Archive for the ‘Love’ Category

 

 

 

WHY

 

Over the past two weeks I’ve been covering the 2014 New York Asian Film Festival for Daily Grindhouse. This festival is so well-curated that one doesn’t even need to be local to find use for it; their schedule is like a ready-made Netflix queue. One of the films that ran this week was the deceptively-named WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL?, which has a great title for a horror movie but which quickly turns out to be something very different. I was lucky enough to see it last year and this is what I wrote about it for my year-end top-ten:

 

 

WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? is maybe, probably, most likely the most jubilant movie about movies ever made. Almost every prominent director seems to end up making a movie directly or indirectly about making movies — from Paul Thomas Anderson (BOOGIE NIGHTS) to John Carpenter (IN THE MOUTH OF MADNESS), from Clint Eastwood (BRONCO BILLY) to Spike Lee (SHE HATE ME), from George Romero (KNIGHTRIDERS) to Martin Scorsese (THE AVIATOR) — and now here comes the one by Japan’s Sion Sono.

 

 

The story centers around a long-running feud between two factions of violent gangsters. Aside from war in the streets, the head of one mob is dedicated to making his daughter (the very young, hugely appealing Fumi Nikaido) a movie star. Towards that end, he recruits a group of would-be filmmakers calling themselves “the Fuck Bombers” to make it happen. One of them falls in love with the leading lady, which is problem enough, but the gang war is escalating, although ultimately, it provides the perfect setting for a very realistically bloody movie. WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL? runs over two hours but every single minute is full of boistrous energy. It’s as wildly funny as any teen sex comedy and as gruesomely violent as any horror movie — usually at the same exact time. The point, it seems, is that film-going and filmmaking becomes an obsession and a delirium, like love itself. Makes perfect sense to me.

 

FN-450x250

 


– Jon Abrams.

 

Advertisements

Angel Baby

 

“You’ve got to be ready for moments like these, ready to drown your ruined heart as soon as it starts beating again.”  — from ANGEL BABY.

 

In 2013, Elmore Leonard left us, and I took that pretty hard. If there is any silver lining to that loss, it’s that his influence reverberates through the work of several younger writers. I’ve read plenty and as much as it counts, my vote for the best of all of them is Richard Lange, whose book of short stories DEAD BOYS and first novel THIS WICKED WORLD I snapped up and can’t recommend any more highly.

 

DEAD BOYS  THIS WICKED WORLD

 

 

This new novel, ANGEL BABY, is about Luz, the beautiful wife of Rolando, a.k.a. El Principe, an abusive drug kingpin in Mexico who escapes across the border to California, helped by Malone, a doomed man who isn’t much of a lifeline. They’re pursued by a man named Jerónimo, a deadly assassin who won’t ever relent, because Rolando has his family’s lives under the trigger. There’s also a crooked American cop looking to get the money Luz swiped from Rolando, because there are a lot of different breeds of bad people in this world and therefore in this book also. Luz will walk right through the crossfire, because she has a daughter on the other side, the subject of the story’s title. 

Now, that’s not a far cry from an Elmore Leonard plot, though I’d halt the [favorable] comparisons there and emphasize the uniqueness of Richard Lange’s writing, which has a flavor and a legitimacy and a sadness all its own. Lange is more of a street-level poet.  His prose and dialogue feel real and believable, yet they resound with fatalistic import. There are lines in this book that can break your heart and the heartbreak aftershocks last long after the speedy read is done.

In a slight return to comparisons, Lange’s depictions of California and Mexico have a verisimilitude I’d venture to liken to John Fante, though Lange’s work is more readily cinematic. An Edward Hopper painting sprung to life, maybe. If there is a movie, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, Michael Mann would knock it out of the park. The gut-punching romanticism of ANGEL BABY is right up that alley. Read if you like. Or if you don’t! It’s good enough to stand on its own merits, a unique blend of border noir, hard-boiled crime, and corrido music.

ANGEL BABY is everything you could want in a crime novel: protagonists who can frustrate and move you, villains who are scary as all hell, action that feels alive, and emotional impact that lingers. Richard Lange’s work is bruising and vital. I can’t wait for his next book.

 

SWEET NOTHING

 

This piece was expanded a little from my article on the best books of 2013. Find out more about ANGEL BABY on the book’s official site and on Richard Lange’s author page.

 

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

AFTER LIFE (1998)

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

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

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

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

@jonnyabomb


After Life

The Spectacular Now (2013)

Stories about alcoholism, if they’re being honest, have no heroes and no villains.  There are protagonists, and occasionally antagonists, but the antagonists are peripheral, really.  Authentic stories about alcoholism must ultimately focus around the protagonists and their loved ones.  A protagonist of such a story can be a hero at heart, but he’s living with an addiction, so his actions are rarely heroic.  They’re tainted, polluted.  It’s the addiction that is the story’s villain, and it’s an inescapable enemy.  It’s always there, with no safe haven to be found.

Addiction turns a hero into his own worst villain.  An addiction narrative is a suspense thriller, where the lead character is in a life-or-death battle to prevent himself from destroying his own life, and the lives of his friends and family.  Any other dramatic conflict, and there will be many, still remains strictly secondary in comparison.  Every tale of addiction is different, but every one of them can have only two potential endings.  The protagonist manages to stop, and that is no easy thing; or the protagonist dies.  Period.  Well, there may be a third option, of sorts.  It’s possible the story ends with the protagonist still alive, and embracing his addiction, but understand that this is a kind of death.  It’s a death of the spirit.

In the most generalized spoiler ever, let’s say that THE SPECTACULAR NOW, in its final moments, rejects the death of the spirit.  This is a movie with life in it.

SUTTER

And please take no offense at the fact that the opening paragraphs emphasized the male conjugation — they were written that way because this particular addiction story happens to be about a “him.”  Miles Teller plays the main character, Sutter Keely, an extroverted young man whose profound problems sneak up on the movie.  By leading with talk of addiction, this review of THE SPECTACULAR NOW robs the film of some of its shock — the movie was sold as a lyrical, regional romance, which it is, but primarily it’s the story of an addict, which isn’t immediately apparent as things play at the outset.  Sutter is outgoing and likable, with a stunning girlfriend (the luminous Brie Larson), a successful older sister (Mary Elizabeth Winstead, endearing and deep), and a single mother who cares about him in her seemingly brusque way (Jennifer Jason Leigh, in a rope-a-dope of a performance). Miles Teller has a kind of Cusack-meets-Belushi soulfulness and affability which keeps you on his side, even as Sutter’s screw-ups multiply as the story continues.  His philosophy, as captured in the movie’s love-it-or-sneer-at-it title, is to live in the “now” as opposed to so many people who fixate on the pain of the past and the worries of the future.  It’s an agreeable philosophy, but it’s flawed.  

SUTTER

Sutter is a high school senior.  He’s at that exact moment in life where people are most concerned with both their pasts and their futures at once.  High school seniors are at an emotional precipice — with yearbooks and parties, they celebrate and reflect upon the end of childhood, while on their computers sit college applications, resumes, and job applications, the entry tickets to the chaotic carnival of adulthood.  Sutter’s fixation on the “now” seems at first like a way of framing the present in a positive light, of appreciating the moment, but in fact it’s a dodge.  Sutter wants to prolong a moment that by nature must pass.

DRIVING

It starts with the soda cup.  The first clue to how substantial a problem Sutter has is the soda cup.  He’s never without it, in the car, at his job — practiced and committed drinkers know what’s in the cup.  He’s mixing booze in there, using the soda cup as a front to hide his crutch.  The acceleration is rapid.  After a whirlwind night of partying, Sutter wakes up one morning on a classmate’s lawn.  She’s Aimee Finecky, a sweetheart to whom Sutter never gave a second thought at school.  Next to Cassidy, his girlfriend, Aimee would be considered plain.  There’s a warmth and a decency to Aimee, though, as there is to Sutter, when he’s conscious.  Cassidy has been distancing herself (she sees the warning signs before he does) so Sutter starts spending more time with the attentive Aimee.  If this were the John Hughes movie one may have had reason to expect, the lawn incident would be played for broad comedy, a meet-cute.  Here it’s perfectly pitched, humorous but subtle, and the kids quickly move on from it.  Aimee, an introvert by nature, isn’t used to spending time with Sutter, an indefatigable extrovert.  She’s entranced.  She’s co-dependent.  She’s in trouble.  By the time she or the audience realize that, we’re all already in too deep with Sutter.

SUTTER + AIMEE

THE SPECTACULAR NOW has an impact you don’t see coming, even if you do know what’s in that cup right away.  Not to oversell such a delicate and genuine film, but it’s one of the best American movies to be released in 2013.   Credit is due all around.  Tim Tharp wrote the novel upon which the movie was based.  Scott Neustadter and Michael H. Weber ((500) DAYS OF SUMMER) wrote the adaptation for screen.  James Ponsoldt (SMASHED) directed the movie.  Jess Hall was the cinematographer.  Miles Teller and Shailene Woodley, as the two main characters, play their roles with uncommon maturity and sophistication.  They are surrounded by an extremely talented supporting cast, including the aforementioned Brie Larson, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, and Jennifer Jason Leigh as the strong women in Sutter’s life.  Kyle Chandler appears later in the film, as a character who only existed as rumor beforehand, and he makes the maximum impact in a few scenes with a perfect, knowing performance.  Comedian Bob Odenkirk, in a relatively small role as Sutter’s boss who recognizes a problem employee and tries to hang onto him as long as possible, is positively heart-breaking.  This is a movie where Bob Odenkirk, a monster talent who’s only ever made me laugh, broke my heart.  Wow.  This is a special kind of movie.

THE SPECTACULAR NOW

Making a good movie is a collaborative effort, done by small armies of craftsmen who have varying degrees of personal investment in the art.  Whether all were deeply moved to make it or only some, THE SPECTACULAR NOW feels eminently personal.  It’s told with quiet, relaxed authority.  There is a keenly-observed realness going on, just as there was in James Ponsoldt’s previous film, 2012’s SMASHED, and in his debut feature, 2006’s OFF THE BLACK.  Those films, though, were about young adults and middle-aged people grappling with addiction.  As terrific an achievement as SMASHED in particular was, Ponsoldt has found more unique, tender material in THE SPECTACULAR NOW.  The novelty of this plot is that it’s been de-aged.  Movies about drunks are almost always cast with characters gone to seed, nearing the ends of their lives rather than finding them at the very start. There’s still plenty of hope for Sutter. He caught this thing early.  Millions have been less fortunate. THE SPECTACULAR NOW ends on a question mark. Where will Sutter end up? Nothing is certain. But there’s reason to hope. This movie gives you hope.

Visit me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

 

 

(500) Days of Summer (2009)

 

 

I didn’t expect to like this movie, not even a little bit.  I figured, by all appearances, that it was going to be cutesy.  Normally, I’m revolted by cutesy.

Horrible.

Horrible.

 

Guess what?  (500) DAYS OF SUMMER was totally cutesy, and still somehow I dug it.  There is an aspect of recognition at work – I can relate to some of the experiences enacted here, and the locations are very familiar to me.  There is also an ace pair of lead performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Zooey Deschanel, and some nice supporting comic balance from the underrated Geoffrey Arend.

 

MCDFIHU FS027

 

Most of all, the moral of this story (which, as is promised early on, is about a boy and a girl but is not a love story) is one I needed to hear at the time I heard it.  It’s something I’ve understood and internalized over the last few years but it was nice to hear it said.  You can have your heart broken – more than once! – but you can not allow your broken heart to turn black.  It doesn’t do you any good to be embittered towards a girl who doesn’t love you (back/anymore/at all) – feel grateful for the experience and be always ready for the next one, which can easily be right around the corner.  Even if it comes complete with a cutesy name.

 

MINKA

@jonnyabomb

Smashed (2012)

In retrospect, it kills me that I didn’t manage to see SMASHED anytime last year.  It absolutely would have clinched for my year-end top ten.  I even know which movie it would have supplanted:  FLIGHT, a movie which covers similar territory.

Like FLIGHT, SMASHED deals with the topic of alcoholism with unusual potency and attention to detail, with an astounding central performance and with harrowing scenes of hitting bottom and going even lower.

Unlike FLIGHT, SMASHED has an unsubtle, lovely soundtrack that doesn’t threaten to undermine everything else good about the movie.

NO + MEW

Director James Ponsoldt, between SMASHED and this year’s THE SPECTACULAR NOW, has cornered the market on low-fi and true pictures that deal with addiction in surprising, disarming, and sneakily affecting ways.  He wrote SMASHED with Susan Burke, and assembled a tremendous cast that includes never-fail ringers like Aaron Paul (“Jesse Pinkman” on Breaking Bad), Octavia Spencer (FRUITVALE STATION), Bree Turner, Mary Kay Place, Megan Mullally, and Nick Offerman.

NO

Those last two, by the way, I am now officially willing to follow to the ends of the earth, due to the fact that everything they do together (Parks & Recreation, Axe Cop, THE KINGS OF SUMMER) is so resolutely charming.  Her role, as a sympathetic school principal dealing with a young teacher who lies and comes to work drunk, is probably smaller than his, as a fellow teacher who helps that troubled co-worker find her way into a support network but has his own weird issues going on.   But both are indelible in this film, as is the entire cast.  Everyone in the movie is funny, sad, and disarming.

MEW

But SMASHED is Mary Elizabeth Winstead’s victory most of all.  Already beloved by genre fans for her roles in horror and action movies, she proves definitively that she is one of the most under-utilized great actresses of her generation with her role as Kate, a schoolteacher who decides to get sober despite the fact that her husband and main running buddy (Aaron Paul’s Charlie) isn’t ultimately willing to do the same.  Winstead’s performance isn’t showy or grandiose, which is a sacrifice.  You don’t get fancy awards for underplaying.  Instead, she plays it like a real person.  Kate is a person you could know.  She’s a person you quickly come to care about.  She’s a person you worry about.  She’s a person you can hope for.  That’s more noble.  That’s true acting; playing a part with honesty, without underlining everything for the cheap seats.

MEW + AP

I feel so fondly towards this small, sweet, special movie, but I’m not sure I could express myself anywhere near as well as the late, great Roger Ebert did in his review.  Please seek it out – it’s one of the most beautiful pieces he ever wrote, and it will convince you, if I haven’t, that SMASHED is a film well worth the attention you give it.

@jonnyabomb

MEW + OS

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976)

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

You may have noticed that I’ve talked about MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED a lot.  I wrote about it only once, for my friend’s spotlight on Underrated Comedies.  As I wrote then, this isn’t only an underrated comedy in my eyes.  In my opinion, this may just be the most underrated American film of all time.  Am I exaggerating?  Read on, amigos.

MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED was written by Tom Mankiewicz, who worked on SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, DRAGNET, and three James Bond movies.  It was directed by Peter Yates, best known for classic tough-guy movies such as BULLITT and THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE.  One of the producers on MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED is Joseph Barbera — that’s right — one half of the insanely prolific Hanna-Barbera cartoon team.

All of the above credits may begin to hint at the unique atmosphere of MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED — I could call it “cartoonish realism” if I thought the term might ever take off.  The story concerns an independent ambulance company competing against rival services in addition to the proper channels. They’re barely-legal L.A. outlaws, riding into life or death situations. Most of them do it for the kicks.

The veteran driver is nicknamed “Mother” and that’s the only name he’s known by. He’s a man of simple pleasures: He likes getting massages from pretty ladies, keeping a fully-stocked cooler in the rig, and “buzzing” gaggles of nuns with his siren as they’re crossing the street.

That’s Bill Cosby.

14089688-standard

The new guy is Tony Malatesta, a former police detective nicknamed “Speed” due to the bogus drug allegations that recently got him shitcanned from the LAPD.

That’s Harvey Keitel.

And the knockout receptionist with larger ambitions is nicknamed “Jugs” (which she hates, by the way.)

That’s Raquel Welch.

Those are three very different stars, which means that the movie is a collection of very different tones. This movie brims with raucous comedy and sober tragedy, on a scene-to-scene basis.  Somehow it all hangs together cohesively – credit to the sure hand of Peter Yates.  But even with that said, it’s probably still not what you’re expecting.  Cosby’s got a potty-mouth, for one thing!  Your Cosby Show memories will be forever changed once you hear him say “Bambi’s mom had great tits.”  But even as he’s doing that, he’s rocking some real pathos too.  His performance here is way more HICKEY & BOGGS (see that too, please) than GHOST DAD or LEONARD PART SIX.  There’s a real depth to his acting that could be frankly shocking even to longtime fans of his comedy.

Meanwhile, Keitel was best known at the time  for his work with Scorsese – he appeared in TAXI DRIVER the same year – but even though he’s cast as the straight man here, he’s totally down to play. And Raquel Welch, a sexual revolution in human form, is easily their equal and frequently their better. It’s one of her best-ever roles.

51wCBabGFSL._SX342_

btsjugsbig1


Add to that a supporting cast that includes L.Q. Jones, Bruce Davison, Dick Butkus, Larry Hagman in brilliantly gross & bastardy form, and the sorely-underappreciated character-actor great Allen Garfield (THE STUNT MAN) as the low-rent boss of the gang, and you have one of the most fun movies of the 1970s, and arguably one of the most unheralded.  Name another great movie from that year – ROCKY, ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, NETWORK – and then ask me if I’d rather watch MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED.  Apologies to Stallone, Hoffman, Redford, and Duvall, but I think you already know my answer.

vlcsnap-00015 (1)

Ride with me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

And check out this fun photo-article on the film’s shooting locations.