the case. After two more episodes, and now a full half-way through, it seems he may have a chance. But then again, it can't be doom and gloom the whole time. Who knows? I'm terrible at predicting what happens, so I'll likely be surprised no matter what happens.

"Heat" introduces us to two new elements of the story, broadening the scope from the already interesting play between Marlow's real experience and his imagination. To the fantastical world of Marlow's sophisticated detective and the grueling world of life in the patients' ward, Potter has introduced the more familiar device of childhood flashbacks. This world is less novel, and obviously less fun, then Marlow's alternate detective story, but as a path to recovery, I think it's a more helpful place for Marlow to dwell.

The other new piece of the story is the psychiatrist Dr. Gibbon (Bill Paterson), the likely impetus behind Marlow's reminiscences, but also the closest thing to a cliche character Potter has written so far. Maybe he only seems cliche in light of Good Will Hunting (the dynamics of the meetings resemble the Robin Williams Matt Damon tete-a-tetes), but it seems like I've seen scenes like their first encounter many times.

Though the show is still strong, I won't deny that I was a bit disappointed by the return to familiarity of the last two episodes. "Skin" was such an onslaught of original thought, speech, and staging, that it makes difficult demands on the rest of the show. I'm still highly moved and caught up in the drama, but it has moved out of the transcendent TV experience...for now.

All this to say however that the show retains many qualities, even if the musical numbers and detective world are beginning to seem more tame. One thing I appreciate about Potter's writing and Amiel's directing is just how much time and space they devote to every scene, like the story is just a beat or two off the normal pacing of TV life. Two examples should suffice, but almost every scene has moments when you can look and think without being distracted by some information meant to move the story along, or some novelty thrown in to make you laugh.

In "Heat," I'm thinking of the scene where Marlow's father is signing in the bar. It's a silly old maudlin song, obviously lip-synced, but the steady shot of the father cut with scenes of the young Marlow and the crowd (whose emotions aren't always easy to grasp) just grasp the melancholy and vagueness of nostalgia. In "Lonely Days," this scene returns, only it's now interlaced with another flashback of young Marlow riding the train after leaving his father. Staring out the window, he sees a scarecrow, while at the same time some army boys are eyeing his mom. This looping of scenes must take something like 15 minutes, and it keeps coming back to the scarecrow, sometimes waving like Phillip's father, but sometimes just there. And you keep wondering why, and if the army guys are going to do something nasty to his mom, and as it keeps looping the scene takes on even weirder and weirder elements - like the scarecrow turning into Hitler - and then you get it.

It's astonishing, really, how many times Potter and Amiel introduce the fantastical world into the mundane without anyone realizing it until the end. In "Lonely Days," the next of Marlow's tragically fated neighbors goes out in an astonishing scene, one cut with scenes of the young Marlow watching his mother sleep with a stranger - a stranger played, incidentally, by the same man who plays the possible bad character in Marlow's fictional story (Patrick Malahide), who himself is being stalked by a woman played by the same actress as Marlow's mom (Alison Steadman). It's mostly sickening, and it comes from almost out of nowhere, as it appears at the beginning to just be two men having a conversation.

This is the stuff that continues to make the show great. I'm still a little annoyed by the psychiatrist scenes (though Gibbon does do a good job of mocking the traditional psychological explanations, even as the show exploits them), and I share Marlow's fear of seeing more his ex-wife, though for different reasons (she simply looks out of place), but I'm definitely ready for a great final three hours.

Review - Part 1

Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Signing Detective - Part 1 ("Skin")

*As a result of a serious computer issue at chez Sean, yours truly will be in charge of the content for the foreseeable future. This of course means that no fun will be had, and that all the reviews will be serious discussions of capital-A Art. So, with that warning, let me begin with a 6-part review of a 22 year-old British mini-series.

I had a good feeling about The Singing Detective. Not sure why, but I just did. I first heard of it a few weeks ago while reading Anthony Lane's rather harsh review of Synecdoche, New York, where he mentioned the 1986 mini-series as a counterexample to Charlie Kauffman's apparently limp portrayal of a "fading man." The only comment about Dennis Potter's BBC classic was that it was "rendered with unstinting vigor." From Lane, I guess this was enough.

After the first Episode ("Skin"), hell, after the first scene, I can say I've been hooked. The opening shot is a classic noir overhead of a man outside a bar examining his hand. A monologue, one you can feel coming from the opening bars of the harmonica score, begins, "The doorman of a nightclub can always explain that it's lipstick on his hand and not blood, but how did it get there? Lets be economical, nothing fancy...if he smacked some dame across the mouth then he's got both answers in one."

After a few more cryptic comments and scenes we cut to a modern hospital for the terminally ill. As a contrast to the dark and hazy opening scenes it's jarring, all white and fluorescent lights, with everyone in the ward as ugly as the noir characters are attractive. What we learn soon enough - soon enough so that this isn't a spoiler - is that the opening scenes are all taken from the possibly insane mind of Phillip Marlow, a disagreeable patient in the ward suffering from a painful and disfiguring skin disease.

Marlow is played by the excellent Micheal Gambon, an actor I'm sorry to say I couldn't have named but who has appeared in at least a half-dozen fine films, most probably known for his work in Harry Potter, but whom I knew best as Oseary Drakoulis from The Life Aquatic. As a man who can hardly move or talk, it must have been a challenging role, but also a pleasure, as Potter gives Gambon some rants that would put Aaron Sorkin or David Mamet to shame. There are several great examples, but my favorite involves an internal monologue as Marlow tries to keep himself from having an erection while a nurse "greases" him. It's way too long to capture, but it includes references to Finnegan's Wake and Semiology.

As should be clear, Potter is unashamedly literate, naming his main character (short an "e") after Raymond Chandler's classic detective, and references to all things high and low abound, with Marlow joking to his doctors that he considers himself a Malthusian interspersed with elegies on the cigarette. Every conversation, in both worlds, crackles with wit and spontaneity in a way that makes you wonder why television writing is so boring (it does that in retrospect; at the time, you're just enjoying the show). Even shows I adore, from Northern Exposure to The Wire to Mad Men, simply don't have this high level of writing (though they all have their own qualities - I admit writing is not everything). And it's not all melodrama and the over-enunciation of the stage that drives the writing, but simple conversations, reflections, and straightforward rage.

Complementing Potter's writing is some nimble work by Jon Amiel, who directed all six episodes yet surprisingly isn't listed in the opening credits.* This is Potter's show, for sure, but Amiel does a fantastic job of capturing the world of Marlow's mind, setting up angles and lighting that are perfect copies of classic 50s-era of noir. If these weren't supposed to be fantasy, it would be too much, but for the drama of the mind, it's perfect. Amiel also gets to stage a few great musical set pieces (here's where the Singing part comes in), one of which rivals (in staging, if not in overall production values) the best work from All That Jazz.

*Amiel seems to have stuck out on his first shot at Hollywood, with forgettable works like The Core, Entrapment, and Copycat, but he returns in 2009 with Creation, a biopic of Darwin.

The Singing Detective is quite simply a revelation. And I mean that seriously, in that its methods of visual and aural story-telling open up ideas that I hadn't realized were available. It is at times heartbreakingly sad, painful, and funny. So far, we've seen the raging and bitter Marlow, the one who won't accept his disease and mocks his doctors, and we've seen that his hallucinations or imaginations (depending on your perspective) have begun to get more elaborate. I have no idea where the show will go from here; I'm assuming the rage will be tempered a bit, but we won't be heading for a happy ending. Marlow is in at least his early sixties, can no longer write because he cannot hold a pen, and has been suffering an untreatable disease for close to twenty years that is now at it's most painful point. Oh, and he may be losing his mind. If "unstinting vigor" means what I think it means, I'm preparing for the worst.

Links
Anthony Lane's review of Synecdoche, New York (and High School Musical 3!)
Chapter 1 Part 1 (I'm watching this from a Torrent, but it's all there on youtube) To find the rest, just change the 'CH' and 'PT' numbers in the search query.

Monday, November 17, 2008

The Brood

Dir. - David Cronenberg

Sean viewed this one From the Couch:

[The Brood is one of those films that really cannot be discussed without talking about what we learn in the final ten minutes of the film - so expect spoilers. Suffice to say, it is a great little psycho-horror film by David Cronenberg that any fan of his should not hesitate to see.]

To continue with our recent divergence into horror films, we'd like to draw your attention to David Cronenberg's 1979 feature The Brood. A film about one hell of a dysfunctional family featuring a mother that ranks up there with Lady Macbeth and Medea in the category of Worst Mom Ever. Nola, played an effectively spooky Samantha Egger, is receiving treatment by Hal Raglan (Oliver Reed), a doctor specializing in "psychoplasmics" -- which involves patients being isolated from the rest of the world in his compound while he treats them by taking on the roles of family members and working through their problems by bringing all their negative emotions to the surface. The ads for Psychoplasmics should warn patients of various side effects including the manifesting of multiple legions, sores, lymphatic cancer, and the production of homicidal mutant five year olds from an asexual sac. Some might say that Psychoplasmics is a bunch of new age hoo-ha, but you can't really argue with those kinds of results -- the parthenogenesis means it's working!

The movie begins as Nola's husband Frank (Art Hindle) picks up his daughter from a weekend visit at Dr. Raglan's and comes home to find scratches and bite marks on his five year old and begins to wonder what's going on at the mysterious facility. Frank immediately thinks his cuckoo wife has been abusing the child, refuses further weekend visits and shows this evidence to his lawyer. But soon Nola's parents start showing up beaten to death and Frank nearly gets a fancy paperweight driven into his head by a very angry little person without a belly button and soon enough Frank is drawing the connection between his wife's rage and the mutant killers.

Cronenberg had been through his own custody battle over his daughter before making this film and it's easy to look at The Brood as Kramer vs. Kramer with more bludgeoning and trauma. But just as present is Cronenberg's ongoing discussion of the limitless human. It's frightening enough that acne breakouts, eczema, ulcers and worse are linked to stress and a person's mental state, so to base a horror movie on the subject is perfect and it's a testament to his vision that he makes what could have been an unintentionally hilarious premise into something brilliantly disturbing. Having little people dressed up like Kenny from South Park jumping out of corners with hammer in hand should be knee slapping, funny stuff and while it is audacious enough to make the movie fun to watch it's a Cronenberg movie, and therefor has every second soaked in dread and unease even in the most mundane of moments.

It's worth noting that The Brood represents Cronenberg's first collaboration with Howard Shore, who went on to score all but one of his films since as well as many of the creepier Demme, Scorcese and Fincher movies of the past 25 years (as well as those hobbit movies). Unlike Spielberg's ongoing collaboration with John Williams, Shore has yet to become a liability. Shore compliments his movies with expert technique, sometimes playfully prodding as he does in The Brood but never as overbearingly abusive as Williams can get.

I'm almost ashamed to admit it's taken me this long to see The Brood. Maybe the lack of fun I had with Rabid scared me off of pre-Scanners Cronenberg. Whatever the reason, this is clearly his first great movie and if it weren't for the amazing performances in Scanners, I'd say it might even be better than that classic. While there's nothing bad about Hindle, Reed or Egger, there's nothing approaching the gonzo performance Powers Boothe gives in Scanners. Hindle was surprisingly good given I'd never really noticed him in any of the other work he's done, but like everyone else in The Brood, he doesn't do much to make Frank stand out from being a rather broad characterization.

Seeing The Brood now of course brings up the argument, or rather the complaint, about Cronenberg moving away from this sort of "body horror" that he became so closely associated with through the 80's and 90's. Films like Videodrome, The Fly, Crash, eXistenZ and terms like "the new flesh" and images like plugging a video game into a sphincter leading to your spinal cord are all deliriously rich and wondrously subversive, unique worlds to get lost in -- the kind of films that only a handful of people like David Lynch, Takashi Miike and Terry Gilliam have the wherewithal to achieve. So of course it can be disheartening to see Cronenberg move away from this sort of material -- it's like hearing George Lucas is going to do a personal, non-sci-fi movie. Oh wait, you know what, that would be fantastic. Truth is, I don't get people whining about this sort of nonsense. You'd think these directors are on their death bed and the next movie will be their last. Put yourself in their shoes -- would you be happy being stuck in one genre for your entire career? All these directors that people fret about are successful directors that have control over their own careers -- there are decisions that they are making because they want to make these films. Either you like a director or you don't or you have no opinion. Why wouldn't you just be happy that someone you like is making a new movie? I think it's completely rediculous to complain about the path someone wants to take. To think that a critic or a fanboy has a better sense of judgment than the person that's been making these great films is frighteningly pompous bullshit. David Lynch made one of the best film of his career about a guy riding a lawnmower for a few days and it was rated G. Here's to more directors shifting gears and doing projects outside their comfort zone. Even though I wasn't a big a fan of History of Violence as some people were, Eastern Promises is still my favorite movie of '07 on most days and I look forward to whatever Cronenberg has in store.

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Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veteran's Day Halloween Catch Up or, Body Snatching Fido Severance Vacancy Supernatural

Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Halloween exists in my world merely as a good excuse to watch scary movies. Usually I sync up the Netflix queue and program a little mini marathon, stay up too late, drink too much and generally have a good time with a mix of new and old movies. This year though, the drinks came early, the movie started late and I was asleep after only one film -- the 1978 remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It's a rare case where the remake outshines the original and a film that evokes, even better than All the President's Men or Parallax View, the wounded, paranoid post-Nixon American psyche. It certainly helps that the movie is filled with note-perfect Sutherland, Nimoy and Goldblum performances, and features a scene in a mud bathhouse that still is absolutely transfixing, but you had Philip Kaufman at the helm coming into realization of the great powers he had, just before the brilliant Wanderers and All the Right Stuff (what a great run of films). Perhaps the greatest, most effective tool in creating two hours of creeping dread is the wondrously deranged, atonal score from first-timer Denny Zeitlin -- a set of music so amazing that Zeitlin never made another score afterward. Or as IMDb puts it: "Was so worn out by the work he put into Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978), on which he worked over four weeks worth of 20-hour days, that he vowed that he would never write another film score. Because of the accolades and praise that the highly unusual and innovative score received, he was given many offers to do many more film scores, but he refused them all." And so began the movie career of Phillip Glass.

I've seen the original a number of times and Abel Ferrara's oddly luke warm 1993 version more than once, but have not seen the recent Nicole Kidman vehicle. This story really works in the 50s and 70s due to the political climate of the US. Sci-fi and horror excel at taking a mirror to society and skewing their fears to create metaphors ripe for storytelling. Here you have the story of society being overtaken by pod people. You wake up one day to find your loved ones suddenly soulless -- they look the same but are now just cogs in the machine. For a story so rooted in paranoia, 1993 is quite possibly the worst year to remake Body Snatchers. But 2007, right smack in the middle of the second term of the Bush years, should have been the sweet spot for another updated winner. Yet I've heard nothing but mildly negative things, but I'm guessing this is the exact kind of movie that will show up on one of the Encore channels soon, so I'm sure I'll get a chance to check in on this missed opportunity soon.

In the meantime, I have a couple of Netflix rentals sitting next to the tv that have been waiting patiently for me, as well as some space on the DVR to free up, so let's pop open a breakfast beer, say a silent toast to John McCain and dig in. Updates will follow.

Fido

Fido was a film I'd first heard of back at the Boston Independent Film Fest a couple years back. And true to it's buzz at the time, it features a surprisingly effective performance from Billy Connolly as the titular zombie. It's the late 50's/early 60's and a radioactive fog has settled in which causes the dead to come back to life. Actually, the question of whether or not these zombies should be considered dead or alive is a central question to Fido. See, after the Zombie War, ZomCom, a corporation dedicated to controlling the zombie menace, has discovered a way to neutralize a zombies natural urges to eat people by attaching a collar around their necks. This of course leads to the rich buying zombies to be their servants and forcing them to performing manual labor jobs like being the door man, the milk man, the paper boy, etc.

So when a wealthy ZomCom security agent moves to town with his family, Mrs. Robinson (Carrie Anne Moss) decides to buy her family their first zombie so as to fit in with the rest of the neighborhood. Everyone else has one. But Mr. Robinson (Dylan Baker) had to kill his own father during the Zombie War, and when his son Timmy and Mrs. Robinson start to get a bit too attached to their charmingly faithful zombie (Timmy names him Fido before a game of fetch turns sour) an already dysfunctional family starts to break at the seams.

Fido isn't really a horror movie -- there certainly aren't any scares to be had. There is a bit of blood and severed body parts, which is standard with any movie featuring zombies, but it's a pretty straightforward satire and one that looses much of it's bite midway through. There's a lot of fun to be had as the movie sets up it's world a we see kids being taught about zombies and learning how to shoot for the brain, not the heart at their school shooting range; men with Zombie War PTSD; Tim Blake Nelson as a skeevy neighbor who uses his teenage girl zombie for unconventional purposes and how the elderly aren't to be trusted since they can drop dead at any moment and awaken zombified (or as one of the many funny commercials puts it, "Help my grandfather's fallen and he's gotten back up!"). But the story is essentially a very sweet one which both hurts it and helps it. Billy Connelly gives a remarkable performance almost entirely through his eyes and body language. He's always been a reliably good actor whenever he pops up, but here he's transcendent and really steals the movie by making such a warm and lovable zombie. If they could have left the rather dull plot of Fido being taken away from the family by ZomCom and the last third of the movie and found a better way to create drama rather than grinding away at the joke of having a zombie in the place of Lassie and aiming too squarely for the heartstrings, we could have had a much sharper satire about the evils and downfall of a society that only works to provide itself with more creature comforts.

Severance

Here we have your old fashioned running through the woods being chased by a guy with a flame thrower horror movie. And not a bad one at that. Being a modern horror film, a 2006 British one, it does have a health dose of humor in the mix. We have the sales team from a global weapons corporation going to the countryside in Hungary for a team building weekend only to end up in the laps of some pissed off ex-soldiers with a bad case of shell shock. Actually these two movies have had an unsuspected bit of irony for Veteran's Day viewing.

It's a well made movie, a bit of a shaky start but once it gets the characters to the main location -- a classic cabin in the woods scenario, it plays with conventions and expectations in refreshingly clever ways. There are enough twists and surprises, gore and laughs to keep fans of the genre entertained and even though there's some gruesome moments, it's handled with a pretty light touch so you don't feel like you're being subjected to Hostel 3. Which reminds me, what I did enjoy with Severance was that the filmmakers actually put some work into creating characters that you could like and not want to see offed. British actor Danny Dryer plays a lovable pot smoking, mushroom eating bloke who at first seems a bit forced into the movie (there always has to be the stoner dude, right?) but he, along with a few other characters, actually manage to grow on you and therefore give the movie the suspense it needs. the story is pretty tight too, with a lot of bait and switch and details laid down in the first half that really pay off in the second. It's not a new classic or anything but for a pretty tired genre it is a welcome entry.

I don't know if I'll get to the last movie today, Vacancy. I got some soup I gotta make and the day is passing by a lot quicker than expected. We'll see...

Supernatural

You know what, instead let's talk briefly about something of high quality that I'm familiar with, Supernatural. Now that Mad Men is over for the foreseeable future, Supernatural may indeed be my most anticipated weekly hour long show. If you've ever enjoyed Buffy or Angel, X-Files or Night Stalker or any variation on the monster of the week formula, you owe yourself a favor to watch Supernatural. The short summary of the show is two brother who've gotten the torch passed down by their father to travel the country in a badass black Chevy Impala and keep the things that go bump in the night from going bump in the night. Not only is it regularly pretty fuckin' freaky, it's also funny, absorbing and does a great job of working with and continuously developing it's main characters of Sam and Dean Winchester as well as the unique world in which they live in.

The strength of any good sci-fi show is how well the world it's presenting is crafted. There are legions of sci-fi fans out there that will reward your show if you can fully realized, rich world to get lost in on a weekly basis. Even if your show is as shitty as Heroes, kudos can come your way if you create an interesting mythology which is something Supernatural has expertly developed in it's 3+ seasons and it's why each season seems to get better and better. And unlike Heroes, Supernatural has some good writers/producers like Massachusetts own Ben Edlund creating suspenseful stories and offering smart, witty dialog rather than plodding plots and groan inducing exposition-only blather. Oh, and the show often has Kim Manners directing -- one of the best directors from the X-Files series.

My favorite thing about Supernatural may be it's ability to perfectly juggle the monster-of-the-week stories with the larger season-long story arcs and the character development. A common technique this season has been wrapping up the weekly monster story around the 45 minute mark and taking the last 5 or so minutes of air time to deliver a usually bittersweet coda (something that Fringe is using to good effect, though that show has yet to shake off its 1st season jitters) that touches upon Sam and Dean's role in the upcoming apocalypse and Dean's lingering side effects of spending a few months in hell. All these supernatural elements are treated with an amazingly balanced use of deadpan matter-of-factness and often hilarious what-the-fuckery -- equal parts seriousness and playfulness.

A large part of the shows success is due to the actor who plays Dean Winchester, Jensen Ackles (the shorter one). At first I thought he was simply another WB pretty boy, but I've found him to be one of the best actors on basic broadcast TV. He's funny as hell, has some of the best timing of any actor on TV, and did a pretty good job at convincing me that he'd just climbed out of his own grave at the beginning of this fourth season. Jared Padalecki as Sam Winchester isn't bad either, he's more the straight man in the Dean and Sam relationship, I've grown fond of him in a way, and he and Jensen have certainly gotten down some of the best chemistry of any show out there right now.

Or maybe I just have a thing for shows where the average guy or girl gets stuck with the burden of preventing the apocalypse. It's a juicy premise and it's a joy watching the Winchester brothers deal with this issue every week. At any rate, until Lost gets back, this is the place to be for smart, suspenseful, spooky television. So stop thinking the WB is a dead zone for entertainment already.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Beer of the Month - Special Belgian Edition

We arrived, unloaded and had calamari and Vedett at the Arcadi Cafe. Vedett was a true find -- it's everywhere around Brussels and yet this was the first I'd heard of it. It's crisp, refreshing and very blond -- or blonde, a word used to describe a style that you hear a lot about in the area. Most beers break down into Blondes, Dubbels, Tripels (which I'll call BDT) and Wittes (White/Wheat beer). So if you're looking for an easy going beer, say you're a Bud man and dipping your toe in the Belgian pool, Vedett is an excellent, solid beginning. There's a Vedett Extra White as well, but this was relatively unseen outside of the Duvel Brewery Depot -- which is a shame since it's also a great, tasty beer.

Yes, we did get a tour of the Duvel Brewery while in town. Which is kinda misleading because the Duvel brewery is pretty much in the middle of nowhere, or rather Breendonk, the small village town that surrounds it. Duvel is one of the beers that is everywhere in Belgium and really, it might be the easiest Belgian beer to get your hands on wherever you are in the world; and so the brewery was somehow surprisingly small. I wasn't expecting an Anheiser-Busch type operation, but the brewery had a very cool, personable feel to it. It's a big place, but if you work there, everybody knows your name. Of course the beer is fantastic. Duvel, Vedett and Maredsous (an abbey-style ale that is brewed BDT and is also prominent in the area) are all brewed here and there's not a bad apple in the bunch. The Maredsous Tripel is especially eye opening. Our tour guide mentioned that she highly prefers the Duvel aged at least one year but I have to say I don't think I've had a better Duvel or Maredsous than the one we had poured for us from the Depot.

At Cafe Bizon, decorated with much Americana, I had the best Westmalle I've ever had (a dubbel). It's the perfect representation of the dubbel style -- it's a rich golden color, it's not going to knock you on your ass but it isn't kdding around either. It's the beer you go for when the blonde has lost it's gentlemanly charm but you don't want to deal with the responsibilities of the tripel. Bizon is also where I discovered that there's more than one Hoegaarden. They're all still whitbiers (white/wheat beers) but America is missing out on the Grand Cru. It's like the darker, boozier, tastier papa of the easily accessible Hoegaarden you can find in the states. At Monk I think I had my first Blanche de Bruges, another witbier that is absent from my menus at beer bars around home. It's absolutely great and possibly because I had a couple more of these that I rate it higher than the Hoegaarden Grand Cru.

After our tour of the Duvel brewery, before venturing to our brief rendezvous with Antwerp, we took a side trip to Westvleteren. Home of the Trappist Abbey of Saint Sixtus of Westvleteren where they brew the holy BDT trinity. Their tripel is regarded in some circles as being the best beer in the world, but let me tell you the blonde is a strong contender for that throne as well. Of all the souvenirs we brought back -- getting the mixed six pack of Westvleteren beers safely back home is a treasured thing. It's no easy task getting to Westvleteren or even obtaining their prized libation. There is a cafe across the street from the monastery where they sell six packs and other hand made goods, but you get the impression that if you're not an early bird you may be out of luck. The only other way to obtain this precious beer is to make a deal with the monks that involves giving them your drivers license info and signing an oath that you won't resell their beer. In Antwerp we confirmed that there is a grey area where the monks may indeed strike deals with a choice few local bars to sell their beer.

We found this rumor to be true at the Antwerp destination of the Kulminator - possibly the best beer bar on the planet. The kind of place where you could drop 40+ euro on a finely aged bottle of Piraat. I came close to doing just that and am a little saddened that I didn't. Probably the gold star find of our time well spent at Kulminator was the beers from Abbaye des Rocs. We tried the brun (Dubbel) and the blonde and both were pretty amazing. Their beers were recommended to us by a mildly boisterous gentleman who had moved to the table next to us and took the term "beer geek" to a heretofore unknown level. I've been to plenty of beer fests so I suppose I've walked amongst the man with the Excel spreadsheet filled with the hundreds of beers they've sampled from around the world, their personal ratings and ABVs and so on... I've simply never witnessed their particular force of nature up close and personal. But without him I might have missed out on Abbaye des Rocs and Black Jack, a Swedish Imperial Porter from the Struise brewery that was pretty damn tasty as well. Also imbibed was the Moinette Biologique, an organic blonde from Dupont, and a couple beers from St. Feuillien (not St. Freulien as I liked to call it) including their memorable xmas beer which was on tap as was as an excellent blonde from Kasteel. Honestly there wasn't a bad beer to be had at Kulminator. If I ever make it back to the area, a trip to Kulminator will be considered a necessity.

Back in Brussels, we made a stop at Morte Subite after taking in the Comic Strip Museum. Morte Subite is a bit of a renowned place -- they've been in business since the 20's and brew their own beers as well as serving a good variety of other Belgians. This may have been the place that I had my first Dupont while in Belgium. Saison Dupont is certainly a contender for best Belgian beer. It's a beer I've had in the states but I think it's impossible to not have beers such as Dupont, Duvel and Hoegaarden taste infinitely better when had in Brussels.

At the legendary Delirium Tremens bar I finally had that first local, delicious Piraat as well as the Corsendonk Pater Dubbel and a Chimay Premiere. There was definitely a thrill in getting these rare-in-the-states variations on familiar brands. And of course some Delirium was had. The bar actually had the best list of American beers that I'd seen during the whole trip. The bar itself was pretty packed, not the most comfortable place to have a drink, but I enjoyed the experience -- be on the look out for some video footage of this place.

Soon after Delirium we were on to Amsterdam. The highlight of this excursion was Cafe Inde Wildeman. I sincerely was worth the rediculous amount of time it took to find the place -- nestled in a corner of the strip mall that is Nieuwendijk. Cafe Inde Wildeman is a soul warming place in the middle of the surrounding disillusionment. Many great beers to be had -- the best list of beers on tap I'd seen during the entire trip. Two beers under the name of Jopen (Koyt & Rock n' Roel) that were amazing; Budels Parel, Achel 8 Brun, La Trappe Dubbel & LT Bock, Texelse Hazeloth, Hemel Helse Engel... so many amazing beers that by the end of the trip it seemed not all that crazy to turn into the guy at Kulminator and end up carrying around your laptop with a spreadsheet to keep track of it all.

So what's the beer of the month? It's no easy choice. I haven't even mentioned the everyday beers like Jupiler and Maes or the taken for granted amazing beers like the St. Bernardus line or the Rocheforts. It being November already I'm tempted to call it the St. Feuillien Xmas beer. It's easily the best xmas beer I've ever had -- winter beers are generally pretty lousy in their use of spices in my opinion. But I'm going to give it to Vedette. It's an unassuming beer. One that I possibly would never of had unless I made the trip out there and the beer that I most likely would make a staple of my diet had I stayed there longer or if it made it's way out here. I think Vedett is primed to break into the states. It's one of the few beers from Belgium that has a bit of hoppiness to it (in this regard it might not be the best beer I could pick to represent Belgium but so be it) and I could easily picture it becoming a huge hit if it found its way into the tap rotation of Redbones, Bukowski's or the Publik House. Therefore it is the beer of the month.