Archive for the ‘Horses’ Category

 

Burt-DayIMG_4674

 

This past week, Nitehawk Cinema hosted the latest Kevin Geeks Out show, focusing on Wigs, Toupees, and Hairpieces in movies. It was my great honor to be among the talented and hysterical presenters. I got the chance to talk about one of the greatest movie stars of the past century, as part of my mission to remind people of his greatness. The following is what I presented:

 

000 BURT REYNOLDS

 

It feels like high time to remember what makes Burt Reynolds so important. In the late 1970s and the early 1980s he was the number-one movie star in the country for five years straight. For that reason, Burt’s story is part of America’s story. He met everybody. His memoir is loaded with many of the most famous people of the past century. His book is like Forrest Gump, if Forrest Gump was Burt Reynolds.

 

001

 

Why am I bringing up Burt Reynolds in a show about Wigs, Toupees, and Hairpieces? There are at least two big reasons, and I’ll get to them both. I’d argue that hair is a central theme of Burt’s stardom, and it’s also part of the reason we lost track of him.

 

Burt Reynolds, with his dog Bertha. 1970.

 

002 SAM WHISKEY

 

For a good part of his career, Burt didn’t have his signature mustache. Here he is taking a bath in SAM WHISKEY from 1969. That same year, Burt grew a mustache for his role in 100 RIFLES opposite Jim Brown and Raquel Welch.

 

003 DELIVERANCE

 

But one of Burt’s signature roles had nothing to do with the mustache. Here he is in DELIVERANCE from 1972. It’s a strong movie and Burt is a big part of what makes it that way. In an alternate universe, we can imagine, Burt continued on this hairless path.

 

004 AS ROCKY RHODES IN 'THE TWILIGHT ZONE'.

 

Burt says he grew the mustache because he was tired of being compared to Marlon Brando. This is Burt from an episode of The Twilight Zone, early in his career, where he plays a sort of Brando type actor. In the book Burt tells a story about Brando cornering him at a party to accuse him of cashing in on the resemblance. Burt said, “I’m not having surgery because you don’t like the way I look. But I promise not to get fat.”

 

005 MUSTACHE PARTY

 

So, the mustache. This is the popular image of Burt Reynolds in people’s mind. At one time in American pop culture, a mustache was a symbol of maleness, of virility. Maybe it was a Teddy Roosevelt thing. But as time went on, and especially nowadays, the mustache seems to promise comedy.

Ron Swanson.

Ned Flanders.

Chuck Norris.

 

006 PLAYGIRL

 

That’s the catch-22: It’s partly because of the very sign of his legendary machismo that people stopped taking Burt Reynolds seriously.

 

007 COSMO

 

And this is another reason. In 1972 Burt posed naked for Cosmopolitan magazine. He did it right before DELIVERANCE made him a huge star. Burt did it for a laugh, but it worked against him. People didn’t get it.

 

008 Fuzz (1972)

 

As you can see from this poster for FUZZ, that photoshoot haunted his image.

 

009

 

Most people see Burt as a playboy, as a goofball. They don’t remember how good an actor he was, and how great a movie star he was.

 

010 DANCING

 

This is Burt (on the far right) dancing at a party near Steve McQueen and his wife. It’s true that Burt Reynolds was always fun. It was part of his image.

 

011 DANCING

 

Another thing about Burt Reynolds that makes him awesome, but that also works against him, is his openness and honesty. He called his own movies crap when they were crap, and even when they weren’t. He was never afraid to be the butt of the joke, but maybe people stopped noticing he was in on it.

 

012 SHATNER

 

Here’s another thing: In America, you can’t ever admit you wear a hairpiece. William Shatner is an example of a guy who didn’t hide it, and so he’s generally treated as a punchline.

 

013

 

Here’s a guy who never admits it.

 

014

 

As long as you never admit it isn’t real, you’re invincible.

 

015

 

Even when there’s relatively apparent visual proof that you’ve had work done on your hairline…

 

016

 

As long as you don’t admit it, you’re golden. The second you admit it, you’re Samson post-Delilah.

 

017 Deliverance (1972)

 

Burt says, “I’ve always been frank about my hair, because if you deny it, you’re fooling yourself.  Everybody else will do jokes about it. It’s better if you do the jokes first.” And so he did. But I think it made people forget what an effective dramatic actor he was.

 

017a

 

Fun story about Burt and the hairpiece: “One night at a bar in New York some idiot came over and made a crack about a “pelt on my head and I said, “If you can get it off before I beat the shit out of you, you can have it.”

 

017b

 

Another admirable thing about Burt is his ability to make amazing friendships. He can be best pals with a guy who turned out to be as right-wing as Jon Voight…

 

017c

 

And he can be as close as he was to Ossie Davis, who told Burt, “You’re the only actor in the world liked by both African-Americans and the Ku Klux Klan.” For the record, Burt wasn’t interested in entertaining racists. If you watch his movies, his love for people shines through — regardless of their gender, race, or orientation. If it was a party, everybody was invited.

 

018 White Lightning (1973)

 

DELIVERANCE solidified Burt as a Southern-fried action star. He appeared – still without the mustache – in films like WHITE LIGHTNING

 

019 Gator (1976)

 

…and GATOR

 

STICK, Burt Reynolds, 1985

STICK, Burt Reynolds, 1985

 

…the latter of which also marked the start of his directing career.

 

021 The Longest Yard (1974)

 

One of Burt’s best and most famous movies, THE LONGEST YARD, shows what he can do without mustache power. It’s one of the greatest sports movies ever made.

 

022 Hustle (1975)

 

Coming from the same director a year later, HUSTLE was a very underrated crime film. Guaranteed Michael Mann saw this one somewhere along the line.

 

023 Lucky Lady (1975)

 

Here’s Burt co-starring with Gene Hackman, one of the key actors in the New Hollywood. In this era, guys like De Niro and Pacino, Hoffman and Hackman, began to redefine naturalistic acting on film.

 

024 Semi-Tough (1977)

 

And just as American movies were getting more serious, Burt went the other way.

 

025 Smokey and the Bandit (1977)

 

This is SMOKEY & THE BANDIT, the movie that was a colossal hit for Burt and his friend, the director and legendary stunt man Hal Needham.

 

026 Burt Reynolds, Hal Needham, Jerry Reed, and a bassett hound on the set of Smokey & the Bandit.

 

While most highbrow critics don’t give any kind of attention to Hal Needham’s work, I think it’s very important, not least because of how it showcases the severely under-appreciated art of movie stunts.

 

027 Hooper (1978)

 

HOOPER was maybe Hal Needham’s most personal movie, showing the life of a Hollywood stuntman. It’s great.

 

027a Hooper (1978) Japanese Poster

 

So is its Japanese poster.

 

028 The End (1978)

 

Even amidst the popularity of all the Hal Needham movies, Burt continued to direct, and this is also the era where he buddied up with Dom DeLuise.

 

Reynolds Roast 1977

 

Burt and Dom together are magic, they’re infectious, you can’t not love watching them,

 

029 The Cannonball Run (1981)

 

But they’re also clowns. Their movies together are live-action cartoons.

 

Dom DeLuise

 

If all you know is THE CANNONBALL RUN, it’s very easy to lose sight of Burt’s dramatic talents.

 

030 Paternity (1981)

 

When Burt makes a movie like this…

 

031 Sharky's Machine (1981)

 

…It’s easier for cinematic tastemakers to forget that, the same year, he also made a movie like this.

 

032

 

SHARKY’S MACHINE is really worth seeing. I wish Burt’s career had continued with him directing more of this kind of melancholy, sleazy crime movie.

 

033 Stick

 

Burt made an Elmore Leonard adaptation before it became the in-thing to do.

 

034 Heat

 

There’s a better film out there going by the same name, but HEAT is still pretty special, a perfect showcase for Burt as a tough guy whose glory was beginning to fade.

 

035 CITY HEAT

 

Teaming him up with his old buddy Clint Eastwood, 1984’s CITY HEAT should have been a hit. It wasn’t.

 

036 City Heat (1984)

 

I think the contrast between Clint and Burt at this stage of their careers is very telling. Both of them were stars who appealed to men as much as women. Both of them are better actors than most people recognize. Both of them directed. But only one of them became a mainstream Academy Award winning institution.

 

037

 

I love Clint, never get me wrong, but he would never let himself be the butt of the joke, the way Burt did so many times. Even in the movies he made with the orangutan, Clint was always the coolest guy in the room. In CITY HEAT, he calls Burt “Shorty.” The final line of the movie from Clint is, “You’ll always be Shorty to me.” And he gets the last word. [Clint is 6’4″, Burt is 5’11”.]

 

M8DCIHE EC004

 

Notice who’s wearing the nice suit and who’s wearing the silly costume.

 

039 Stroker Ace (1983)

 

This is also the era when Burt became more famous for tabloids than for movies. For one thing, a facial injury he sustained on the set of CITY HEAT led to a rumor Burt had AIDS. If you remember the ‘eighties, there was a lot of spite and prejudice in a rumor like that.

 

040

 

This is also around the time Burt met Loni Anderson.

 

041

 

It isn’t like Burt wasn’t famous for his offscreen relationships before, but this was where it started to overshadow his onscreen work.

 

042

 

In his book, Burt isn’t mean about it, but he indicates he got swept up in the relationship in a way he wishes he hadn’t.

 

043

 

Guess that’s hard to say no to, no matter what your type is.

 

044

 

Burt says this was one of the happiest times of his life…

 

045

 

…but then also the worst.

 

046

 

Again, headlines like these are the primary basis of his celebrity in the late 1980s. By contrast, Clint was really taking off as a serious filmmaker, going from BIRD to UNFORGIVEN.

 

047

 

People see Loni Anderson, a blonde bombshell, and they probably make assumptions about her, and about Burt for being into her. But the loves of Burt’s life were girl-next-door types.

 

047a

 

The chapter in the book on Burt’s regrets about it not working out with Sally Field is really affecting.

 

048 Cop and a Half (1993)

 

So real life got sadder, and then these were the kinds of movies Burt was getting. No offense to COP AND A HALF, but it’s no IN THE LINE OF FIRE.

 

TSDEVSH EC011

 

In the ‘nineties, Burt went back to TV for Evening Shade, a show that had one of the greatest ensemble casts ever, but it was on CBS at a time when it wasn’t cool at all to be on CBS, assuming that time ever existed.

 

050 Boogie Nights (1997)

 

Then, towards the end of the decade, this came along.

 

051

 

By the time Burt gives his phenomenal half-dramatic/half-comedic performance in BOOGIE NIGHTS, nobody seemed to remember that’s what he’d been doing all along.

 

052

 

I think movie fans of my generation revere this movie and we revere Paul Thomas Anderson’s work in general. BOOGIE NIGHTS is a great American movie. But it was well publicized that Burt was uncomfortable with it. He’s still never seen it all the way through. Anderson went on to make several more great films, and Burt didn’t. This kind of stuff leads people to take sides, and most go with the brilliant auteur over the so-called has-been. But it’s not that simple.

 

053

 

For one thing, Burt was 62 when he made Boogie Nights. Paul Anderson was 27. Keep in mind Burt started acting back in the 1950s. Imagine you’re Burt and some kid is asking you to do and say some pretty damn out-there things. BOOGIE NIGHTS isn’t porn, but it’s sure got porn dialogue. Burt was the son of a police chief. He was raised to be a gentleman. He had valid reasons to be concerned about his image at this point in time. I don’t think Burt Reynolds is an uptight guy, but I also think it’s okay if he wasn’t too comfortable calling Julianne Moore a “foxy bitch.”

 

054 The Dukes of Hazzard (2005)

 

Burt was incredible in BOOGIE NIGHTS, but just about everything that came afterwards was underwhelming. THE DUKES OF HAZZARD was a movie based on an old TV show that was itself a rip-off of Smokey & the Bandit, and now Burt was getting novelty-cast in the Jackie Gleason role.

 

longest_yard_ver2

 

055 The Longest Yard (2005)

 

Don’t even get me started on what happened here.

 

056

 

So the full-on renaissance he deserved didn’t happen. Burt returned to Florida. He runs an acting school there now.

 

057 Burt Reynolds Institute & Museum in Jupiter, Florida.

 

Can you imagine getting acting lessons from Burt Reynolds? That’s a movie right there.

 

058

 

Burt turned 80 this month. If I had to bet on any human being lasting past a hundred, it’d be him, but still.

 

059

 

Too often the critical re-evaluations come too late. I don’t think it’s too radical for me to suggest that the work of one of the most popular movie stars in history is worth another look.

 

060 IN CONCLUSION

 

Let’s not let a legend go under-remembered in his own time. And one last thing about the book: It not only has chapters remembering Bette Davis, Lee Marvin, and Frank Sinatra, but there’s also one dedicated to the horse Burt rode in the movie NAVAJO JOE. What’s better than that?

 

Navajo Joe (1966)

 

 

— JON ABRAMS.

IMG_5595

Advertisements

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a politically-charged white-men-in-Mexico Western that starts out bombastic and boistrous and maintains that stance throughout.  The opening vignettes introduce the four lead characters in their most characteristic arenas.  Rico Fardan, the reserved, pragmatic, always-prepared leader, is shown testing out a new machine gun that you know full well you’ll eventually see him use, due to the fact he’s played by Lee Marvin.  Hans Ehrengard, the frontier-era horse whisperer, is shown punching the shit out of an animal abuser.  That’s quintessential Robert Ryan, doomed decency and temperamental violence often in the same character.  Jacob Sharp, the archer, is  bringing a live captive into town for sentencing.  As played by Woody Strode, he’s a proto-DJANGO [UNCHAINED-style], a calmly-effective bounty hunter in an unfriendly time for guys who look like him.  And Bill Dolworth, the devilish explosives expert, is first introduced in bed with a woman who we quickly find out is another man’s wife, because the guy is about to walk in the door and Dolworth is pulling on his longjohns and diving out the window.  Burt Lancaster, one of the greatest Hollywood leading men ever, could play noir and he could play arthouse drama, but here he’s the comic relief and the leading man all in one.

Lee + Burt

Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, Robert Ryan, and Woody Strode.  That is kind of an all-star super-team of old-school movie tough guys.  If I have to bring up THE A-TEAM to get some of you youngsters to go watch this lesser-acknowledged classic, then that’s what I’m going to do.  It’s clear where that popular 1980s action template came from — the grizzled and grey veteran soldier, the horndog ladies’ man, and the two other guys who handle all the transportation.  Four guys with their own individual and shared histories take on a dirty job no one else is able or ready to handle.

The Professionals (1966)

In THE PROFESSIONALS, these four rough riders are hired by big-business tycoon Ralph Bellamy — you know him best from a weirdly similar role in TRADING PLACES — to rescue his young wife from a marauding revolutionary who has taken her south of the border.  Bellamy perenially played a lovelorn shnook but here he’s an intriguingly nastier sort of character.  In the great Hollywood tradition of casting great stars in ethnically incongruous roles, Jack Palance plays the revolutionary, “Jesus Raza,” and the Tunisian-by-way-of-Italy bombshell Claudia Cardinale plays the Mexican-born “Maria,” an old flame of Raza’s, as it turns out.  If you’ve read my page before you already know how I feel about Claudia Cardinale. Or you could just look at a picture:

The Professionals (1966)

THE PROFESSIONALS is a great big-screen action classic, three-times Oscar-nominated, with some fascinating sociopolitical subtext.  Writer-director Richard Brooks (BLACKBOARD JUNGLE, CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, IN COLD BLOOD) adapted Frank O’Rourke’s novel for screen with the legendary Conrad Hall (COOL HAND LUKE, BUTCH CASSIDY & THE SUNDANCE KID, FAT CITY, AMERICAN BEAUTY) believably and beautifully shooting California for Mexico.  The movie works just fine on the level of supreme entertainment, but if you read Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation, as I did when I was lucky enough to learn from him as an undergraduate, it becomes apparent that THE PROFESSIONALS is reflective of the era during which it was made.  The Professionals are comparable to the American Green Berets, an elite military-trained fighting force, who are sent into a foreign nation for dubious reasons and in the course of their adventure they become disillusioned with their mission.  Very potent stuff, but it’s buried under a rollicking mainstream Western facade.  The subtext is there if you want to think about it, but you can also just sit back and enjoy.

The Professionals (1966 film)

Since I’m a huge Robert Ryan fan, I do wish he had a little more shine in the movie.  According to some interviews on the Blu-Ray, Ryan wasn’t well during filming, which could explain it.  (I’m also a Woody Strode fan but unfortunately Woody Strode being underused in a film is somewhat more routine occurrence.)  Ryan and Strode, as the horse wrangler and the team scout, are really playing strong support to the buddy-movie pairing of Marvin and Lancaster, the gunman and the dynamite setter.  Ryan does play an interesting contrast to his frequent noir antihero persona, though.  This is one of his most thoroughly decent roles – Ryan’s horse expert is tender and protective of every horse the group encounters.  He’s one of those guys who seems to care more about animals than people, and who can blame him, in a movie where one species is clearly more consistently trustworthy than the other.  Many of this movie’s heroes have abandoned ideals for commerce when it begins.  What makes the movie ultimately so thrilling and rewarding, then, even more than the banter and the gunfights, is to watch them rediscover actual virtue.  That these Professionals end up refusing a hefty payday for the right reasons and manage to stick it to a corporate fatcat in the process is arguably even more satisfying today than in 1966.  Besides, who can resist the following exchange:

“You BASTARD!”

“Yes sir. In my case an accident of birth. But you sir, you’re a self-made man.”

THE PROFESSIONALS showed tonight at 92Y Tribeca but I didn’t get this piece up in time.  So:

Call me a bastard on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

The Professionals (1966 film)

The Professionals (1966)

The Professionals (1966)

sleepy hollow

Sleepy-Hollow

FOX has a new show from the writers of the new STAR TREK which re-envisions Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” for the modern day.  I don’t know what I’m supposed to do with this information.  I grew up on that short story, and on the 1949 Disney retelling.  I grew up not far from Tarrytown where the story is set. I went to haunted hayrides there.  In high school I drew pictures of the Headless Horseman while other kids were trying weed for the first time.  This is a story that has a lot of power for me.  This is a property I know about, more than most.

There’s stuff I like about the promo footage.  I like seeing Clancy Brown (STARSHIP TROOPERS) in anything, although it doesn’t look like he makes it out of the pilot.  I like Nicole Beharie, the female lead, having just seen her in 42 and thinking she made near-angelic sweetness a believable human characteristic there.  I like the idea of the Headless Horseman running rampant through the very bucolic Dobbs Ferry.

But there’s some bizarro stuff in here too.  The premise is that Ichabod Crane, who in this incarnation fought with George Washington, is woken up 250 years into his future, where his nemesis the Horseman has been once again causing trouble.  First of all, that’s Rip Van Winkle, if you know your Irving, but neither that nor the fact that Ichabod has been stripped of his characteristic cowardice is what worries me nearly as much as THE CONSPIRACY.  Oh no, the conspiracy! The back-of-the-dollar-bill spooky-eye pyramid Illuminati conspiracy!  I’m not being sarcastic.  I’m actually concerned.  Concerned that this is going to be turned into NATIONAL TREASURE: THE SERIES.  I don’t watch those movies, the same way I don’t watch DA VINCI CODE movies, because I’m not interested in historical conspiracies.  I’m interested in ghost stories.  Especially when it comes to SLEEPY HOLLOW, I’m interested in the ghosts.  And on top of everything, here they’ve got the spectral swordsman wielding automatic rifles just like he’s Val Kilmer in HEAT.

It’s adequate cause for concern, is all I’m saying.  There are ways to allay worries.  (I am, as always, eminently hirable as consultant on matters of supernatural accuracy.)

Anyway here’s the trailer.  You decide for me.  Keep an eye out for a special guest appearance by the tagline from Tim Burton’s 1999 SLEEPY HOLLOW ad campaign!

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

@jonnyabomb

Looking over the list of my top fifty favorite movies today, it seem like a good time to expand a little bit on my writings on Sergio Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Some days it’s my second favorite movie of all time, after Leone’s own THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, and most critical writings on the movie call it Leone’s masterpiece.  Clint Eastwood played the lead in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, he shared top billing with Lee Van Cleef in FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, and they made it a trio in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY.  With ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, you have four main characters this time around, each time with their own personal musical cues courtesy of Leone’s most important collaborator, Ennio Morricone, and each one of the quartet  is among the most eternally memorable incarnations of the archetypes they are meant to represent:

The movie’s lonesome stranger, in a role originally offered to Clint Eastwood, is played by cinema’s other great stoneface, Charles Bronson.  His character is known only as Harmonica, and the reason why is a brilliant reveal which I wouldn’t dream of ruining. 

The charismatic rogue, who may or may not be on the side of the angels, is called Cheyenne and played by Jason Robards.  This is arguably the coolest character of all goddamned time, in my opinion.  The tragic romantic figure that the younger Robards was so good at playing is imbued with a terrific (and tremendously quotable) sense of humor in Leone’s hands.

The whore with the heart of gold, Jill, is played by Claudia Cardinale.  For my money, Claudia Cardinale in this movie is as beautiful as a human woman can look.  She’s great for a lot of other reasons, some of them I listed here when I named her my number one of all time, but you can’t argue with that face.

Frank, the bad man in the black hat, is played by all-American good guy Henry Fonda, and seriously speaking, he is one of the greatest villains ever.  I’m sorry to keep using generic platitudes, but that’s the kind of blindly expansive adoration that this movie elicits from me.  Frank has a cruelly and coldly sadistic introduction, and he maintains that level of villainy throughout the movie.

As you can tell from the title, Leone thought of ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST as “a fairy tale for adults,” and the fact that each one of these classic Western movie archetypes are simultaneously so broad and so memorable is proof that Leone succeeded.  This is a definitive Western, and a legitimately perfect movie.  It probably helps to go in on it with a working knowledge of Westerns, just so that you can see how Leone so definitively aced it, but I figure it’d be just as good even if you can’t tell a Colt from a Derringer from a Remington.

For plenty more about movies all the time, find me on Twitter@jonnyabomb

If you’ve seen Sergio Leone’s THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY, then congratulations!  You’ve seen the greatest movie ever.  But even if you’ve seen every Western that Sergio Leone made (which you really ought to), you’ve still only scratched the surface of the vast reserve of wonderfulness that is Italian Westerns.  Another Sergio – surname Corbucci – made some of the best-regarded of those movies.

Sergio Corbucci’s THE GREAT SILENCE is about a mute gunslinger nicknamed “Silence” (Jean-Louis Trintignant, maybe not a household name but a terrific actor and still starring in major movies at 82), who tries to help a small community who have been besieged by a band of vicious criminals, led by the cooly genocidal bounty hunter “Loco”, played by the ever-disturbing Klaus Kinski.  Loco collects dead bodies like a hunter collects pelts, while Silence only kills in self-defense – to be fair, he does provoke a lot of dickheads to draw down.  That way it’s legal.  Silence kills bad guys.  Loco is the worst guy.  Inevitably they’re going to meet up.  Sounds like a movie we may have seen a few times before, right?

Not quite.

The main element that drew me to THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY when I first saw it, the element that got me into Italian Westerns for life, and the element that THE GREAT SILENCE has in abundance, is the otherworldly quality of it all.  There’s a beautifully weird disconnect that happens when Italian filmmakers use international actors to shoot stories about the American West in (usually) Spain.  THE GREAT SILENCE is one Italian Western that doubles down on the otherworldliness.  The story takes place in Utah, on a wooded frontier blanketed with snow – even the horses have a hell of a time getting anywhere.  The characters are bundled up in layers of animal hides, brown and grey spots in an oppressive blanket of whiteness.  And the score by Ennio Morricone is one of the most haunting you’ll ever hear, even by the haunting standards set by the maestro.

THE GREAT SILENCE will stick in your guts, and that’s good because it leaves you with a few things to think about.  Corbucci wasn’t the most political of Italian-Western directors (that’d be the third Sergio, Sollima), but there is some clear subtext here if you’re interested in looking for it.  It may or may not mean much that the voiceless hero is a Frenchman – maybe Trintignant was just plain the best guy for the job – but I’d say it certainly means something that a blond, blue-eyed German is the monster of the piece, and Loco’s every action in this film bear out that hunch.  His monstrousness is familiar, is all I’m saying.

Moreover, it says plenty that the romantic interest, Pauline the vengeful widow who sets Silence on his collision course with Loco, who is the man who killed her husband, is a black woman – Vonetta McGee, who went on to star in several grindhouse-friendly films including BLACULA,DETROIT 9000, andSHAFT IN AFRICA, and in my well-educated opinion is only second to Claudia Cardinale in the ranks of most beautiful women ever to headline a “spaghetti” Western.  Race isn’t an issue to Silence, who proves his open mind by engaging in probably one of the earliest examples of interracial love scenes on film, but it most certainly is to Loco, who, in addition to his many other crimes, is blatantly racist.  Corbucci couldn’t be drawing the line between good and evil any more clearly, which is why the movie ultimately becomes quite literally a punch in the heart zone.

Non-spoiler warning: THE GREAT SILENCE has probably THE down ending of all time.  I’m not going to get into it, but trust me on this one.  It’s almost unbearably sad, but it’s also resolutely unique and entirely unforgettable.  If you think you can handle the heartache, then I couldn’t recommend this movie any more highly.

THE GREAT SILENCE is screening from Sunday September 9th through Tuesday September 11th at Cinefamily in Los Angeles.  This is the world’s only surviving 35mm print.  If you want to see this movie theatrically, this is the time.

@jonnyabomb

____________________________________

True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010.  There wasn’t much hesitation there.  I saw it and I made that decision right quick.  Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and  raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so.  I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me.  I take the big risks. 

In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other.  True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career.  I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.

True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie.  It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual.  The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing.  There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts.  There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate.   Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.

But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld.  Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit.  (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.)  LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them.  Nobody gets along. 

The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide.  Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel.  The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume.  Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.  They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel.  The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it.  They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.

Did someone say “bear”?

Bear!

Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound.  The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is.  It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life.  There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour.  The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh.  It’s just right.  (There goes that bear reference again…)

True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t.  They’re that good.  Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft. 

But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld.  There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here.  The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. 

@jonnyabomb.

True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.

  

  

As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:

  • One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*).  I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls.  (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)

 

  • True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations.  It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks.  There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American.  And it’s an absolute celebration of language.

 

  • Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis.  It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation.  Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions.  Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.

 

  • Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body.  She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun.  Then the water trickles down.  This is a distinctly American touch.

 

  • In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident.  (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.)  In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.

 

  • J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett!  (Daggett is a  character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)

 

 

  • The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.

 

  • Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor.  Just always good.

 

  • The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book.  The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.

 

  • Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner.  Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.”  And mopily repetitive:  “Everything is against me.”  (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)

 

  • Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon?  Does that dude have to be so good at everything?  Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted.   He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t.  So well done, this supporting act.

 

  • The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.

 

  • In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad.  Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.

 

  • Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:

“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!”  [Bridges’ reading trounces Wayne’s, I venture to say.]

“The love of decency does not abide in you.”

“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]

“Time just gets away from us.”

“This is like women talking.”

The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.

This is like women talking.  Just watch this movie already.

Two things you should probably know; 1) This piece was originally featured on CHUD.com, and 2) It was written very soon after the series finale of Lost aired, which will help you better understand the first joke…

So there’s this island, right?

Hey wait – where you going?  Come back!

Thanks.  Anyway, Survival Of The Dead takes place mostly on an island, where the dead are coming back to life and there are a couple different factions warring over how to rule the island, and there are farm animals on the island, and a brunette who seems to have some connection with a dark horse, and a crazy-eyed old guy who knows how he wants to run the island, and shootouts keep happening, but really people, I’m still not describing Lost.

Survival Of The Dead is the most recent zombie movie from genre monolith George A. Romero.  Survival Of The Dead is somewhat hilariously-titled (spoiler warning: the dead don’t survive — kinda by definition) and the humor is mostly on purpose there and in the rest of the movie.  For a bleak zombie movie about the end of the world, it’s got a pretty great sense of humor.  I really shouldn’t be calling it a zombie movie I guess, since they’re not once called zombies here.  The word is “deadheads,” which at least has nothing to do with hippies.

George Romero is one of those directors whose movies had some part in making me who I am, so I’ll always be rooting for his new stuff to be good.  He’s a trailblazer and an iconoclast, and I would be hard-pressed to speak too critically over anything he’s done.  I’m happy that a bunch of people seem to like this one, and I’d never begrudge anyone their enjoyment of a George Romero movie.
So can I just say that Survival Of The Dead is pretty far from my favorite George Romero movie, and leave it there?

No?  Well before I get into it, can I at least conjure good memories by naming the contenders?  My favorite would be somewhere between Night Of The Living Dead and Dawn Of The Dead (choosing between them would be like choosing between A Fistful Of Dollars and The Good The Bad & The Ugly – one started the whole thing, the other escalates it to perfection), and I also have a major soft spot for Knightriders, which is one of Romero’s most personal movies and has probably his best ensemble cast of his whole filmography.

Survival Of The Dead is not as good, or as personal, of any of those three movies.  This is a bit of an understatement.

The story concerns a band of corrupt National Guardsmen who grab an armored car full of money and head to a coastal island where a pair of Irish immigrants are locked in a lifelong mortal struggle.  The island is called Plum, but it would be fair to call it the Island Of Bad Accents.  Really, the Leprechaun movies have better accent work.  The movie’s main conflict is between the O’Flynns and the Muldoons, who always hated each other but now are at war over the problem of zombies.  I mean deadheads.  The O’Flynns want to take the typical approach, a bullet to the head, while the Muldoons want to keep them chained up until some kind of cure is discovered.  It’s an interesting idea, and like the best Romero, it has not-so-vague socio-political implications, but it never really pans out.

One problem is that Romero’s movies are starting to suffer from casting unknowns.  That’s a dangerous business – sometimes you end up with a Ken Foree and it’s great, but other times you end up with people who aren’t up to the task of carrying a movie.  Of the three principals in Survival Of The Dead, Romero neo-regular Alan Van Sprang is likable if not thoroughly believably badass as “Nicotine” Crockett, whereas the film’s ingénue, Kathleen Munroe, is not nearly memorable enough (and a little too reminiscent of the young Mick Jagger), and the film’s true protagonist, Kenneth Welsh as the Irish John Locke, Patrick O’Flynn, brings the whole enterprise too close to Darby O’Gill territory to be effective in the way Romero needs him to be.

The other problem is the movie’s stilted and cramped cinematography.  Romero’s movies are about human nature and end-of-the-world philosophy – they yearn to be impressively widescreen, or at least to feel more epic and affecting.  Survival Of The Dead is very poorly-shot – the action choreography and character placement are slapdash, often missing several moments that would make it feel more fluid and comprehensible.  It’s not worthy of the work of the low-budget innovator who made Dawn Of The Dead, and it’s not at all a good showcase for cinematographer Adam Swica.  This movie looks like a million bucks, and speaking literally, that’s not a good thing to say about a movie.

All right, I’m done bagging on Survival Of The Dead now.  As I said, I’d rather think nice thoughts about everything Romero.  So let me say that there are a couple unique and genuinely haunting images spread sparingly throughout, and if you’re an aficionado of this sort of thing, you’ll at least appreciate the several innovative zombie-killing gags.  (Romero literally invented that particular pleasure of films, and he’s still the best at it.)  And I’m a fan of anything I’ve never seen before in movies, so here’s a short list to end the article of all the things Survival Of The Dead has which no other movie anywhere else has to offer:

  • An Asian gentleman sitting on a rooftop and fishing for zombies.
  • A zombie lady riding a horse.
  • A zombie lady biting a horse.
  • A bunch of zombies pulling a cowboy’s butt off.
  • A zombie pulling someone’s scalp off.
  • A zombie taking a bullet to the head so that their head explodes and then the scalp lands on the now-empty neck.
  • A lesbian soldier introduced as she publicly whacks off in a jeep.  Don’t ask don’t tell!

I feel confident that this list will let you make the final decision as to whether you want to see this movie or not.

@jonnyabomb

P.S.  Here is the German poster for the movie, which is very German and thus extremely scary: