Archive for the ‘Death’ Category

What’s In A Name.

Posted: November 16, 2016 in Death, Life, Uncategorized

 

My friend Jamie Righetti wrote a piece this past week called That Time The Movies Saved My Life. As I do so frequently with her stuff, I’ve re-read that piece several times since she posted it. I like the clarity and the economy of her writing, and of course the message. I can relate to that theme. Movies, and the friends I’ve made through a shared love of movies, have saved my spirits — if not my life — time and time again.

 

But this year, 2016, the hardest year of my life by any measure, has found me watching less movies than I have probably since I was an infant. I haven’t been able to sit through movies without my mind wandering, or shutting down entirely due to sleep from exhaustion. Writing, the other great savior for me normally, is another thing I’ve done less of in 2016 than I’d like to admit. I’ve been wondering why that is — no, that’s not accurate. I haven’t had much time to wonder about it. It’s just the way things have been. I move through the day with limited purpose. If I happen to see a movie or write a few sentences, good. Sometimes it’s all I can do to remember to eat.

 

Life gets in the way.

 

Death gets in the way.

 

Movies haven’t been enough to save me. Writing hasn’t been enough to save me. I can’t do movies because I can’t focus on any narrative for two hours at a time. I can’t write because to me, writing is opening up a vein, and I just haven’t been able to risk that this year because if I start the bleeding, the bleeding might not stop.

 

This hasn’t been the ideal year for me to check out mentally. On top of working a day job and having all the constraints and demands of a personal life, I’ve been editing the website Daily Grindhouse for a couple years now. Recently we’ve taken incredible strides forward and the site has grown exponentially, which is a wonderful development but not so convenient when you’re a husk of a former self. I’m near-constantly copy-editing submissions and answering emails, and even still I’m constantly behind. I call this the Year Of A Hundred Thousand Apologies. Lately I feel like all I do is make apologies. Everything’s late. Everything’s still pending. Everything’s coming soon. I’ll get to that, I promise. No really, you’re important. I’ve been telling so many truths they start to feel like lies.

 

The reality is that I don’t really want to be here. I don’t say that in a way that anybody needs to worry about me. I’ve had a hundred long dark nights of the soul, and I’ve made it through them all. But that lowness, that aloneness, the more dire feelings Jamie speaks to in her essay, I’ve been there. A lot. And recently.

 

Mainly it’s about my cousin. Charlie died just about eight months ago. Some of the people closest to him had a sense it was coming, but I didn’t. Being four years older than him, I always figured I’d be gone first. I literally could not conceive of a world without Charlie. I still can’t. It’s wrong. He’s like my little brother. He’s not like my little brother. He is my little brother. We were supremely close. We talked by phone or texted every single day. We saw each other regularly, even during the darkest times of either of our lives. If you’re any one of the scores of people let down by me personally or professionally in some way during my Year Of A Hundred Thousand Apologies, you know I’m not generally that great at staying in touch with anybody. But Charlie, I was always there for. Because he was always there for me. And now he isn’t. And I have to reckon with that, somehow.

 

Though I make awkward stabs at it here and there, I’ve never been fully comfortable with airing out my feelings, and Charlie in particular is a subject I’ve always kept close to the vest. He didn’t like to be talked about, so I didn’t talk much about him. He was my secret identity. Charlie and I shared the silliest in-jokes, the most humiliating stories, the sources of our deepest pain, our anxieties, our crushes, our resentments, our prejudices, and our greatest causes of fury, and together, we came up with solutions. How do you get through the day with all the pain of being a sensitive human being in this vicious world? Charlie and I, we did it together. We talked it out. And what we couldn’t solve, we put a cap on with the most absurd humor. When all else fails, get silly. He understood that, like few others. I love many people profoundly, but him I needed.

 

Charlie and I talked about movies, we talked about comic books, we talked about toys. As similar as we were temperamentally, we weren’t the same guy; he got more enjoyment out of nostalgia than I did. I’m always looking for the next thing to obsess over, but he found the most comfort in happy memories. Still, I was fine with going there with him. It’s just that now, going there without him is painful. So maybe that’s why I haven’t been able to find as much pleasure in the activities I used to enjoy so much. Because I can’t tell Charlie about ’em. And there’s a part of me that relishes denying myself joy. That’s always been there, but it’s back with a vengeance, because now there’s a part of me that’s very angry at myself for not saving him. I couldn’t have, I don’t think, but try telling that to my subconscious mind.

 

When you lose a person, if you love them enough, they become a part of you. I believe that, but it takes work to get there. Long story short, that answers the question some have posed as to why I changed my social media handle across the board to Jon Zilla. It’s something Charlie would have enjoyed. It’s probably something he called me at some point. He had all kinds of fun nicknames for me. In fact, come to think of it in text messages he used “Jon-Ra” a lot, and it’s a lateral move from Mothra to Godzilla so there you go. In 2016 I needed a bit of a disconnect from “Jon Abrams.” Jon Abrams is a guy who’s been through the wringer; he’s endured a whole lot of pain both physical and emotional, and he’ll continue to do it because he has no other choice, but as an idea, maybe he needed some time off. I’ve had almost no time off in 2016, very literally, so in a weird way I had to give my very identity a little break. As if I hadn’t had enough stress and loss in my life for one year, there’s also been plenty of tension between me and the guy whose face and surname I carry, but I don’t really want to write about that publicly. Point is, for a while there it was a bit of a drag even for me to look in the mirror and to read my own signature.

 

I wouldn’t be writing this if I couldn’t bring it to a happy ending of sorts. You’re reading the words of a guy who has faced down his demons every minute of every day throughout this godforsaken year, and as of press time, I won. There are a lot of good reasons to appreciate the time we’re given on this planet, as difficult as that time can be. There are people who really do need me. There are things I really do believe I was meant to do while I’m here, things I haven’t done yet. I will not shirk my duty. I will not deprive myself any longer. As hard as 2016 has been, I’ve also taken control of my physical health, having lost twenty pounds and having been enjoying dating more than I have all decade. Every time the darkness has come for me in my head, I’ve beaten it back, with the power of my own better thoughts and with the strength I’ve gotten from my support system — some who are still with me, some who are no longer but will always be. Again, my cousin Charlie is a beacon. Whenever I voiced how I felt overweight and sloppy-looking, Charlie would say to me, “You look like a movie star.” When I called myself stupid, he called me “the smartest person I know” (and he knew a whole lot of genuinely brilliant people.) There was no deep dark pit of despair I threw myself into that Charlie could not get me out of, in just a few words. Charlie is still with me; that’s a fact. He said things that saved me. If he’s not here to say them to me anymore, I have to say them to myself now.

 

So I saved my own life, with help. I did it today, and I’ll do it again tomorrow. I am the king of monsters.

 

Love you brother.

 

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— JON ZILLA.

 

 

 

 

 

These are some words I wrote four years ago about a comedian who many people never got the chance to know, one worth rediscovering.

 

 

 

“You know how it ends? We all die, that’s how it fucking ends, and you can’t bring your iPod. Sorry!” — Mike DeStefano.

 

 

Mike DeStefano was a known name in New York comedy, steadily gaining in widespread fame. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of him until the seventh season of Last Comic Standing, where he made the final five contestants, and at first, I didn’t even like him that much. His voice was loud and abrasive and exactly reminiscent of those big-mouths who stand out in Bronx crowds, the kind of pricks who spill peanuts and popcorn on you in the stands at a Yankees game. He definitely had a distinctive look, unconventional among many of today’s comedians, with his spiky gray hair and tattooed arms and a furrowed brow that looks not unlike the Scottish actor Brian Cox. DeStefano’s manner was equally brash and confrontational – when he got voted off the show, he told America what they could do with their vote.

 

 

That’s the moment I became a fan. A little late to the party, sure, but I made up for lost time by enjoying the tons of clips of DeStefano’s comedy on YouTube and elsewhere. His one recorded album is called OK KARMA and it remains a refreshing blast of noxious energy and battered honesty. It’s still one of my favorite comedy albums ever. It helped that he was a Bronx guy – I grew up the next town over, admittedly in somewhat more comfortable circumstances, but believe me, I know a ton of guys like Mike DeStefano, so I know a little something about what he’s talking about. I’ve walked the same beat, though his stories are way better. If I say I know a ton of guys like him, I’ve rarely heard anyone express themselves as clearly, as simply, and as recognizably. He might sound a little angry, but that’s good, isn’t it? There’s a lot about this world that should make you angry. If you can live in contemporary American society without getting angry sometimes, then I hope you like the taste of sand, because you’re an ostrich up to your neck in it.

 

 

DeStefano’s comedy was unapologetically angry, born of real hard living and pain. In the startling episode of WTF where he was interviewed by host Marc Maron, he laid out the wreckage of his past in raw detail. DeStefano used Maron’s show, one of the most thoughtful and probing venues anywhere in America, to talk about his HIV-positive status. It was just one more brave admission in a long line of them. DeStefano’s rap wasn’t intended to get sympathy or accolades for himself – he talked about his substance abuse issues and his HIV diagnosis in order to show that anyone could overcome similar histories and still live a worthy life. He spoke about recovery and comedy with the zeal of a preacher, and it was both inspiring and hilarious. This was a guy who was on the front lines of truth-telling. He spoke to his own truth, emboldened with the confidence speaking truth gives a person, and personally speaking, it was a truth that I can recognize and that I happen to believe. Every word I ever heard him say about religion, race, and sexuality was more accurate and concise than anybody I ever agreed with who wasn’t nearly as funny. Maybe that’s why I was initially, temporarily put off to his comedy: Because I knew it was true. This was a great comic who had important things to say.

 

 

Mike DeStefano died on Sunday March 6th, at the age of 44.

 

 

 

 

He had been touring a one-man show based on his life and experiences, to strong reviews. Could have been the breakthrough he deserved. I never met this man, and the loss belongs to his family and friends alone, but I still can’t help feeling a great sadness. We really can’t afford to lose people like this one. There aren’t a lot of people in the public eye who are so fearless in speaking such brutal, twisted, and – yes – loving thoughts. Mike DeStefano was a truth-belching bulldog of zen and comedy, and we can only hope that he was able to inspire enough people and change enough minds in his brief career that losing him so soon makes any kind of cosmic sense.

 

 

Mike-Destefano

 

 

 

 

THE RAID 2 (2014)

 

 

 

Having rewatched this movie this afternoon in a haze of antibiotics, I expanded my thoughts on THE RAID 2 from the short piece on it in my Blu-Ray column, which I posted earlier this week.

 

 

 

Gareth Evans is a new action director to take very seriously: He’s growing into a world-class directing talent, in my opinion. 2009′s MERANTAU was plenty promising, an able showcase for both star Iko Uwais and for Uwais’ specialty, the Indonesian martial art pencak silat. 2011′s THE RAID: REDEMPTION delivered and then some. It was one of my top five films that year, as much as that distinction matters.

 

 

Evans’ next directorial credit after THE RAID was ‘SAFE HAVEN‘, the piece he co-directed with Timo Tjahjanto for the anthology V/H/S/2. It’s a bolt of scarcely-restrainable horror electricity. All on its own, SAFE HAVEN made my top two last year.

 

 

Evans’ style has potency, a rare quality among younger directors, especially those working in the genres of action and horror. As genre directing has trended towards the over-use of hand-held camerawork, much has been lost in the crucial areas of clarity, continuity, and identification — if I can’t entirely see what’s happening or who it’s happening to, it’s harder to stay involved on any level.

 

 

By contrast, Gareth Evans creates immediate empathy in an audience for unfamiliar actors playing characters who only just appeared onscreen a moment ago. Through smartly-chosen camera angles and clever deployment of tactile elements and technical arts like sound, Evans creates believable environments with simple strokes: The scrape of a metal bat on a concrete sidewalk, the slow juicy slice of a golden scalpel through a human neck, and so on. These small details have heft, which accumulates and enriches the texture of the film terrifically.

 

 

As a cinematic storyteller, Evans can really put you in a room, usually a room you don’t want to ever be in — think of the early scene in the first RAID where the villain murders a row of captives only to run out of bullets before the last; how much you feel for that final man despite not even knowing his name. There’s a similar scene in the new RAID film. The bit still works. You can imagine how excruciating it must be to be the last man on the row. You can see yourself in his quivering place. What would you be thinking, if put in that position? What last thoughts might you choose? This is what this director can do with a day-player who never gets a single line of dialogue. He makes you feel for the cannon fodder. Evans’ approach to action is elemental, his approach to 2-D visual storytelling is tangible. These films don’t need a third dimension — the directorial orchestration provides it.

 

 

So everything that was so effective about the first RAID film works about the sequel. The key word is “more.”

 

 

THE RAID 2: BERANDAL is nearly an hour longer than its predecessor, with twice the characters and a more complex storyline, such as it is. The closest imagining is what would happen if John Woo made THE GODFATHER: PART TWO, minus the sumptuousnous and grace. It’s a back-alley HARD BOILED. This is a seedier neighborhood. The knives are sharper. Heads don’t get knocked around, they get pulverized into a red mist.

 

 

Where the earlier RAID film showed the events of one particularly arduous day, the sequel covers a longer expanse of time. Whereas the earlier scenario was confined to one building, THE RAID 2 opens up the action. There’s a car chase now. There are subways. There are rivers and lakes and ruins and killing fields. The villains are even more vicious this time around, if that can be believed. The redoubtable Yayan Ruhian, so indelibly fearsome as “Mad Dog” in the earlier film, plays a similar role here, only to be overcome by the new breed of vicious killer. Evans’ Jakarta is no country for old mad dogs.

 

 

There’s even a bit more black humor in the sequel, much of it courtesy of the silent siblings Hammer Girl and Baseball Bat Man, the film’s signature characters. (Better to experience those two without benefit of much foreknowledge.)

 

 

 

The end result of all this “more” by film’s end may be a faint sense of exhaustion, even among die-hard fans of THE RAID like myself. For my part I’m all RAID-ed out. “I’m done,” as series hero finally concludes. These are arduous films — for the viewer alone! One can only imagine how it feels for the active participants. Don’t get me wrong: I love THE RAID 2 and it’s clearly one of the superior action films of the year. It’s only that I’ve been through a long onslaught of fists, bullets, stabbings, and hammerings and now I’d like to see what this gifted filmmaker and his dedicated crew can do next. A third RAID film is planned; hopefully after that there’ll be a return to horror. Or a monster movie. Or a Western. Or a musical. The sky’s the limit, really.

 

 

 

– Jon Abrams.

 

@JONNYABOMB

 

 

 

 

AFTER LIFE (1998)

AFTER LIFE is the second feature film from Japanese writer and director Hirokazu Kore-eda. Before features, he worked in documentaries, and that experience, that interest in real human beings and their thoughts and feelings, shows in this film. AFTER LIFE is set in a kind of business-like purgatory, where people who have recently died are asked to choose their happiest memory from life. Then, the people running the place put together a dramatic re-creation of that memory, and after watching the result, the dead are able to head on into eternity, taking that memory with them. The story focuses equally on the dead and the ones who work to their benefit.

Obviously, what’s most striking about AFTER LIFE, considering its subject matter, is its humility, its small scale, its lack of high drama. There are no angels flying around on feathery wings, no demons or hellfire. Everyone in this movie looks like a person you could meet. Almost every story told is one you could relate to. AFTER LIFE has a rare sweetness, a genuine spirituality. Sure, we’re talking about notions of Heaven here, but you don’t have to buy into one ethos or another to appreciate this film. This is the kind of spirituality that could and maybe should be universal. For the more philosophically minded, there’s plenty for you also. As the trailer asks, “What is the one memory you would take with you?” What a lovely question for a film to consider, and to ask its audience to consider.

AFTER LIFE is almost unique in its lack of conflict; its primary mode is reflective. There aren’t galvanic performances or sweeping visual flourishes here. The modest look of the film suits it well. A lot can be said with a little. Many movies want to shake the ground you stand on, to make your eyes widen and make your mind melt. This one has the feeling of sitting on a park bench by a duck pond in the spring, a loved one by your side, or in your thoughts. There is serenity here.

The Japan Society is screening AFTER LIFE tonight. I recommend attending, if you’re able.

@jonnyabomb


After Life

Well, the conceivable happened, and I fell behind on my 31-day horror project.  No drawn-out equivocating here:  A real writer makes deadlines, even the ones he sets for himself, and a real man doesn’t make excuses, but then there’s the whole matter of reality to contend with, and the way that each one of us handles our particular reality with a variety of temperaments.  Life doesn’t stop punching you in the gut just because you took on a writing project in your spare time, and as I should have expected, life punched me in the gut a few days back and I didn’t much feel like writing about anything for a while after that.

But I’m getting back on that old gray horse and mounting up for a ride through the last week of this thing.  Y’all will have your thirty-one, I promise it, and I may not even stop there, but don’t let me go making promises.  The point is, I’m back on it.  Good thing the subject is horror.  It fits the mood.  See, I think what horror aficionados know deep down is that this entire passion for the genre comes out of wrestling with the idea of death.  I spend a lot of time looking for connections between stories, looking for the common themes and the deviations.  Well the one thing you can always reckon on with a good horror tale, whether it be about ghosts or vampires or zombies or werewolves or man-eating animals or monsters of the more human variety, is that they all have something to do with death.  Sometimes death is victorious at the end, and sometimes death is kept at bay.  Either way, whether it’s sooner or later, that one truth is for damn sure:  Ain’t none of us getting out of this thing alive.  Best we can do is reconcile ourselves to that fact, enjoy it as long as we can, and watch a shit-ton of movies if that’s among the things we enjoy most.  It is for me.

Find me talking movies on Twitter (@jonnyabomb) and at Daily Grindhouse, and one thing else…

A recommendation:  If you want daily updates and engaging commentary, please check out my friend Ryan McNeely at his site — he’s been writing about a movie a day straight through since January and it’s really great.

Now, coming in the next few days from me: