Archive for the ‘Heroes’ Category

 

 

One of my very favorite writers ever has passed away.  If you are a person who loves reading as much as I do, you know that, while losing the person is solely the loss of his or her loved ones, losing the author can be devastating to the appreciative longtime reader.  Their voice is in your head.  You carry their influence with you, particularly if you are a reader who also writes.  That’s a loss, even if it’s nothing compared to what the family and friends must be going through.

 

If you’ve never read his stories, I urge you to change that pronto, for your own sake.  When you do, don’t thank me, thank him.  For a full list of everything he ever did, visit Elmore Leonard’s excellent personal website.

 

For my own meager tribute, please click over to Daily Grindhouse to read the few words I could muster.  Seriously, I hope that’s a little bit adequate, because it’s all the blood I could squeeze from the stone.  I’m really down about this.  Below I put together an appropriately sloppy and scrappy photo montage of moments from Elmore Leonard’s career, to match my state of mind.

 

The only two Elmore Leonard film adaptations I’ve written about at any length are 52 PICK-UP and KILLSHOT.  I wrote a little bit about JACKIE BROWN in my Pam Grier overview.

More is sure to come, eventually.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

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Out Of Sight

 

      

 

 

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Jackie Brown

 

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Today we celebrate a great American.  Oh totally, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but also: John Carpenter, one of my very favorite filmmakers of all time.  Here’s something I wrote on February 11th, 2009: 

I recently received in the mail the limited edition 2-disc score album for John Carpenter’s Big Trouble In Little China.  It’s a limited pressing:  There are only 3000 of them.  That means that, if you want one of your own, you had better get on it, and come back to read the rest of this essay afterwards.

Now to the remaining readers:  What does my revelation that I now own this artifact mean?

Well, it means that I am a person who cares to own the soundtrack to Big Trouble In Little China, which will tell you either of two things:  that I am a super-hip underground electronic music artist (to whom Carpenter’s scores are hugely, weirdly influential), or that I am just a person who loves the movie Big Trouble In Little China THAT much.

I won’t leave you hanging.  It’s because I love the movie a lot.  I get the sense that I’m not alone in the realm of the internet.  I could qualify that love; I could add a postscript that I like to write to movie scores and instrumental music, or go on and on about the importance of John Carpenter’s work on the landscape of popular culture, but look, none of that is going to get me laid in time for Valentine’s Day Weekend.  It’s what it is, and so shall it ever be.

John Carpenter’s most acknowledged classics are Halloween and The Thing, and possibly Escape From New York.  Beyond that, the idea of where the rest of Carpenter’s movies fit within the realm of canon seems to be debated.  Not by me, mind you – I firmly believe that the man’s filmmaking mojo was untouchable from at least the release of Assault On Precinct 13 (1976) to that of They Live (1988).  That’s one hell of a run!

It hardly seems arguable to me that, as long as there is an auteur theory, John Carpenter should get his rightful due from the highbrow film establishment as one of the luminaries of the last thirty years.  The reasons why he doesn’t get revered in the way that contemporaries like Spielberg and Scorsese do is because, like Michael Mann, Carpenter’s best-known work came a little later than theirs, and, unlike all of them, all of Carpenter’s work is in the less reputable genres of horror, action, and science fiction.  Of course, the auteur theory is generally a flawed one:  Carpenter’s films wouldn’t be what they are without the contributions of many writers, co-writers, actors, cinematographers, even other composers.  All the same, here’s the test:  Pick up on any sequence – even a single shot – from a John Carpenter film at random, and odds are it wouldn’t take long to identify it as a John Carpenter film.  His films are united by a look, a sound, a vibe, that other movies could never have.

Of course, this perspective didn’t spring on me immediately.  I was to formulate that grandiose opinion much later on in my movie-watching development.  To follow a director that closely, you have to start with one movie, and for me, at first, there was Big Trouble In Little China.  It started out as a “big brother” movie – you know, the ones you’re not supposed to watch as a kid, but finally get to anyway, when the right influence relents.  My friend Jay Roberts and I slipped into the basement den where his older brother and his buddies were watching it, and we hid behind his chair, until he noticed us there, and actually let us watch the rest.  I was ten.  That was huge.

Carpenter has called the movie “an action-adventure-comedy Kung Fu ghost story monster movie,” which is not only accurate, but everything a ten-year-old boy with a big imagination wants from a movie.  Also, its main character is a trucker, which is what I wanted to grow up to be.  (Weird, true fact.)  It’s the definition of a cult film – no one will ever classify or study Big Trouble In Little China as an important movie (yours truly excepted), but when pressed, many would admit that this is the kind of joint they’d much rather be watching on a Friday night.

Okay, so real quick for the few who haven’t yet had the pleasure:

Jack Burton (played by Kurt Russell, the DeNiro to Carpenter’s Scorsese, this time out doing a hit-and-miss John Wayne impersonation) is a trucker who is owed some gambling money by his old friend, San Francisco Chinatown restaurateur Wang Chi (played by Dennis Dun, very likable).  Before paying up, Wang asks Jack if he will accompany him to the airport, where he is picking up his fiancée.  At the airport, the girl is kidnapped by street thugs, since she is the rare Chinese girl who has green eyes.  To rescue the girl, Jack and Wang have to venture into the Chinatownunderworld, and to face its overlord, David Lo Pan, played by the busy character actor James Hong in a seriously immortal performance.  I’m not kidding, it’s unforgettable.  If for no other reason, watch the movie for this guy.

 

Lindsay Lo Pan

 

In a shocking dual role, Lo Pan is a wizened old husk of a man, but also a hundreds-year-old ghost warlord demon who is cursed and who can only become flesh-and-blood again by marrying the girl with green eyes.  In addition to a small army of fake cops, cheesy gang members, and kung fu warriors, Lo Pan has three supernatural enforcers, The Three Storms (Thunder, Rain, and Lightning), who will look familiar to anyone lucky enough to have seen Shogun Assassin.  And he has a couple monsters too – The Guardian, which is a floating blob covered with eyeballs, and The Wild Man, which is basically a werewolf, only Asian (and therefore probably my favorite character in the entire movie).  Wang brings in some allies too, best of all being the excellently named local wizard Egg Shen — played by Victor Wong, in the film’s other legendary performance.  A post-Porky’s, pre-Sex In The City Kim Cattrall is in the movie too, but mostly just to run rapid neo-Hawks dialogue with Kurt Russell in a gratifyingly anti-romantic subplot.  No kid wants to see Jack Burton ride off at the end with some lady riding shotgun in the Porkchop Express.

It’s a kitchen sink kind of a movie, obviously – or more accurately, a Chinese buffet of a movie.  Which is some of the most fun you can have.  Twenty-some years later, I can surely see where the corniness lives, most obviously in the unfortunate sculpting of most of the haircuts present.  But overall, it still works for me, almost as much as it did when I was ten.  I’m still struck by the energy of the thing.  If I wanted to be halfway pretentious about it, I might make the assertion that Big Trouble In Little China was the first action movie of the video-game era (either that or its studiomate from 1986, the much better-received Aliens).  It’s even structured like a video game, with the way the characters descend through several levels to meet their objective, squaring off with increasingly more dangerous enemies as they go.  And there’s even a “reset” or a “do-over” – when they don’t rescue the girl on the initial try, they go back with more allies and bigger guns.

This is also an example of what could be called the cinema of escalation:  A fantastical story that leads an audience towards buying into its most fantastical elements by starting out in the “real world”, and methodically ramping up the crazy situations and characters while never losing track, always healthily maintaining the suspension of disbelief.  In that way, the closest cousin to Big Trouble In Little China that I can think of at the moment is probably Ghostbusters, which is never a bad comparison to be drawn.  Hey, after all, Big Trouble In Little China has ghosts too.  (Also it shares a visual effects supervisor, Richard Edlund.)

Now about that soundtrack, composed by John Carpenter “in association with” Alan Howarth.

The score is of a piece with the movie, which is to say that it’s incredibly entertaining, sometimes corny, extremely insane, and most importantly – propulsive.  The score matches the editing, and it MOVES.  It’s functional, which is frankly an unsung virtue of a good score.  It also smartly delineates character, with its darkly regal Lo Pan orchestrations, its varying strains recurring during the appearances of the Storms, its eerie themes suggesting the ancient pseudo-mythology of the movie and even the driving rhythms under several of the action scenes which resemble nothing so much as an 18-wheeler idling, apropos for Jack Burton’s profession.

Like most of the scores from Carpenter’s movies, the music is almost entirely done on synthesizers.  In the liner notes, Carpenter and Howarth discuss how much fidelity they paid to authentic Chinese music, which is to say, none.  They went after sounds and themes that sounded Chinese to them, rather than working arduously to replicate realism.  I actually respect this approach.  I’m not sure it would’ve helped the movie to have that much attention to detail.  Big Trouble In Little China is a tribute to the kung fu B-epics of the 1970s – it’s very Shaw Brothers.  Reality is not this film’s ultimate aim.  Some might say that such musical guesswork is the methodology of the Ugly American, but personally I’m more irritated by cultural imitations.  Carpenter and Howarth are owning up to their lack of authoritative expertise in all things Chinese, and giving it a shot anyway, and in its own way, that’s charming.  Besides, Dennis Dun’s character is more the traditional hero of Big Trouble In Little China.  He’s the young, clean-cut lead out to rescue his lady love.  Conversely, Kurt Russell’s character is the ultimate Ugly American (John Wayne bluster and all) – therefore, these cultural concerns are actually structured into the film.  It’s all just a little bit subversive, though of course, not at all Important with the capital vowel bolded.  It’s difficult to call racism or even exploitation (though some apparently tried, during the initial theatrical run) when the film in question is so silly, or more to the point, when the two most charismatic performances in the entire movie are from two elderly Chinese men.  What other big-studio American action picture has given us that?

That’s the basic conclusion I’m drawing here, by talking about the score in specific and the movie overall – Big Trouble In Little China is an anomaly, a curiosity, and a legitimate original.  This is why a cult has grown around this movie, and the cult is not giving signs of going away.  Almost makes me wonder what else I was right about at ten years old.  Cheers!

Get at me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

   

PUNISHER: WAR ZONE & THE SAD STATE OF THE CINEMATIC SHIT-KICKER.

So I was one of those strange people who watched Punisher: War Zone during its brief theatrical run.  If you’re a fan of left-field action flicks and intentional unintentional humor, I’ll tell you it’s definitely worth that late-night rental.  If you like to get drunk, get drunk.  If you like to get high, get high.  If you’re like me and you’re a screwy enough personality even without adding any chemical influence, you’ll absolutely get a chuckle out of the thing. 

It’s total junk, but you know what?  Maybe most times you like to eat healthy.  But sometimes you somehow end up at McDonald’s.  And on occasion, while you’re there, you might even feel dumb enough to try the Fillet O’ Fish. 

Punisher: War Zone is the McDonald’s Filet O’ Fish sandwich of action movies – if you’re brave enough to try it, it’s a very temporary very positive experience which you will probably regret doing and probably not admit to having done.

No one will ever persuade me that even a moment of the previous two Punisher movies (in 1989 and 2004) were remotely watchable, and I’ve never been much of a fan of the character.  But the Garth Ennis Punisher stories are some of the few comics I have kept up with regularly for the last several years.  I’m not talking about the first few stories he did with Preacher collaborator Steve Dillon – those were over-the-top black comedy that’s not to my tastes.  The previous Punisher movie, the Thomas Jane one, went to that well, and “well” is not how that approach turned out.  No, instead I’m recommending (highly) the bleak, black-hearted stories Ennis has written more recently, including The Slavers, Barracuda, and The Long Cold Dark, in which the cold-blooded vigilante is pitted against enemies even crueler than he is.  It’s the only approach that makes much sense.  You have to go with the vicarious impulse.

So I don’t actually agree with the notion that The Punisher is too one-note a character to hang a movie upon.  Film franchises such as Death Wish and Friday The 13th managed to do very well for themselves with a one-note, mono-maniacal mass-murderer as the protagonist.  And in War Zone, the story actually starts with at least two relatively interesting concepts which could make The Punisher an interesting feature-film prospect.  One, he accidentally kills one of the good guys; two, he’s put in conflict with a cop who has a more traditional right on his side.

The movie just happens to bury that promising story framework in a sloppy, overacted, underlined, frequently hilarious comedy.  War Zone is unstructured, aggressively miscast, and lit like a caricature of a 1985 Michael Mann film.  (Neon is everywhere – I especially liked the shot of a character sitting on a stool in front of a shelf of assorted liquor: cut to a wider shot featuring a lime-green neon sign proclaiming “BAR.”) 

Maybe Garth Ennis himself could have written up a dark, interesting Punisher movie, but that won’t ever happen.  At this point, another Punisher movie is probably out of the question entirely. 

Especially not after you see the performances of the movie’s lead villains, Dominic West as Jigsaw and Doug Hutchison as L.B.J.  These guys are starring in a campy, incestuous John Waters comedy, playing homicidal psychopathic brothers with insanely ridiculous accents.  Somebody went and mixed the Punisher into their weird-ass movie, instead of the other way around.

On the subject of that Punisher – the one place where Punisher: War Zone isn’t totally miscast is with Ray Stevenson.  I first noticed Ray Stevenson in King Arthur, which was not a great movie but it was stocked with great badasses such as Clive Owen and Ray Winstone.  If you know Ray Stevenson at all, you know him from Rome, the HBO series in which, among other things, he pulls out some dude’s tongue with his teeth

I don’t know if Ray Stevenson makes a great Punisher, exactly –  he probably projects too much depth for that – but he is quite skilled in the bad-ass arts.  He’s convincing as a shit-kicker in a way that very few actors are, especially these days.  I wish to hell somebody would give Ray Stevenson a different movie in which to practice shit-kicking, because he’s so very good at it. 

Which brings me to a deeper point…

While I was watching Punisher: War Zone, I started thinking about how rare that badass action movies about the great shit-kickers have become.  Shitkickers used to be so popular; not so much anymore.  Where are the big, ugly, mean mother fuckers? 

Where’s Charles Bronson, who was always so many more shades of tough than people give him credit from just the Death Wish films? 

 Where’s today’s equivalent of James Coburn?  Lanky, toothy, fierce, unfukwitable?

Would there be room today for a wonderfully unique, growly, and two-fisted actor like Warren Oates? 

Do we have anyone on the 2008 landscape who could play the kind of roles that men like William Holden, Jason Robards, Robert Ryan, Toshiro Mifune, or Steve McQueen routinely played? 

Could my beloved hero Clint Eastwood have his amazing, legendary career if he were to start out today?

It used to be that movies had a place for men, real men – men acting mean for the sake of good.  They were convincing as tough guys and they gave our dads and grandpas the metaphorical instruction manual as to how to behave.  Looks were secondary, tertiary, or lower still, as qualifications for cinematic supremacy – physical beauty had little or nothing to do with the careers of John Wayne, most likely the most popular and famous American movie star of all time, or of Humphrey Bogart, one of the best remembered.

So I gotta be a little concerned about the state of American masculinity when the most popular action-movie character of the last ten years is…

Captain Jack Sparrow. 

Johnny Depp is great, but while he’s admirably tried to fight it, he’s ultimately, unavoidably, a pretty-boy.  And in the Pirates movies, he’s an action hero with makeup

Dude’s got makeup on, and HE’S the ruler of all the pirates?  Tyrone Power was a pretty-boy too, but he went easier on the makeup at least.  But these are the pirate movies our generation gets.  Babyfaces for babies.  I actually like Orlando Bloom, but he’s in those movies to make Jack Sparrow look butch.  You see my point?

The next most popular lead in action movies?  Probably it’s Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man.  Now, I’m a big Tobey fan, despite and/or because of the universally agreed-upon fact that he resembles me pretty much exactly.  (On a good day, I also get the Jake Gyllenhaal comparison, but that works even more damningly towards my point.  Gyllenhaal is twice the romantic, sensitive poet type that Maguire is.)  While Sam Raimi is all the more a genius for casting my doppelganger as the greatest comic book hero who isn’t Batman, I still have an issue with this, weirdly enough.  I’m not sure that our action heroes should necessarily resemble me – at least, not as a rule, rather than the exception.  Our action heroes should look like they FLOSS with runts like me.

The guys who should be in that spot haven’t broke through to action in the way I’m describing. 

Clive Owen has not exactly been able to hit as an action star the way he should be. 

Russell Crowe was holding it down for a minute there, but he rushed off into serious-actor territory and never really returned. 

Bruce Willis was great at it, but he seems not to be doing it [in watchable movies] anymore. 

Sam Jackson is brilliant at it, but he works so often that it’s not special anymore. 

Keanu Reeves and Matt Damon were very solid in the Matrix and Bourne films, but remember, they were cast against type. 

Denzel can do it, but he’s got so many other vivid facets to work at, and all of them are squarely in leading man territory – he’s more a Robert Mitchum than an Ernest Borgnine. 

Daniel Day-Lewis can do it (Gangs of New York) but usually refuses to. 

I could see Mickey Rourke getting it done, but the proper system isn’t in place. 

Remember, I’m not maligning any of these actors – I don’t think I’ve mentioned a one that I don’t think is legitimately great.  I’m merely talking about a genre that seems to have disappeared off the big screen, a joyfully malevolent genre where pretty faces exist only to get pushed in.

In action, real down-and-dirty shit-kicking action flicks, generally the actors who we think of today strictly as character actors should actually be the kings.

Casting Daniel Craig as Bond was a great step, in my opinion.  He was kicked up from villainous supporting roles, in movies like Road To Perdition, to the big time.  I know the ladies find Daniel Craig dreamy, but I like him because he looks like he’s actually been in some fights; maybe there’s even a busted nose somewhere in his hazy past.  I’m not particularly a Bond fan, and those fancy spy extravanganzas aren’t the kind of movies I’m talking about, but I like that he’s out there in big movies.

But outside of all of the above – really, what else is out there? 

I like The Rock in movies, but he’s not the answer we need.  He’s a little too metro, and definitely too funny. 

I like Mark Wahlberg too, a whole lot, but as an actor way more than an action guy – I’ll never be able to forget “Good Vibrations” no matter how good the guy was in Boogie Nights and Three Kings

Jason Statham is decent at what he does, but there’s nothing quintessentially American about that guy – he’d ideally be the fourth down the line in a badass ensemble, not the headliner.  Besides, he used to be a male model. Dismissed.

Hayden Christensen keeps getting action roles, but come on now, seriously. 

Hugh Jackman has a little Clint in his look, but also a whole lot of musical theater. 

That kid in the Twilight movie is inevitably going to get his shot in an action flick now, but he looks like Kate Winslet to me.

  
We’re THIS close to a Justin Timberlake action movie.  That’s all I’m warning against. 

And if that happens, I guarantee Lee Marvin is going to be royally pissed.

You know, the world is upside down.  You’d have to vacate movies almost entirely and go all the way to television in order to see the character actor running rampant in his badassed primacy.  You’d have to watch The SopranosThe ShieldRescue MeThe WireOz.  The characters on Lost who used to star on Oz.  And of course, Rome.

All of which brings us back to Ray Stevenson.  He’s part of the solution.  But he can’t do it alone.

Consider all of the above to be an S.O.S.

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This essay was originally posted in December in 2008. Since then, the most dire prophecy contained within it has come to pass.  The situation has not much improved.  “It gets better,” my ass.

Doesn’t look happy.

 

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb

 

 

No one need argue with Inside Job’s well-deserved recognition in the Documentary Feature category last night.  But the fact remains that it was a particularly crowded field.  Aside from those documentaries that there wasn’t room enough to recognize with nominations, there were other documentaries that absolutely must be watched, regardless of temporary awards victory status.  Foremost among those, in my mind, is Restrepo.

Restrepo was one of the best things to appear on movie screens all last year, and by far one of the most important.  Co-directors Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington have provided a valiant service by documenting this story.  You won’t know the names of any of the stars of this movie, but you should.  And you wouldn’t, if this movie were never filmed and released.  But the men we meet in Restrepo, thanks to the chance the movie provides, are unforgettable.  They are the actual definition of that overused word: heroes.

Firstly, if you’re wondering what the title ‘Restrepo’ means, it’s a guy.  An American soldier.  His name is unfamiliar.  It looks almost imaginary.  But he’s a real person, overlooked by a society that rewards television reality stars and basketball players, and virtually ignores the legitimate heroes who risk everything on a daily basis, just so the rest of us don’t have to.

But this documentary isn’t remotely as political a statement as all of the above; in fact it’s not political at all.  Restrepo the movie was clearly a daring and risky venture for anyone who was present during filming, but that’s due strictly to the events being documented.  It’s an honest, unfiltered, non-biased record of one year spent in the trenches of the Korangal Valley, during the still-raging American adventure in Afghanistan.

Restrepo the movie is first and foremost a tribute to PFC Juan S. Restrepo, who was killed in action during a deployment to Afghanistan.  His death occurs in the course of filming, and its circumstances, and its effects on his brothers-in-arms, are part of the central document of the movie.  So first we know Restrepo the man.  Then Restrepo becomes something else.  Restrepo’s name becomes the title of the military outpost that his comrades capture and defend, deep within enemy territory.  OP Restrepo is the place and the tribute and the legacy.  It’s the main focus of the documentary, a tangible symbol of the platoon’s accomplishments during that year.  (This is what makes the end-credits post-script all the more haunting, and if you choose to look at it in the right light, so damning.)

Again, though, Restrepo as a movie is the best kind of objective journalism.  Outside of the obvious and very understandable respect for the men that these cameras are observing, there’s no agenda here.  The footage speaks for itself.  If the creation and the final fate of OP Restrepo is any kind of metaphor, that interpretation is left up to the viewer.  For me, however, it’s hard not to view it as such.

A post-script tells us that the army pulled out of the valley later that year, abandoning OP Restrepo, not long after the events of this movie.  Rather than receiving a heroes’ welcome on the homefront, the group had few options but to re-enlist.  For Junger & Hetherington and for the capable, determined, unpretentious, selflessly patriotic, and brave soldiers of the regiment, the movie is the tribute.

For the rest of us, it’s something to think about, and to think about very hard.