Archive for the ‘Documentaries’ Category

Tyson (2008)


The man tattooed his face.

He… tattooed… His face.

How does a world-class athlete, household name, and one-time multi-millionaire get to the point in his life where he decides to get a tattoo on his face?

On the subject of Mike Tyson, the comedian Artie Lange once remarked that when you tattoo your face you’re basically declaring that your life is over.  He was exaggerating for the sake of comedy, but there’s a point in there.  You can’t ever go back from the face tattoo; once that happens, straight-world suit-and-tie jobs are out of the question forever.  You’re giving up on at least half the world.

If you’ve ever wondered about why he opted for this facial alteration, or if you are curious about what Tyson almost imprinted on his left profile before he ultimately settled on Maori warrior markings [that trivia answer would be “hearts”!!!], then you need to see the new Tyson documentary – entitled “TYSON,” for obvious reasons. If you are a boxing aficionado like me, or if you are just a student of human nature, it’s a necessity.

The filmmaker James Toback is apparently a controversial figure himself, but he dials that infamous persona down for this movie.  While Toback’s sympathies are clearly aligned with his subject (Tyson appeared in Toback’s improv film BLACK & WHITE), here he simply sets the camera on Tyson’s face and only occasionally cuts away to archival footage and photographs.  He lets Mike Tyson tell Mike Tyson’s story, in effect.  Obviously the perspective is slanted, then, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth attention.

Some of the bad deeds attributed to Tyson were well-documented; some were completely fabricated; some true but exaggerated; some true but explainable; some forgivable; some not.  Is Mike Tyson a monster?  Absolutely not.  That’s a hellish title to lay on an obviously troubled, conflicted human being.  He’s a rageful man, yes, but one might argue that this is a requirement and a function of his profession.  The only steady job he ever held demanded that he hit grown men in the face.  He’s also sensitive and sentimental and has a weird poetry in him, which has made him endlessly quotable.  The reality is almost always more complicated than we expect or want it to be.  This is absolutely a realization that Tyson, the documentary, will lead you towards, even if you retain your negative perception, which you are free to do.

Mike Tyson’s voice isn’t really the most soothing voice to listen to for more than an hour, and his face is not the most reassuring face to gaze upon for that long either.  But his words are worth considering – both for what he says out loud, and for what he as a continuing presence in popular culture says about the rest of us.




I wrote the above piece all the way back in September 2009.  I’m not even positive I still agree with myself, but I’m reprinting it today because Mike Tyson finds himself in the public eye again.  Last night he appeared on the Tony Awards, singing and dancing alongside Neil Patrick Harris.  (He did a tour on Broadway this past spring in a Spike-Lee-directed one-man-show, so it’s not totally without context.)  This new musical duo is garnering rhapsodic reviews with the theater crowd, which just shows how much public perception can change in twenty years.  Then again, Chris Brown sings and dances all the time, and half of America thinks it’s totally swell.  It’s funny what and who we’re willing to forgive, and when.

I’ve always been fascinated by the idea of Mike Tyson myself — take away the disturbing allegations and he’s basically Forest Whitaker in GHOST DOG, a large violent man who has a soft spot for pigeons.  Vocally and visually, he’s an outsized character, just south of a cartoon, and that’s always going to be compelling.  But we’re absolutely living in stranger days when Mike Tyson is the toast of Broadway.  Among the cooing audiences in Radio City Music Hall last night, I bet Tracy Letts got the irony, but I wonder if anyone else in that room did.


Put up your dukes on Twitter: @jonnyabomb



P.S.  Remember when Michael Jai White played Mike Tyson




The Hangover (2009)


The latest issue of Playboy has a fascinating interview with Richard Dawkins, a man whose anti-religious position I struggle to agree with entirely, while at the same time finding his crusade to restore the primacy of science absolutely necessary. It’s a compelling read. Also of note is the foreword from the magazine’s publisher, Hugh Hefner, who comes out strong in favor of gay marriage. It’s not a statement he had to make, and probably not a snap decision considering the business he could lose. It’s a typically bold and socially progressive assertion from a man who is frequently underestimated.

Yes, I read Playboy for the articles. They’re great. I look at the pictures too. So there.

Anyway, while I was nosing around in there, I saw an advertisement for HUGH HEFNER: PLAYBOY, ACTIVIST & REBEL, a 2010 documentary which I reviewed elsewhere on the internet. I revisited my review and, since it echoes what I was just saying about Hefner’s admirable social conscience, found it interesting enough to repost. Hopefully you’ll agree.

The very first person you hear from in the thorough and informative documentary Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is the gloriously creepy Gene Simmons of KISS. Gene kicks things off by maintaining that any American male alive “would give his left nut to be Hugh Hefner.”

I object to this statement, if not the sentiment behind it. Personally, I’d consider giving up many things to have a life like Hugh Hefner’s, but certainly not my left nut. If I did that, then I’d have to repeatedly present only half the story to an endless parade of beautiful blond women. You know they’d have questions. I feel like I’d get really tired of going over it. And besides, who would want my left nut in the first place, besides me (obviously) and an endless parade of beautiful blond women? Who exactly is brokering that trade? “Okay, you can have Hugh Hefner’s life, but I want THAT for my mantelpiece.” See what I mean? This is a cliché that never made much sense to me.

Anyway, I’m starting off with a little humor because generally speaking, that’s what this otherwise-thorough documentary lacks. Outside of the occasional philosophy offered by Gene Simmons, who is at least as horrifying as he is humorous, Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is generally a sober look at a life that has seen its fair share of comedy. I understand and respect the intention: Hugh Hefner is a man whose significant accomplishments are often dismissed or criticized or lampooned, and he deserves to be recognized more seriously. It’s just that at over two hours of running time, it’s possible that this could have been a little more of a party.

But if it has to err on the side of dryness, then at least Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is comprehensive in its cataloguing of the very real positive changes in American society to which Hugh Hefner has been a contributor. Of course, how you respond to that perspective depends on which side of the matter you support; Hugh Hefner’s life’s work has always been controversial.

Playboy Magazine is his primary legacy, and it is the one thing with which his name will always find association. As a red-blooded American male, I admit that I’m one of those who appreciate Hefner for Playboy.

I adore and respect women, and I do feel like I share many feminist beliefs, but I certainly don’t relate to the feminists who are quoted here, particularly Susan Brownmiller, who comes off as no fun at all. It can be argued that Playboy idealizes women, but I don’t believe it objectifies women, certainly not any more than professional sports objectifies men. And does Playboy idealize women that much more than movies and television do? In my opinion, you have to know when a fight is appropriate. If something is hateful, you fight it. If something is [arguably] in bad taste, you calm down and just avoid what offends you. It seems to me that you can absolutely love and respect women without despising Playboy, but somehow the two perspectives have historically always been in debate.

To its credit, this documentary gives plenty of voice to the dissenting opinion, although obviously its intent is to bolster Hefner’s historical, humanitarian, and socially-conscious profile. This much, at least, is very difficult to argue: Hefner was an early advocate of civil rights, and gave voice to blacklisted authors when no other outlet was open to them. For all of the feminist attacks on him in the 1970s, he supported abortion rights quite literally, with his pocketbook. He crusaded against the hypocrisy and the hatefulness of the religious right. He paid the legal fees of several unjustly imprisoned people who were unattended by mainstream media, and even managed to help see them freed. This is a man who has used his vast success to stand behind his beliefs, where so many other entrepreneurs seem contented to simply add to their wealth.

Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is an extensive, chronological, methodical chronicle of these and other events. It does a laudable job of explaining the merits of Hefner’s progressive role in society, and it always suggests the darker undercurrents of the story, even if it doesn’t dwell on any of them for too long. Hefner fans, Hefner detractors, and those who don’t even know the name will all find plenty of detailed education here, although of course the informed viewer might quibble over omissions. The truth is that two hours isn’t enough time to fully address this subject and all of the ensuing complications.

Personally, I would have been interested in hearing more about Hefner’s championing of cartoonists. An amateur cartoonist himself, Hefner always made this underrated art form a key component of Playboy’s identity, but outside of a small segment on magazine mainstay Gahan Wilson, there aren’t any cartoonists to be found. Hefner is also a jazz fan and a collector and a huge movie fan, as the Jack Pierce Mummy head in the opening credits suggests, and more of all of that would have livened up this documentary.

I also would have been interested to hear some discussion about what has happened since – surely those who condemn Playboy as pornography are not aware of what else is out there. Playboy, to my eyes, is quite innocent, a light R rating compared to the triple-X imagery that is now just a mouse-click away. Also, it would have been nice to hear about Playboy’s effect on younger generations. The only person interviewed here under the age of fifty is Jenny McCarthy, and she seems concerned with other topics these days.

Lastly, the documentary’s style is a fairly monotonous cavalcade of talking heads, archival footage, and still photographs – in a scene late in the movie you see footage of Hefner out and about in a nightclub, and it registers that this has generally been a static viewing experience.

But again, all of those are relatively small nits to pick when a documentary is so admirable in its goals and so effective in achieving them. Hugh Hefner: Playboy, Activist & Rebel is not the definitive word on its complicated subject, but it is one of the better attempts at capturing him in all his complicated selves. It leaves you wanting to learn more, which by definition makes it a successful documentary.

Want to argue? Start here: @jonnyabomb

Project Nim is a documentary about a chimpanzee transported from the wild and used in a project by Columbia professor Herbert Terrace who wanted to study what would happen if an ape was raised in close proximity to humans.  In true human fashion, Terrace and his assistants quickly discover they’ve taken on too much, and Nim is passed from foster home to foster home throughout his development, until later in life he wound up at an animal sanctuary where he spent the rest of his years.  There are plenty of entertainingly eccentric and downright bizarre elements to the story, such as the now-grown children of Nim’s first adoptive human mother complaining about being treated as second-favorite, or the tossed-off detail of how that first mother chose to nurture Nim (you’ll know my reaction as soon as you hear it).  But primarily, Nim’s is a sad story, to me at least.  It’s a Promethean myth in miniature, only far more frustrating because it really happened.

James Marsh, the director, also made Man On Wire, the 2008 documentary about the brazen Frenchman who walked a tightrope between the twin towers of New York’s World Trade Center in 1974.  Here is my brief capsule review of Man On Wire (also from 2008):


If there truly is life on other planets, I hope that France is not the first country to make contact.  The French are just not like the rest of the people of earth.  Only a man born and raised in France could ever say something like this, talking about a life-threatening stunt:  “If I die.. what a beautiful death, to die in the exercise of your passion.”

And only a Frenchwoman could state about that speaker, admiringly:  “Every day is like a work of art for him.”

That kind of thinking is what is so fascinating and so maddening about the French.  Man On Wire is a documentary about the group of young people who snuck into the Twin Towers in New York City in 1974 so that one of them could walk a tightrope between them.  A truly thrilling, truly pointless act.  The movie bounces between modern-day interviews, archived footage, and re-enactments, staging the preparation of the stunt like a crime movie (which technically, it is), and leaving the ultimate historical context in the background, without exactly ignoring it.


So as you can see, James Marsh is something of an expert in vividly detailing the bold follies and arguable successes of iconoclastic endeavors enacted in the 1970s.  Both Philippe Petit, the daredevil, and Herbert Terrace, the scientist, had unique and frankly crazy notions, enlisted collaborators, and undertook their respective projects.  The significant difference is, only one of them pulled it off.

What follows is my stream-of-consciousness as I first watched Project Nim.  It’s all fun and games until someone… well, you’ll see.


9:26 PM – Watching Project Nim. This is some crazy shit. This lady is breastfeeding the chimpanzee already and it’s only ten minutes into the movie.

9:31 PM – The chimp is smoking pot and drinking beers. There’s weird sex talk also. Matt Broderick had Project X?  This is shaping up to be PROJECT XXX.

9:32 PM – So far, the moral seems to be that chimps are smart like humans, but should not be raised by swingers. Good advice all around.

9:40 PM – The following is a list of some of the words the scientists taught young Nim to use.

One word is not like the others.

9:46 PM – Chimp is a cat person.

Note: This is not Nim but I was determined to find a picture of a chimp holding a kitten.

9:49 PM – These lab people are hooking up with each other all over the place. I’m starting to think that the 1970s porno-professor guy is not the best role model for Nim.

9:54 PM – Nim is currently dry-humping a kitten.  Guess I was right about the influence, unfortunately.

10:02 PM – If this were a feature, the porno-professor guy would be played by Hector Elizondo.

Sadly, that means Garry Marshall would be the one directing.

10:05 PM – If Caesar and Koba were ever to see this movie, they’d be PISSED. #riseoftheplanetoftheapes

10:20 PM – Chimp is smoking pot again.

PINE-APE-LE EXPRESS. #wrongmovie

10:48 PM – Done. That story took some real dark turns. And you all should definitely see it. #projectnim


What I was getting at, by the end of the string there, is the sense this movie leaves you with, that sinking suspicion that Nim is no better off for having been raised and “educated” by humans than he would have been had he been left to grow up in the wilderness with his birth movie.

In fact, the movie would seem to be ammunition for a considerable argument that Nim’s exposure to humanity, our emotional, impetuous inconsistencies and our heartless, bullheaded bureaucracies, was singularly destructive to his life and his happiness.  Every last bit of heartache we see in the course of this film may or may not have been circumvented by simply leaving well enough alone in the first reel.

So as good as this movie is, and as simultaneously calmly objective and subtly persuasive as it is, don’t expect anybody to learn anything.  Man has been meddling with nature since we first started poking saber-toothed tigers with sticks.  It’ll be that way until the dinosaurs come back and the last man on earth is working on taming hyper-evolved velociraptors.

Sorry, were you expecting less cynicism about our stupid self-centered pink species?  Maybe if you’d caught me earlier in the month, before I stumbled across news stories like this one, or maybe this one, or maybe the thousands of similar ones from the past week alone.  But no, this is man we’re talking about.  We’re the ones who pull the wings off butterflies and then act befuddled that they don’t fly or look as pretty as they used to.  Project Nim can be seen as a cautionary tale, but since it can only fall across the eyes of the most casually recidivist species that has ever existed on Planet Earth, it’s unlikely that the caution can be heeded.

In the meantime, I can be found on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Bernie is a friendly little film about friendship, truth, and murder, and what’s more, it has the feel of something new: I’ve been playing around with the term “documockumentary.” The restlessly creative director, Richard Linklater, wrote the movie with Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article in Texas Monthly upon which this fictionalized true-life account was based. The story is a whopper; its telling is even better.

In small-town Texas, (Carthage to be exact), Miss Marjorie Nugent, an elderly, church-going woman whose departed husband left behind a sizable wealth, was murdered by the town’s assistant mortician, Bernie Tiede. Marjorie wasn’t a beloved figure in town but she and Bernie were best of friends, to the point where she rewrote her will to leave her money to him. After killing Marjorie, Bernie hid the body and carried on for nine whole months as if it hadn’t happened. Once he was finally caught, Bernie immediately confessed to the crime, yet there are plenty in Carthage who still refuse to believe that he did it. Marjorie may not have been beloved, but Bernie was, and it’s an old story that perception counts for plenty in the court of public opinion.

It’s a pleasing irony that Bernie the movie feels so much like a documentary, considering that Bernie and Marjorie are played by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, two of the most outsized film actors on the planet. Jack Black is known as a pop-comic barely equalled in modern comedy for his energy and anarchic enthusiasm, whereas Shirley MacLaine has, over the course of a film career that has seen her go charisma for charisma against massive stars the likes of Clint Eastwood, Dolly Parton, Jack Nicholson, and Frank Sinatra, built up an on-screen and off-screen persona as a formidable battle-axe of a lady. For what Linklater is up to with Bernie, he couldn’t have cast it any more perfectly. Is it possible that Bernie was quite as boundlessly spry as Jack Black is? Is it possible that Marjorie was nearly as intimidating as Shirley MacLaine is? Maybe so and maybe not, but that’s definitely the way their friends and neighbors seemed to perceive them.

What makes the movie feel so fresh and so enjoyable is that Linklater, in a narrative masterstroke, has stocked the movie with a mixture of local Texas-area actors and actual Carthage townspeople, many of whom actually knew Bernie and Marjorie. The movie is structured like a documentary, where the peripheral characters are interviewed about their experiences with Bernie and Marjorie and their knowledge and opinions of the crime, while the actors “recreate” the dramatic scenes in between.

This gives the movie an uncommon sense of local atmosphere and believability (the older fella who describes Texas geography is worth admission all by his own self), but also a hugely comical friction, considering that we’re watching real people interact with real-deal Hollywood movie stars. While Shirley MacLaine either doesn’t, can’t, or chooses not to disappear fully into character (which isn’t a huge deal since, let’s be honest, she ain’t in the movie for as long), Jack Black gives one of his very greatest performances as the sprightly Bernie Tiede.

Jack Black is a guy who it’s somehow become easy to take for granted. He started out doing brief roles in baroque movies like Mars Attacks! and Demolition Man, started gaining steam in the alt-comedy scene with Mr. Show and Tenacious D, and then broke huge with his revelatory supporting role in High Fidelity and with his over-charged lead role in Linklater’s own School Of Rock. Like any major comedy star, he’s ended up in as many bad movies as good ones, which has seemed to put him in the Robin Williams category in too many minds. I hope that enough people see Bernie to be reminded of what a phenomenal talent Jack Black is.

For one thing, he’s really playing a character here, not doing a riff on what has come to be recognizable as the hyperactive “Jack Black” persona. He’s actually using that expectation against you, as he plays a very different person so very well. It helps that Bernie isn’t exactly a low-energy role — Jack gets to channel that contagious energy into another direction. There is a key scene where Bernie plays the lead in a community-theater version of The Music Man where Black gets to unleash the full force of his remarkable performing ability, and it’s actually one of the best musical moments we’re likely to see on screen all year. But it’s not Tenacious D and it’s not Kung Fu Panda. It’s something very unlike any role Black has played before, which makes it all the more rewarding.

If you, as many people, see Jack as “the indie-rock Belushi”, it’s another layer of humor to see him play a guy who sings along with gospel music in the car, sings like an angel at church, acts with the most proper Southernly table manners, and, if he isn’t gay, sure doesn’t take much interest in the ladies other than in the most sisterly way. That last point is one of the most fascinating parts of the story — Linklater and Black play Bernie’s sexuality as kind of an artful dodge. By all reasonable appearances, Bernie is a gay man, but while the question is raised, it never seems to ultimately matter that much. It’s especially rewarding to see how the very Southern town of Carthage loves and embraces Bernie despite every sign of him being outwardly homosexual besides the -sexual. As Northerners, we probably don’t expect that kind of tolerance. And maybe there isn’t even that much tolerance — maybe people just loved Bernie THAT much.

This is where the third central performance of the movie comes in. Matthew McConaughey plays Danny Buck Davidson, Carthage’s District Attorney (another real person), who is determined to prosecute Bernie for the murder of an old widow despite the overwhelming pro-Bernie sentiment in town. McConaughey, who made such a strong comedic impression all the way back in Linklater’s Dazed And Confused and always seems to be at his best as an eccentric character actor rather than a straight-ahead leading man, not only seems at home in the world in this movie but also does something somewhat extraordinary when he’s the odd man out: He’s both the movie’s straight man and a satirical figure at the same time. McConaughey’s reactions as the townsfolk harangue him to let that poor Bernie go are hysterical, but so too are his brag-heavy pronouncements to every camera in a five-mile radius. Danny Buck comes off as the voice of reason (sure Bernie is a nice guy, but he also did kill somebody) and as totally silly at the same time. It’s just another aspect of the warm, inclusive anima of the movie, which has fun with its characters even while recognizing that everyone is a human being with thoughts and feelings and all are worth hearing out, whether they’re on the right track or otherwise.

I have so much affection for this movie. It’s modest, in that it’s not filled with space robots, farting cartoons, or punching people in latex suits, but narratively speaking it’s a high-wire act that I think is pulled off with wit and charm. Again, it’s one of Jack Black’s best performances, and it’s one of Richard Linklater’s most successful and accessible experiments. Most incredibly, unlike so many movies, there isn’t a single dull moment in Bernie. It’s thoroughly entertaining and engaging, and if I see many more movies I enjoyed as much this year, I’ll be feeling pretty good about life.

Find me on Twitter!: @jonnyabomb

Found-footage movies are nothing new.  Contrary to popular belief, they didn’t begin with The Blair Witch Project, and they sure as hell didn’t begin with Paranormal Activity.  The basic concept is pretty brilliant in its utilitarianism and simplicity — long-lost video or film footage of disturbing events is at last unearthed and screened.  This fictional conceit, the faux-documentary, can lead to all kinds of interesting variations, which is why it’s become a bit of a sub-genre, particularly under the heading of horror.

The first found-footage movie is generally considered to be Ruggero Deodato’s controversial and frequently-banned Cannibal Holocaust, from 1980.  I haven’t seen this movie, primarily because it reportedly has scenes of sexual violence (a no-fly zone whenever I can help it) and legitimate scenes of animal cruelty (which brought the movie and its director under fire from activists).

The next found-footage film to make a major impact was 1992’s Man Bites Dog, from France, which I have seen, and which I definitely recommend if you can handle disturbing psychological territory.  The conceit of Man Bites Dog (a great title) is that a documentary film crew follows an enthusiastic serial killer as he goes about his day.  Like remora fish clinging to a shark’s undercarriage, the crew somehow are above any harm, but that doesn’t mean they can’t become increasingly complicit in the increasingly horrifying acts that their subject keeps committing.

Some of the better, and far more playful, found-footage movies of recent years have been USA’s Cloverfield (2008), and in particular, Spain’s [REC] and its sequel [REC]2 in 2007 and 2009.  These were enjoyable and inventive takes on the giant-monster movie and the zombie-invasion movie, clever films which were able to sustain believable reasons for the camera to stay on during cataclysmic events, and which were able to milk the found-footage concepts for maximum suspense.  But the most financially successful found-footage movies by far have been 1999’s The Blair Witch Project and 2007’s Paranormal Activity, which ironically are among the least creatively successful (to me, anyway).  Restraint is a virtue, but these two movies err too far on the side of restraint — they are almost stingy with how much they withhold from showing the audience.  Neither of these movies ever give you a good or even passing look at the supernatural threats which plague their protagonists all movie long.  I fully understand why a sense of mystery is important, but if all you ever give an audience is spooky noises, you’re kind of wasting our time.  We need to get some confirmation that what we’ve been hearing and fearing for two hours is actually there.

Eventually these found-footage horror movies must show something.

Playing it coy is only sexy for so long — sooner or later you gotta show your tits, cinematically speaking, or else you’re gonna send us home with a major cinematic case of blue balls.

All of the above is to say that Norway’s Trollhunter does not have that problem.  In fact, Trollhunter is more than happy to show its tits, and they’re spectacular.  Big old droopy, hairy, troll tits.

Trollhunter, or The Troll Hunter depending on which poster you look at, is a terrific example of the found-footage sub-genre.  It’s a little too light-hearted to be considered straight-up horror, but it’s got giant angry monsters in it, so I’ll allow it for these purposes.  Written and directed by André Øvredal (don’t expect me to do that again), Trollhunter follows a trio of film students as they follow the story of some bear attacks reported in the mountains.  Their search leads them to a tired-looking man named Hans, who seems mysteriously motivated up until the moment where he reveals himself to be a government-appointed sanitation worker charged with single-handedly containing the nation’s troll problem.  He’s basically a Ghostbuster; a kind of beleaguered janitor who uses scientific techniques to defeat these gigantic lumbering trolls of the hinterlands.  Otto Jespersen is apparently a famous Norwegian comedian and arguably a terrible person, but he gives a good, dry performance as the title character.

What I love about Trollhunter is that it plays as much like a National Geographic documentary as anything.  The hand-held cinematography manages to capture the chilly beauty of the Norwegian countryside, a location under-seen by us Americans, and it does nearly as much to make Norway appealing as the Lord Of The Rings movies did for New Zealand.  Just as a travellogue, it’s fun to watch.  Trollhunter is also absurdly detailed in its zoology — the majority of the movie truly is just Hans explaining troll physiology to his incredulous interviewers.  The movie goes a long way towards explaining why trolls turn to stone when exposed to sunlight, how trolls are located and disposed of, and how each individual species of troll is different from another.  It’s definitely pseudo-science, but it’s great fun to see the level of imagination that went into describing these creatures.  If the movie has a flaw, it’s that the exposition goes on for so long — it never felt less than compelling to me, but it does become noticeable, when Hans is talking about the physiology of trolls even while he’s dispatching trolls.

But why quibble — the movie has trolls!

For a movie called Trollhunter, we get too see all kinds of trolls being hunted.  It’s at least twenty minutes before we get our first glimpse, but once we do, the movie becomes a sort of glee-machine.  There’s a three-headed troll, a bridge troll, a ‘final-level’ troll three times the size of King Kong… and ain’t none of them camera-shy.  Trollhunter shows no signs of misunderstanding its appeal — people came to see trolls, and goddamnit, trolls are gonna be seen.  I learned more about trolls from this movie than I even knew I wanted to know about.  I learned that trolls can smell the blood of a Christian man, I learned what trolls like to eat (mainly sheep), I learned about troll reproduction, I even learned that the phrase “troll piss” is pronounced the same in Norwegian as it is in English.  The effects are tremendous for a film that I wouldn’t assume had much money to throw around — the trolls in the movie are seamlessly convincing, full of personality, even somewhat sympathetic.  If you’re the kind of person who’s inclined to watch a movie called Trollhunter, you will not at all be disappointed by its marquee draw.

And as I suggested earlier, Trollhunter is a sterling example of the found-footage genre.  It’s constantly clever — the kids don’t shut off the camera, even while they’re running for their lives, because for a long while they don’t take the troll threat seriously (would you?).  It makes sense that, especially with the arrogance of youth, they would feel like they can safely film these goofy-looking creatures, even though they’re humongous and stomping straight towards them.  Whether the camera gets damaged, or nearly confiscated, there are always interesting reasons to keep the faux-documentary a present element of the story.  Even when the original cameraman has to be replaced (no further detail necessary here), the movie keeps chugging along.  Until it doesn’t.  This movie was “found,” remember.

Good thing.  Trollhunter is absolutely one of the more entertaining movies to be released in the United States thus far in 2011.  Don’t let me oversell it — it doesn’t bear much weight, isn’t particularly profound, isn’t suspenseful for more than a minute.  But if it’s a trifle, it’s as fun as a trifle can possibly be.  It’s clever, imaginative, humorous, and makes the most out of its geography and setting.  And I’ll tell you something else:

Obviously, if anyone, the people who made this movie should have been the ones hired to remake The Thing.


#8.  Dave Chappelle’s Block Party (2006)

Unquestionably, the greatest comedic voice of the past decade was the voice of Dave Chappelle. No one comedian achieved anything as successful or as influential as Chappelle’s Show (2003-2006), which Dave created with writing partner Neal Brennan.  No one – no one! – was better at merging genuinely transgressive and insightful social satire with actual laughs.  If you make people laugh, you can get people to listen, and it’s a true shame that the Chappelle/Brennan partnership split up and Dave went AWOL.  (Because let’s face it, no matter how you look at it – AWOL is exactly where he went. That, or Ohio. Same thing.) But before he left, Dave teamed up with the peerlessly playful director Michel Gondry (Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind) to bring the world a Block Party, and it was joyous.

A straightforward concert film, Block Party shows Dave getting together with a bunch of his favorite acts to put on an all-star hip-hop show in Brooklyn.  There’s not much more to the movie than seeing one of America’s best comedians riffing backstage and on the streets with daily folks, intercut with performances from The Roots (one of the best bands in the world, without debate), Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common, Kanye West, Dead Prez, and The Fugees (reunited for the film) – but then again, to me that’s plenty.  The above line-up constitutes a good amount of the music I listen to – this was my Woodstock.

That’s taking lightly what Woodstock means to people, maybe, but as in its entirety, few movies bring me more untempered joy than Dave Chappelle’s Block Party. And all that happens without any hippies, so all the better.

Best moment:  Dead Prez doing their call to arms “Hip Hop” with The Roots backing.  Dead Prez may not want to hear it, due to my pigment deficiency and all, but they soundtracked my whole year between 2005 and 2006.

“What it bigger than?”

#5.  Spider-Man 2 (2004)

Why fight it?  This movie is a kind of biography.  I don’t feel the need to talk too much in detail about my personal life, but if I were to do it, the parallels would be pretty blatant, and not just because pretty much everyone who’s ever seen me insists I’m a dead ringer for good ol’ Peter Parker here.

The Aunt May/Uncle Ben stuff and the ultra-nerdy high-school years in the first Spider-Man and the Black Period in Spider-Man 3 have their specific correlations to periods of my life, but it’s Spider-Man 2 that hits it pretty square on the nose  — and not for nothing, but that one is widely considered to be the best of the three, cinematically speaking.  It’s the most “Sam Raimi” of the great director’s three Spider-Man movies, with a hospital scene straight out of his earlier Evil Dead work and probably the funniest Bruce Campbell performance of the three.

Spider-Man 2 is one of the best-looking action films of the decade, courtesy of Bill Pope, and is expertly edited by Bob Murawski, who won an Academy Award at decade’s end.  Poor Dylan Baker and Elizabeth Banks never did get the spotlight they deserved in this franchise, but at least Bill Nunn got more to do.  J.K. Simmons was impeccable as always, as was Alfred Molina, as the anti-hero Otto Octavius, definitely the best “villain” in franchise history to date.  (#3’s Thomas Haden Church was great casting for Sandman, but he got lost in the phenomenal FX. Molina never gets outshone by his robot costars.)  It’s also fun to watch the cavalcade of future TV stars in the periphery, such as Emily Deschanel (Bones), Daniel Dae Kim (Hawaii 5-0), and Joel McHale (Community).

And, you know, the kid who plays me is pretty good also.  He probably doesn’t make enough movies, I don’t think.

The genius of Spider-Man 2 is that everybody who sees it can relate.  That’s the masterstroke of Stan Lee and Sam Raimi and Tobey Maguire. It’s only if you know me personally that you might read it as a JA documentary with a huge budget.  Especially the accurate-yet-inaccurate assessement, “Brilliant but lazy.”  Many have labelled me as such.  Obviously I’m brilliant, but my creative output is less than prodigious.  But hey, you don’t know what I’m doing when I’m not on the internet.  I could be out saving the world.  Besides, if I were all that lazy, would I be able to find this many movie posters…?

Darkon is a 2006 documentary about The Darkon Wargaming Club, a group based in Baltimore which numbers, on average, 200 active members.   The group’s website notes they’ve been in operation since 1985, and are clearly still as popular as ever.  They meet every other Sunday, in local parks or on high school sports fields, to do this…

That’s right. They’re live-action role-players, or LARPers, for those who prefer acronyms.  The players of Darkon create detailed characters for themselves, which they then enact in Shakespeare-In-The-Park style dialogue scenes which ultimately end on the fields of battle.  No one gets hurt, no one loses an eye.  Occasionally, feelings are hurt.  Darkon, for the record, is the name of the imaginary kingdom over which the participants fight and [pretend to] die.

Darkon the movie focuses primarily on the two appointed leaders of the opposing factions. Skip Lipman is a burly ex-football player and young father, and Kenyon Wells is a verbose single man who seems to be around the same age.  The plot of the movie, such as it is, deals with Skip and Kenyon balancing their personal lives and personal histories with the upcoming battle over domination of the realm of Darkon.  It’s somewhere between the Super Bowl and the Battle Of Helm’s Deep.

Movies as well-known as Role Models and TV shows like Community have mined LARP-ing for laughs, and movies as obscure as The Wild Hunt have even found room for horror in the subject, but Darkon doesn’t take any such approach.  The directors of the documentary, Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel, fix their cameras on these subjects, and everyone else in the movie, with a clear-eyed and consistent objectivity.  Skip and Kenyon and every other participant in the movie lay out their personalities and insecurites, hopes and regrets, with an honesty that can fairly be called brave, and if anything, the film shoots them as such, with swooping camera shots and occasional moodily-lit and dramatically-composed “hero” shots mixed in with the standard hand-held and talking-head documentary techniques.

The cool thing about Darkon is that when you watch it or read about it, it tells you more about yourself, or whoever is describing it to you, than it passes any kind of judgment on its subjects.  Do you look at the documentary’s style and appreciate the ways in which it is well-made?  You’re probably geared towards more technical interests.  Do you wonder what a surprisingly-popular hobby like this says about American culture?  Do you notice the irony (or the tellingness) of the fact that these people are staging medieval battles during an era of several real wars?  Do you notice that there are only two black people in the entire movie (one of whom talks about his time in the armed services), even though we all know from The Wire that Baltimore is hardly lily-white?  You may be more of a big-picture, psych-minded, analytical thinker.

Do you decide it’s nice that these people find refuge from their sometimes-frustrating lives in a genuinely-social community that encourages imagination?  You’re an optimist.  We need more of you.  Do you jokingly dismiss these folks as “nerds” and “geeks”?  You’re not wrong, but you’re also kind of a dick.  We’ve got enough of your type already.

Personally, I guess I’m all of the above.  I have a conflicted thought process when I watch Darkon, or any of the other movies or documentaries which have sprung up as the activity seems to grow in cultural awareness, if not popularity.  I grew up loving dragons and damsels-in-distress and swords and horses and ogres and all that medieval-fiction kind of stuff, but never enough to make it a habit, the way these people do.  In a way, I guess overall I envy those who love their hobbies so much that they dive headlong into them, regardless of what the cool kids think.  I never loved any one thing that much.  I’m probably the victim of too many interests, can never settle on committing to just one.  Maybe my attention span is too short.  Maybe there are other problems.

The one time I ever played Dungeons & Dragons, it did not go well.  I ran in a few different social circles in high school, and while I was surely never one of the cool kids, I could never quite fit in on the other side either.  When I was asked by a friend to join his D&D group, I was the odd man out from the start.  For one thing, the Dungeon Master (the kid who makes up all the rules and presides over the game) and I were not friends.  For another, I had very immediate, very basic, very anti-authoritarian objections to the game itself.  The game of Dungeons & Dragons, like the LARP-ing in Darkon, has intricate and specific rules.  In D&D, when you make the decision to do anything in the story, you have to roll several varieties of dice to determine the outcome.  I could never understand why a game based in storytelling needed to add casino rules.  Why willingly impose limits upon your imagination?

This really isn’t a question you should ask folks who are serious about their D&D.

Depending on your group, joking around is also not recommended.  I got that memo a little too late, and probably wouldn’t have heeded it anyway.  I mean, the word “orc” is just too funny, right?  I survived a little bit more than an hour, not counting all the exasperated breaks.  My moment of truth came when an army of orcs were stampeding towards the forest where our group was resting.  I immediately decided I wanted to climb up a tree.  This took some arguing.  Finally, the Dungeon Master relented and let me climb the tree.  Then, he told me, my character, who was a ranger and really should have been more wilderness-savvy, slipped on a branch and fell to the ground, instantly breaking his neck.  I didn’t even have to roll the dice on that one.

I hopped up and headed home, and from then on I was free to pursue girls and sports (both of which I was truly terrible at), and drawing and wise-cracking (for which I was better equipped).

As for the Dungeon Master, well, we never ended up with our Hollywood bonding moment.  There was a dark rumor senior year that he paid a sophomore to accompany him to the prom, and a little extra to give him a kiss.  (That probably wasn’t true.)  Think I heard he’s an investment banker now.  I honestly couldn’t say.

The point is, this stuff isn’t for everyone.  Darkon gives the men and women who love role-playing all the dignity, and occasionally even the valorization, for which they could ever hope.  If you want to judge them, that’s your right.  If you’re inspired to join them, more power to you.  If you’re an armchair sociologist, there’s plenty here to digest, that’s for damn sure.

Darkon is playing tonight at the 92Y Tribeca.  Directors Luke Meyer and Andrew Neel will be on hand provide a Q&A session.  This movie raises a whole lot of questions, in my mind at least, so they’ve got their work cut out for them.

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket 


This little review appeared in different form, elsewhere on the internet, quite a while back.


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


I saw The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Quarters when it was doing a one-week run at the Nuart, and I laughed my ass off.




I mean, there was only a little bit of ass left back there.  It’s since grown back (with a vengeance), but the fact remains that this is a very, very funny movie.

Long story short:   Just as historic underdogs like Rocky Balboa and Daniel LaRusso had done before him, suburban schoolteacher Steve Wiebe takes on the world when he goes after the recognized champion.  But instead of boxing or karate, Steve’s chosen sport is… competitive Donkey Kong.  Apparently, the world of competitive classic arcade video gaming is very real, and very much still an ongoing realm of controversy, aggression, and spite.  Sure, Steve is a little bit nutty, but by the standards of humanity introduced by this movie, he’s shockingly normal, the kind of generous and likeable all-American everyman you probably know and root for in your own life.


Meanwhile, the Donkey Kong world champion is a guy named Billy Mitchell, and he is an absolute douchebag.  I could sit here (on my drastically-reduced-and-since-regrown ass) and at length explain why, but instead I will show you Billy’s picture, which is what you would find in a dictionary if you looked up the word “douchebag.”


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


Billy seems like the kind of guy who pays for weekend seminars with Frank T.J. Mackey.

I feel like Kevin Bacon would play him in the live-action remake.
But anyway, back to Billy.
Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


Note the too-tight black jeans, the maroon blouse, the garish tie, the feathered mullet, and the judgemental “you’re an asshole” expression he constantly wears.


Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket


See, Gloria knows what I’m talking about.


Life isn’t as simple as movies, and it’s probably true that Billy Mitchell is nowhere near as nastily geeky as he comes off in this movie.  It’s true that even a documentary filmmaker can have a heavy bias, and by the very nature of introducing a camera to reality you are never entirely capturing reality anymore.


But the fact remains that Billy Mitchell couldn’t come off much worse in The King Of Kong, and pitting him against the underdog Steve Wiebe is very much the archetypal high school movie come to life: popular kid versus new guy in town, although ironically Steve is the jock and Billy is the nerd.  But Billy is also relatively wealthy, with his own hot sauce business, an obedient wife with comically huge breast implants, and the devotion of a small army of King Kong acolytes who hang on Billy’s every sneer.  It is so amazing to watch Billy be such an unrepentant dick, and to watch how all the beta-nerds flock around this mulleted alpha-nerd.  Do these guys have mirrors?

I am forever fascinated by people who have absolutely no self-awareness or self-doubt.  There’s a certain purity to people who have no idea how ridiculous they look or sound, and it’d even be a respectable quality if this kind of insistence on self above all else doesn’t so often lead to wrongness.  You have to be able to laugh at yourselves, folks. No one is right all the time; not even your humble narrator. Well, I swing a more righteous bat than most, but I’ll still cop to being wrong several times a day.  You have to.  Or you don’t, but then you run the risk of being a guy like Billy Mitchell, which means that someone might someday make an unflattering documentary about you.

Also, Billy Mitchell talks about himself in the third person, which is very amazing.

Since The King Of Kong first came out, it has justly grown in reknown as one of the more entertaining documentaries of recent years.  It’s led to a lucrative TV and feature directing career for its director, Seth Gordon, who still periodically suggests that a Hollywood remake is forthcoming.  I think the documentary is great enough on its own, but if they make it, I recommend Kevin Bacon as Billy Mitchell, Jimmy Fallon as Steve Wiebe, and Robert Duvall as Walter Day.


This movie is worth searching out.  Trust me.  By the time those credits roll, it’s as satisfying a movie experience as you could hope to see.  I feel like standing up and cheering every time I watch this thing, and I don’t even give a shit about video games.  The best part about it, if the story captures your interest, is knowing that the debate over Donkey Kong world champion still rages on to this day.  Steve and Billy and tons of nerds like them all over the world continue to fight for the all-time high score on Donkey Kong, and every once in a while you will hear brief news stories about who has overtaken who.  Isn’t that somehow reassuring?  The story never entirely ends, and there are still battles to be fought and won.   And so it goes, good versus evil, on and on as we march towards Valhalla.

Talk to me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb


Inside Job, the documentary written and directed by Charles Ferguson, won the Academy Award for Best Documentary Feature in 2010.  It goes into agonizing detail over what caused the global economic crisis in 2008, who was responsible, and how literally none of the guiltiest parties have been made to be accountable for their oversights (and in many cases, greed).

Even though the subject matter involves all of us personally, there are many people who won’t bother to watch this movie.  Economics.  Boring, right?  I’ll readily admit: Inside Job is as clear and understandable as a movie on this subject can be, and most of it still went over my head.  But that’s the entire problem, isn’t it?  The political opportunists and economic looters who got away with all that they have are counting on the fact that most of us in America are more concerned with what we can more easily understand, like Jersey Shore and People Magazine and the SuperBowl and even Inception.  (Believe me, I’m painting myself with the ‘distracted’ brush too.)

Ferguson’s examination is a persuasive argument that many high-ranking politicians and captains of industry – and most distressingly, members of academia – benefitted from conflicts of interest and lack of any policing authority, and that they got richer and richer even as the American economy went to hell.  As usual, the people at the bottom are the ones who suffer most.  Not only will the men responsible for the crisis not be brought to justice, but in most cases, they have actually been rewarded financially for their crimes.

Whether you agree with Inside Job’s claims or not (and if you don’t agree, I bet you have doubts about gravity existing, or 2 and 2 equalling 4), Ferguson’s accomplishment is pretty brave.  Just as brave is Matt Damon’s involvement as narrator – how many other huge movie stars would have the guts to lend their recognizability to such a morally important yet publicly risky venture?  I’ve got all kinds of respect for Matt Damon, particularly after this.  He’s doing such worthy things with his success.  How nice would it be if more celebrities would do the same.

By the way, if you’re thinking that this is some left-wing rant, think again.  Personally, my politics are a lot more nebulous (I don’t talk much about my politics but don’t ever think I can be pegged down cleanly by one side or another) – and this movie certainly argues damningly towards bi-partisan culpability.  While the current fiscal disaster really started with Reagan (and was helped greatly by Bushes 1 and 2), Clinton had a significant role to play as well in fanning the twin flames of ineptitude and opportunism, and Obama, disappointingly, is offering more of the same.

Whether we are Republican or Democrat or both or neither, we clearly can’t sit back and rely on our leaders to do the right thing.  There are no white knights in this story.  It’s up to the rest of us to be them.  We all, Inside Job argues, have to do what we can to stay aware of the important issues and to call for accountability when wrongdoing occurs.  Charles Ferguson and Matt Damon and the rest of this crew stepped up to do their part.  Who’s next?