Archive for the ‘Michael Mann’ Category

The Insider (1999)

For all his technical experimentation, psychological insight, and sophistication of purpose, Michael Mann is essentially a pulp director.  It’s very rare that he departs from the overarching genres of noir and action.  THIEF, MANHUNTER, HEAT, COLLATERAL, MIAMI VICE, and all of his TV work (Crime Story, Miami Vice, and Luck) are all ne0-noirs.  LAST OF THE MOHICANS and PUBLIC ENEMIES are history-based action movies.  Even ALI, a biopic of one of the most famous men to have ever lived, could be argued to fit within these bounds as more of a genre film than the standard biopic, since the boxing film has always only been a step away from noir and Mann’s compositions in ALI remain moody and romantic as in any of his other films.

THE INSIDER, then, is perhaps Michael Mann’s most high-minded movie, and on paper, there’s no reason it should be remotely as watchable and rewatchable as it is.   It’s a true story about network TV, newsmagazine journalism, and big tobacco, and yet it’s suspenseful, moving, and entertaining as all hell.  It belongs to the same line as ACE IN THE HOLE, THE PARALLAX VIEW, and ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MEN, yet ironically it’s more grounded in realism and less dependent on lurid incident than any of them.  There’s only one bullet in all of THE INSIDER, and it isn’t ever seen in motion.  The drama of THE INSIDER comes from depositions and confidentiality clauses, lawyerese and how it makes the layman’s head spin, of good intentions and obfuscations and families straining under corporate pressure.  It’s a thriller where the suspense is primarily internal.  The roiling atmosphere that engulfs the film is stormy and ominous and reflective of the thought processes of the lead characters.

So much of that comes from the robust, dynamic, iconoclastic directing choices of Mann, working with his cinematographer  Dante Spinotti, returning from MANHUNTER, LAST OF THE MOHICANS, and HEAT.  Mann and Spinotti enlist their typical blue-gray palette, but this time there are greens and oranges and constantly disarming variations on all of the above — all of which keep the movie from resembling any other ever made.  THE INSIDER has an unprecedented look, which separates it from easy comparison, while making it easy on the eyes for its duration.  There’s also a rare intimacy and tactile sensation to THE INSIDER, beginning from the very start, where Al Pacino as 60 Minutes producer Lowell Bergman is driven to a meeting with a Hezbollah leader — we can almost feel the ridges and pores of the blindfold over his eyes as it ripples with the wind and sunlight flickers through.  You can feel the otherworldliness of a driving range at night, the dampness of a rooftop just after a rain, the warmth of a bar, the isolation of a hotel room.  The movie puts the viewer in these environments, which makes the story feel that much more urgent.

In a word, THE INSIDER is absorbing.  Absorbing.  That happens through unity of disparate crafts.  The musical selection, both of score and soundtrack, is impeccable and distinctive as it ever is with Mann, and the editing style is precise and hypnotic.  The script by Mann and Eric Roth is impeccably-rendered, full of dialogue that is full of truth and untruth and both and neither, and then to deliver it, you have a roster of some of the world’s greatest actors, led by Al Pacino, bellowing but focused in maybe his last truly excellent role to date, Christopher Plummer in his rummiest of cadence as beloved newsman Mike Wallace, and Russell Crowe, who was so ferociously incredible in his transformative role as the title character that the 1999 Oscar voters realized they fucked up by not giving him Best Actor for this movie and corrected the mistake the very next year.

In fact, is there anyone who is seriously willing to argue that the elected Best Picture that year, AMERICAN BEAUTY, is in any way comparable to THE INSIDER as a whole?  I’m sure there is, actually — just don’t try arguing it with me.  I’ll smoke you.

THE INSIDER lands on Blu-Ray on February 19, 2013. If you appreciate greatness, you will buy it.




The Insider



The Insider



Michael Mann At 70.

Posted: February 5, 2013 in Michael Mann, Tributes

Michael Mann

The internet reminds me that today is a day to consider Michael Mann.  But when it comes to your greatest inspirations, it doesn’t take a birthday or a new release to celebrate the work that means so much to you.  It’s a year-round process.  If I’m stuck for something to watch, in goes a Michael Mann movie.  If I’m in the mood for excellence, in goes a Michael Mann movie.  If I’m looking for focus, in goes a Michael Mann movie.  There’s almost no director in film history whose movies I’d rather watch.  Taking an entire filmography into consideration, he’d be my guy.  (It’s him and Sergio Leone, basically.)

Why do I love Michael Mann’s movies?  Energy.  Atmosphere.  Sound.  Picture.  Geography.  Faces.  Intensity.  Airlessness.  Density.  Psychology.  Ambition.  Restlessness.  Composure.  Deliberation.  Urgency.  Ferocity.  Thoughtfulness.

He’s one of the rare action directors who shows an obvious interest in women and the uniqueness of femininity.  You couldn’t get more macho than a Michael Mann film, yet he works harder than most male filmmakers to pair his male leads with equally strong women.  His movies center around acts of violence and codes of dispassionate professionalism, yet nonetheless have a seemingly incongruous romantic air.  The male characters in these movies don’t disregard or disrespect women.  They aren’t afraid of women.  They desire women, often yearn for sustained partnerships, even if the unions are fleeting or doomed.  This gives the films a tension, a cool warmth, unique to cinema.

And in a Woody Allen world, here’s the rare Jewish-American director who presents the male of the species with the smarts that go without saying, only — and this is the important part — coupled with toughness .  Michael Mann doesn’t make movies about nebbishes, and he doesn’t make movies for them either.  Not for nothing, I suspect, was James Caan the first leading man in a Mann feature (THIEF).  Not for nothing, I suspect, was THE KEEP his second feature.  Jewishness isn’t an overt theme of Mann’s work, and identifiably Jewish characters in his work are rare — Lowell Bergman in THE INSIDER and Ace Bernstein in the TV series LUCK are two of the few — but it’s the identity of the lifework that matters, the assertiveness and the authorship.  Michael Mann characters don’t stammer or fumble or shit themselves — they have style, strength, and determination.  I went to Hebrew school, folks.  On a molecular level, this stuff matters.

When we talk about the modern greats, we talk about guys like Spielberg and Scorsese, who I adore and admire, but these are fairly conventional guys by comparison — Michael Mann is working at the same level, but his work often borders on the experimental.  He’s earned a seat at the contemporary Round Table.  This is a life’s work with consistency and scarcely-paralleled craftsmanship from outset to present day.  There’s a sense of purpose in every film he makes.  Because some will always need to argue, there are those who would debate Mann’s level of success from film to film, but god damn, people — how rare is it in mainstream American film that a director works so hard to push the boundaries of the medium on a technological level while also being so absorbed by story, character, and performance?  The following poster gallery represents a survey of an unparalleled career, and even the nitpickers in the crowd, whatever they think of the ones that they didn’t appreciate as much, will be forced to agree that this is a redoubtable array of films.

THIEF (1981) The Keep (1983) Manhunter (1986)  Miami Vice Crime Story The Last of the Mohicans (1992) Heat (1995) The Insider (1999) Ali (2001) Collateral (2004) Miami Vice (2006) Public Enemies (2009) Luck (tv)

That’s one epic resume you’re looking at.  Holy hell, do I ever hope he keeps on making these things for as long as humanly possible.  As far as a birthday tribute to a man I never met goes, that’s the most important wish I could ever put forth.  Health, clarity of mind, financing, and movies.  Many, many more movies.

Beyond the above, I haven’t written at length about many of Michael Mann’s movies — since my thoughts on HEAT or MANHUNTER alone could fill a book apiece — but here are my scattered thoughts on the three most recent feature-film releases (click on the images for the words):

Collateral (2004)

Miami Vice (2006)

Public Enemies (2009)


You know why this is showing up here now.  This is here because, try as I might, there was no way I was going to be able to let 2012 pass without any comment on THE DARK KNIGHT RISES.  That will be up soon enough.

But first, my thoughts on 2008’s THE DARK KNIGHT, since it was one of the first movies I ever wrote about online.  As far as the public record is concerned, I never have gotten around to writing anything about 2005’s BATMAN BEGINS, though maybe I should.

What follows is a condensed version of two separate posts I wrote on the same movie — you’ll see as you read it how, even in 2008, I was trepidatious about voicing any reservations about such a critical and popular prize-hog.  As some have since found out the hard way, my initial instincts weren’t too far off the mark.

People were in a frenzy over these movies before they even arrived in theaters.  And then things got even worse.

For some reason, while many people seemed to be comparatively lukewarm on BATMAN BEGINS (I loved it, by the way), there are many who seem to take THE DARK KNIGHT and THE DARK KNIGHT RISES even more seriously than they do those two presidential elections that happened in 2008 and 2012.  Let’s put it this way:  I’ve never met an “undecided voter” when it comes to Nolan-Batman fans.

Maybe it’s fitting that fearsome madness should erupt around a character who primarily exists as a storytelling prism by which to examine madness and fear.  But he’s also a character whose best stories involve conquering those twin demons, and that, I think, is why he means so much to so many of us.

So these are my opinions about some Batman movies.  That’s all they are.  You can agree or you can disagree.  I’m sure I’ll hear about it either way.


The Dark Knight (2008)


Directed by Christopher Nolan.

Written by Christopher Nolan and Jonathan Nolan.

Starring Christian Bale, Heath Ledger, Gary Oldman, Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine, and Tommy “Tiny” Lister.

About THE DARK KNIGHT, an ocean has been said.  My pontifications may be just another drop in that ocean, but it’s a pretty damn sincere drop.  I love Batman.  Have done ever since I was shinbone-high.  This is a character close to my heart, so what the hell, here it is, my two cents on THE DARK KNIGHT:

Mostly, I totally loved it.  There were a lot of great moments, and when I say great, I mean astounding.  I can’t recommend strongly enough that this one be seen on IMAX, where the full-screen city establishing shots and most of the action sequences reclaim that overused word “awesome”.   And hard as it is to do nowadays, ideally one should go in knowing as little about the plot as possible, because this movie has the power of surprise.  I did as good a job as I could do of blocking out such knowledge prior to the fact, but it wasn’t easy.  The pre-release thunder was deafening.

And it’s great.

But it’s not perfect.

It comes so close.  THE DARK KNIGHT is the most like Icarus of all superhero films; it just almost touches the sun.

We all know by now what’s so incredible and superlative and timeless about this movie – Heath Ledger’s uniquely intense and committed portrayal of the Joker, about which I can write absolutely nothing that hasn’t already been said by more influential writers; the portrayal of Batman by Christian Bale, just as good yet way underrated by comparison; Wally Pfister’s crystal clear cinematography, even more breathtaking when seen on IMAX screens; the deceptively simple, sharp production design by Nathan Crowley; the fantastic score by Hans Zimmer and James Newton Howard — a marvel of simplicity with its ominous theme for the lead character (that cresting wave of just two notes) and its even more ominous theme for his nemesis (that dirge of just ONE note) — and of course, the overall vision of Christopher Nolan, a director uncommonly interested in big ideas and engaging the widest possible audience with them.

By all rights this should be my favorite comic book movie ever, and in many of its many incredible moments, it almost seizes that title.  But the flaws hold it back, for me.  They are sizable flaws or I would not have honed in on them.  There are three in total.

1. Two-Face coming up out of nearly nowhere.

Everybody noticed this problem; that’s how you know it’s a problem.  The movie did a great job setting up valiant district-attorney Harvey Dent’s rise and fall, but then abruptly fast-forwarded him into the murderous Two-Face in the third act and [spoiler] killed him off.  Why?  Because somebody had to die.  SOMEBODY had to pay for [spoiler] what happened to Maggie Gyllenhaal.

Obviously there was initially a plan to keep the Joker in these movies, so when real life events cruelly made that impossible, it was apparently deemed necessary by the powers that be (whether they be the Nolans or the higher-ups) that the other major villain had to die.  This is part of the weird, hypocritically-puritanical morality of big-budget Hollywood movies.  For some reason, the vast majority of these major comic book movies don’t seem to be narratively satisfied until they have blood; until they kill off a villain at the end.  The Jack Nicholson Joker, the Danny DeVito Penguin, the Willem Dafoe Green Goblin, the James Franco Green Goblin, the Alfred Molina Doctor Octopus, and so on — all killed off, even at the weighty expense of the merchandising opportunities of the future.

So now this new Batman franchise has the terrible conundrum of having killed off a well-developed villain character onscreen, when the remaining well-developed villain character survives onscreen but has been tragically lost offscreen.  (Don’t get me started on how awful that situation is.)  And now the fans are heatedly debating which villain from the fifty-years-stale rogues gallery should be dusted off for the inevitable sequel.

My humble suggestion?

Forget Catwoman.

Forget the Riddler.

Forget the Penguin.

PLEASE forget the Penguin.

Forget them all, and let the Nolans create an entirely new villain.  You know they can do it.  They made Ra’s Al Ghul compelling, and who besides the most devoted fans and the working comics folk remembered him before BATMAN BEGINS?  A new villain is the answer.  The most important character in this series has always been Batman, and the first two movies have been built around him.  The next one should follow suit.

2. The vacuum where a love interest should be.

The other major problem with THE DARK KNIGHT, and I hate to say it because I really have liked her in other movies, is Maggie Gyllenhaal.  The character is what it needs to be, but the performance is a dead zone.  If the smart, sarcastic, lively Maggie Gyllenhaal from STRANGER THAN FICTION had shown up for THE DARK KNIGHT, than there wouldn’t be a problem.  But here she seemed entirely disengaged, apathetic, bored.  I didn’t believe for a minute that both Bruce Wayne and Harvey Dent would be so into this dull woman, and I didn’t feel her loss to be as tragic as it very much needed to be.  On a narrative level, this movie needs the audience to fall in love with Rachel Dawes so that when we lose her, we understand why it sends Batman on the path he takes at the end.  In that role, neither actress who’s played it has cut the mustard.

Why do these comic book movies have so much trouble finding an equally compelling female lead?  Strong man need strong woman.  Would we care as much about STAR WARS if Carrie Fisher didn’t bring cojones to Princess Leia?  I don’t think so.  Don’t cram a love story into my Batman movie if you can’t make me care about the lady involved.

Without that, no, you don’t have the greatest comic book movie ever.  You have a very good comic book movie, but not The Greatest-Ever Comic Book Movie. That’s hopefully still to come.

Do I have a suggestion?  Yes.  Just off the top of my head:  Michelle Monaghan continues to strike me as an easy answer to a whole lot of problems.

3. The mumbo-jumbo.

This is a tough argument to make, because it’s one of the things I appreciate so much about the Nolan approach to these movies.  These are films built to house expansive ideas, about fear and heroism and governance.  I respect that.  It’s a far nobler thing, in every way, than the standard overheated empty-headed blockbuster.   In a world of TRANSFORMERS movies, I can’t believe I’m about to complain about a movie being too smart.

But it gets to be a little much, I think.  For my tastes, anyway.  There’s SO much talk, so much speechifying.  It’s not as if the terrific action scenes don’t make up for it, of course, but I feel like the movie is weighted down with a lot of weighty talk.  Nowhere is this clearer than the prison barge scene, where the Joker threatens to blow up one of two ferries, one carrying civilians and one carrying inmates.  After several fraught moments of dramatic pauses and much debate, the inmates make the first move to act — but properly.  This is all very well-written and I do get what Nolan is trying to do — to portray the city of Gotham and its people as much as their caped protector.  But, to me, that doesn’t change the fact that it’s a long, very talky sequence in the middle of what, at its core, had better be an action movie.

In this movie, everybody’s got a whole lot to say about masks and capes and chaos and order and family and legacy — does anybody else feel like they’re auditing an undergraduate lecture in moral philosophy being given a guy in a Batman costume, or is it just me?

The Dark Knight (2008)

In light of these three not-minor complaints, I quietly suggest that this DARK KNIGHT is not exactly the perfect movie I heard tell of before I went in to see it, that best-of-year, best-of-decade, flawless masterpiece to be raved over for the last couple weeks and onwards until eternity.  It’s a strong B-plus.  It’s a flickering A-minus.  There’s just a little bit of all-the-way excellence missing there.  However: I do still feel that if we are yet to see a perfect Batman movie, Chris Nolan will be the one to deliver it.  This time around though, my eyes, mind, and butt, and the A-plus grade of the movie itself, coulda used about twenty minutes shorn from the run-time.

And I’m going to stop there for now, because we’re on the internet after all. Here on the internet, people get threatened with death, or worse, for writing less offensive sentiments than the simply suggestion that THE DARK KNIGHT may not actually be the be-all and end-all of superhero movies.

Trust me when I say that I do not fear death, but nor do I much see the need to, before my time, invite death over for a chat about politics.

Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Don’t let the title above get me wrong: The A.V. Club’s recently-completed list of the 50 Best Films Of The ’90s is as close to a definitive consensus as anyone could ever hope for.  It’s a terrific list.  Barring the inclusion of THE BLAIR WITCH PROJECT (I understand why they felt they needed to include it, but it’s a bad movie), there isn’t anything I could even begin to object to — in fact, most of their choices would have been mine.  But since the 1990s are the decade in which I [sort of] came of age, I thought up 50 more that could have been included.  In my opinion.  There.  Disclaimed.

Here are some of my favorite 1990s movies, any of which I could make a strong case for as the decade’s best, grouped by year NOT by numerical rank:

Incredible imagery from a true master of cinema.

Even the people who already love this movie probably don’t even fathom the full extent of its excellence.  Read my dissertation at Daily Grindhouse!

All three leads are brilliant in this con-man crime film written by Donald Westlake and directed by the hugely-underrated-even-by-film-geeks-who-should-know-better Stephen Frears.

Look at the upper left side of that poster.  There’s no better vote of confidence on the planet.

This is one of the best of the decade based on the music alone.

Known to true Bill Murray fans as the most underrated Bill Murray movie, this one was actually co-directed by our hero, and it’s an expert farce and one of the better New York movies ever.  Read more from me on this one here!

A radio shock jock (Jeff Bridges) and a homeless man (Robin Williams) cross paths in another underrated New York movie, this one from the genius visual wizard Terry Gilliam.

This choice comes down to whichever definition of “best” you’re personally using at the time in regards to movies.  Are there more culturally resonant and artistically sophisticated movies than this one?  Sure.  Am I more likely to put one of those on at the end of a long day over this one?  Nope.

What does “best” mean?  Maybe I equivocate too much.  I’m an action guy, and this fits the term “best” under any definition.  John Woo is an artisan of cinematic mayhem and this is arguably the pinnacle of his career.

Because nobody else ever before or since made a movie like this one.  More from me here.

One of the few movies that genuinely emotionally moves me every time I see it.  A high point for Jeff Bridges, who has had a ton of high points.  Rosie Perez is wonderful also.

It’s not exactly that Robert De Niro and Bill Murray trade personas here.  This movie isn’t a stunt.  It’s something way more sensitive and thoughtful than that.  But De Niro does play the meek, mild-mannered police photographer and Murray the unpredicably-violent gangster who dreams of being a stand-up.  And it was written by the great Richard Price and directed by the man who made HENRY: PORTRAIT OF A SERIAL KILLER.

Enthusiasm for this movie seems to have dimmed, as has much appreciation for director Jonathan Demme (people are a little too much “What have you done for me lately?”, but this movie represents a key moment in the cultural mainstreaming of things that needed to be made mainstream at the time.  Honestly it’s been a while so I don’t know how much it all holds up, but to my memory, it was a thoughtful, character-based film about the big issues.  Terrific soundtrack also.

Well I said a bunch here and here.  This movie is a switchblade-arsenal of terrific actors, showcased with bombastic direction from Tony Scott working in concert with the unconquerably individualistic Quentin Tarantino script.  It’s kind of a nexus of everything that became important and trendy in 1990s crime and action films.

This wouldn’t make a personal top 50 or 100 or maybe not even a top 200, but it’s impeccable Disney entertaining for the widest possible audience and believe me, it still works as hugely as it did nearly twenty years ago.  (You’re old.)

C0-written by David Peoples (UNFORGIVEN), which makes it important right there.  But again, Terry Gilliam, this time challenging Bruce Willis into another great performance (Bruce always seems to do best with the most individualistic filmmakers).  Madeline Stowe is great.  And character-actor Brad Pitt beats leading-man Brad Pitt six out of seven days a week.

Super-serious great movies are easy.  Great comedies are hard.  This is one of the funniest of the decade.

Yeah, I get it.  Some of you think it’s too much.  I think it’s opera.  I think Michael Mann is criminally underappreciated by the listmakers and the award-givers.  I think it’s one of the few movies more than two hours that I can watch over and over without getting bored.  This movie got in my soul the first time I saw it, and it’s still there.

This came toward the end of John Carpenter’s remarkable run of horror and action classics, but it still has moments of colossal inspiration, and a truly memorable lead performance by the great Sam Neill.

I’ll admit it’s probably a stretch to call this one of the best movies of the 1990s, but it’s one of my favorite filmmakers, Sam Raimi, taking on one of my favorite genres, the “spaghetti” Western, and supercharging it with his anarchic cartoony innovations.  There’s more energy in this movie than in most of the Best Picture winners of the decade.

All I’m saying is, I’ve seen this one more times than I’ve seen RUSHMORE and THE ROYAL TENNENBAUMS combined.

Some people maintain that this remains Paul Thomas Anderson’s best movie.  Some days I can see what they mean.  It’s certainly his tightest, most controlled, most focus, most conventional.  And it’s the Rosetta Stone where many of his later musical cues, character names, themes, and company players were first established.  For me, it’s a treat to see Robert Elswit’s camera roam around Nevada — Elswit is the (until-recently) unsung hero of Anderson’s oevre (until recently.  I also like this movie because it makes me feel like an asshole.  It was released when Anderson was 26.  You should have seen what I was doing at 26.  Feeling like an asshole is good, though — it motivates me.

This is a black, black comedy.  You gotta give these guys credit — they did not take the easy road after DUMB & DUMBER kick-started their careers.  Even THERE’S SOMETHING ABOUT MARY goes to some daring places (it’s a romantic comedy about stalking, after all), but it’s nowhere near as nasty as this one.  And once again, Bill Murray, comedy’s supreme ninja master, comes in for a few scenes and completely destroys throughout every single moment he appears.

Chris Rock’s favorite Tim Burton movie.  I don’t have a favorite Tim Burton movie — impossible for me to choose — but this one is up there.  It’s pure anarchy on film.  Somebody gave the creepy kid down the street complete access to fireworks and all the best toys — expensive sets, costumes, huge movie stars — and he went to work blowing them all up with demented glee.  (Demented Glee is my favorite Fox TV show, by the way.)  It was a stroke of inspiration to reframe the alien invasion movie as a 1970s-style disaster movie, and to make the whole thing a comedy.  This weirded out a country more interested in the more straightforward INDEPENDENCE DAY, but I’m with the weird kid.

Because as much credit as Eddie Murphy and Rick Baker get for their brilliance, it still isn’t enough.

A case could be made for THE TRUMAN SHOW as the best Jim Carrey movie of the 1990s (maybe ever, barring ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND), but I’m a fan of the big weird risk and the sudden detour and the critical and popular underdog.  THE CABLE GUY is even weirder than you may remember, and in retrospect it paved the way for enduring cult comedies to follow like ZOOLANDER and ANCHORMAN.

Best-of lists always go heavy on lauding the director and the actors, but how about the screenwriters?  You know, the guys and gals without whom the entire movie would not exist in the first place?  Scott Alexander & Larry Karaszewski are the kings of the gonzo biopics of the 1990s, with ED WOOD, MAN ON THE MOON, and this, the story of Hustler founder Larry Flynt.  Woody Harrelson is incredible in the role, and the whole thing, under the stewardship of the mighty Milos Forman, is a raunchy, raucous, searing, and sad affair.

Leon Gast’s film is one of THE essential sports documentaries ever made.  It’s the story of Muhammad Ali’s match against George Foreman for the title of heavyweight champion of the world.  The ‘Rumble In The Jungle’ took place in Africa in 1974, and the movie is supercharged with electric history.

In my local paper at the time, the shoddy film critic referred to this movie with a cheap shot: “Lifeless, Ordinary.”  It’s anything but.  It’s everything but.  The follow-up to TRAINSPOTTING from the team of Danny Boyle, John Hodge, and Andrew McDonald is a deranged, delirious trip through America.  It’s colorful and kinetic and enthusiastically acted and it sounds like a million bucks.  (Why not?)  It’s boistrous and unruly and maybe a little too self-indulgent, but it’s my kind of self-indulgent — the boldly original kind — so the complainers can go screw.  Expanded thoughts on this movie here.

In 1997, Kevin Smith was still a filmmaker who led with his heart and inspired an entire generation of creatively-inclined young’uns to write with honesty and candor.  Smith’s first four movies were sloppily-made but felt incredibly personal, and CHASING AMY was maybe the rawest of them all.  I’m not sure I could revisit it now any more than I’d like to look at a high school yearbook, but I’m grateful for that long-ago validation the success of CHASING AMY gave me and a ton of more-famous, more influential up-and-comers. As for Smith, he made an encouraging return to form with the flawed but fiery RED STATE. Unfortunately, he seems to be more interested in everything BUT filmmaking nowadays. Too bad.

There’s over-the-top pulp, and then there’s JOHN WOO over-the-top pulp.  This is the most gloriously operatic and unrestrained of any of John Woo’s Hollywood movies, and both of its stars seem to have been stuck in that mode ever since.

As an undergraduate, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK, so convinced was I about how great it is. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here.

GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a brilliant one-liner comedy concept – contract killer accepts invitation to high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a brilliant fit of a leading man in John Cusack. Cusack and his co-writers fine-tuned Tom Jankewicz’s original script and got the movie made under the direction of George Armitage, a filmmaker who works way too infrequently, having made the underrated MIAMI BLUES and the even more underrated HIT MAN with Bernie Casey and Pam Grier.  Armitage nails the unusual tone of GROSSE POINTE BLANK, a very dark comedy about a paid murderer who is lovable mostly because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.
The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic. The soundtrack is stacked with killer songs from the late ‘70s and ‘80s. The supporting cast is deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank. Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, who begs him to stop coming back. Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized. MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (Minnie Driver). Jeremy Piven’s original hairline in an extended cameo. And many more.
In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is less successful in its action-movie moments as it is anytime it’s being a hyper-verbal, deep dark and truly bizarre character study. But boy, it’s not like we ever get too many of those. I mean, technically this is a romantic comedy where plenty of people get shot dead.  My kind of movie entirely.  And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site ‘DEMON’S RESUME’ comes from… now you know!

Most people would argue that PULP FICTION is Quentin Tarantino’s masterpiece.  A lesser number would argue for this one.  I tend to favor JACKIE BROWN, largely because I love Pam Grier and Robert Forster so much and this movie is a highlight for both of them.  It’s interesting that almost everybody favors either PULP FICTION or JACKIE BROWN — these are the only Tarantino-directed films where his recognizable and dominant authorial voice has ever been ameliorated by second writers.  PULP FICTION drew on material by Tarantino’s one-time collaborator Roger Avary, while JACKIE BROWN is of course based on a novel by Elmore Leonard.  I’m not saying that’s good or bad or necessary or even interesting — it just is what it is.  But until DJANGO UNCHAINED, I never loved a Tarantino movie as much as I loved JACKIE BROWN.  JACKIE BROWN started from a great place (the book RUM PUNCH) and is stocked entirely with maybe the greatest Tarantino cast ever, with one of the greatest Tarantino soundtracks.  It’s pretty glorious.

Here’s what I wrote about this movie for a list of Underrated Horror films:

As far as strict classifications go, LOST HIGHWAY is more of an elliptical art film (which goes heavy on the L.A. noir elements) than a horror movie.  Try telling me that in 1997, when friends and I saw it twice in theaters just because it was so goddamned freaky, or when I creeped myself out listening to the soundtrack while driving down a dark highway.  When my friends and I were younger we reveled in absurdities – the less sense something made, the more invigorating it seemed to be.  Then you become a film major and you start looking to ascribe meaning to everything. I don’t know that you can make sense out of a movie like LOST HIGHWAY.  It seems to be the story of a jazz musician (Bill Pullman) who is arrested for killing his wife (Patricia Arquette) and then has a psychotic break, wherein he imagines himself as a younger man (Baltazar Getty) being mentored by a violent gangster (Robert Loggia), only to fall in love with the gangster’s girl (Patricia Arquette).  In both storylines the protagonist is haunted by a Mystery Man (Robert Blake in ghostly pale makeup) who seems to know everything and be everywhere.

But is that what happens?  Beats me.  Every time you think you’ve teased out a cohesive narrative, you remember one out-of-place element and the theory unravels.  Best to stop thinking so hard and just experience LOST HIGHWAY as David Lynch’s nightmare vision of Los Angeles, presaging the equally creepy MULHOLLAND DRIVE  in 2001.  What adds to the hellish landscape of LOST HIGHWAY is its proximity to disturbing real-life elements, such as the cameo from a once-vibrant and now clearly-ill Richard Pryor, to the presence of Michael Massee, a terrific character actor unfortunately best known for being on the set of THE CROW when Brandon Lee was killed, to most upsetting of all, the recurring specter of Robert Blake,the one-time child actor who ended up on trial for allegedly killing his wife.  Which, you’ll notice, puts us right back inside the plot of LOST HIGHWAY.  We can’t escape.

Been a Howard Stern fan for a long time, regardless of what anybody has to say against me for it.  This movie is pretty unassailably good, regardless of your feelings on a lifelong flashpoint of controversy like Howard.  It’s a super-smart, efficient, fast-moving, and very funny flick, a sterling example of the biopic format.  Really, it’s THE PEOPLE VS. LARRY FLYNT with a happier ending.

Yeah, I can’t look at that poster without laughing.  First of all, even the title is funny, WAITING FOR GUFFMAN, which, as the story of a small-town theater company eagerly anticipating the visit of a big-city critic, is obviously a play on Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT.  Then you have Christopher Guest’s bowl-cut, Kriss-Kross ensemble, and beatific smile.  His character’s name is Corky St. Clair.  I’m now making tons of typos because I’m laughing while I pound this out.  The sincerity and the naïveté of the cast of this movie, played by a roster of comedic ringers including Eugene Levy, Catherine O’Hara, Parker Posey, Larry Miller, Bob Balaban, Brian Doyle-Murray, and the great Fred Willard, is simply astounding.  It’s probably not accurate to say you watch this movie and laugh with these characters — you’re most definitely laughing at them, but somehow loving them sincerely at the same time.  Pillory me for a non-consensus opinion, but I like this movie way better than THIS IS SPINAL TAP.

Sam Raimi made his name on a trio of uniquely comic horror films and a superhero movie that felt like a Universal horror film, but in the 1990s, he branched out and made a Western, a baseball picture, and a Southern Gothic drama, and this, a grim suspense thriller about two small-town brothers who find a downed plane in a remote snowbank.  The plane has a dead body inside, and also a huge sum of money.  A SIMPLE PLAN was based on an excellent novel by Scott Smith and if anything, Raimi’s horror expertise adds to the creeping dread of what could be very dry and formulaic in another director’s hands.  All of the performances are uncommonly good and unexpectedly moving and/or upsetting.  Raimi’s cross-genre experiments in the 1990s turned out to be a proving ground for his mega-budget blockbuster career, and I do love his SPIDER-MAN movies, but if we’re going to be getting stuff like that OZ movie from here on out, I’ll be over here praying that Raimi goes back to these smaller-budgeted treasures instead.

The first BABE is pure sweetness and you should definitely see it too, but this is the one directed by George Miller, of MAD MAX fame.  It’s wilder, sadder, scarier, and even more bizarre.  It’s great.  George Miller doesn’t work nearly enough.

Normally I hate long, indulgent movies; however, this one I adore. With good reason. It’s like a symphony.

This is Tim Burton’s tribute to the old Hammer horror pictures.  Some people think it isn’t serious enough, seeing the great potential lost when frights are swapped out for comedy’s sake.  Honestly I agree, but not to the point where I can’t enjoy the movie Burton did make.  After all, it could be way worse.  The greatest cinematic treatment of Washington Irving’s eternal tale of Ichabod Crane and the Headless Horseman continues to be the 1949 Disney cartoon version.  But this one has its fair share of great moments.

Michael Mann again.  This is his most high-minded movie, and there’s no reason it should be remotely as watchable and rewatchable as it is.  It’s about network TV, journalism, and big tobacco, and yet it’s suspenseful, moving, and entertaining as all hell.  So much of that comes from the dynamic, unusual directing choices of Mann, working with his DP from HEAT, Dante Spinotti.  The musical selection, both of score and soundtrack, is impeccable and distinctive as it ever is with Mann, and the editing style is somewhat hypnotic.  Of course the script by Mann and Eric Roth is impeccable, and then you have a roster of some of the world’s greatest actors, led by Al Pacino in maybe his last truly excellent role, and Russell Crowe, who was so ridiculously incredible in his transformative role that the Oscars realized they fucked up by not giving him Best Actor for this movie and corrected it the next year.

Still the best Superman movie since Richard Donner was making ’em.

Look, I’ve had it up to here with M. Night Shyamalan too, but no one, not even Shyamalan himself, can strike this one from the win column.  It’s a very solid script accompanied by thoughftul direction, with an unusually soft-spoken and gentle performance from Bruce.

This movie came on like a revelation from director David O. Russell, who had made two small movies at that point and no one could have expected him to make an action-comedy/war movie with an eclectic ensemble cast (including director Spike Jonze!) with raucous energy and actual formal innovations (with bleached-out cinematography by Newton Thomas Sigel).  It’s like KELLY’S HEROES but with more of a social conscience.  This is one of the reasons people think of 1999 as a banner year for American film.

A bizarre and beautiful chimera that is a perfectly-modulated melding of the sensibilities of Jim Jarmusch and The RZA.  Contains what is probably the last of the great wackadoo Henry Silva performances.


Am I missing any?  Is it possible?  Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

LAWLESS is a couple weeks old now, but it’s still way worth talking about.  It’s not to be confused with FLAWLESS, the Philip-Seymour-Hoffman-in-a-dress movie, nor is it to be confused with the upcoming DREDD movie, which as we all know is guaranteed to have a surplus of law.

Here’s what I said about LAWLESS before I saw it

WETTEST COUNTY was on my list of 50 most eagerly-awaited movies of the year.   But it’s not called that anymore, though.  Now it goes by the handle LAWLESS, a much more generic title which sounds a little cooler after knowing it was generously bestowed upon the movie by none other than Terrence Malick.  Whatever it’s called, it’s a John Hillcoat movie, which after THE PROPOSITION and The ROAD, promises good things.  I’m definitely getting a less-artsy, more-mainstream PUBLIC ENEMIES vibe from the new trailer, but that doesn’t strike me personally as a deterrent.

Check out the trailer, it made LAWLESS travel that much higher on my want-to-see-now meter:


Now, to read what I had to say about LAWLESS after seeing it (spoiler warning: it’s a lot of very nice things), you’ll have to click over to Daily Grindhouse:


And make damn sure you check out that soundtrack:

And we’re back!  Ready for round two.  Inspired again by my friend-in-movies at Rupert Pupkin Speaks, I’m re-presenting and reshuffling my top fifty movies of all time.  “Reshuffling” sounds a little more extreme than what I’ve done here — most of the titles remain the same, and the order isn’t much different.  But there’s a fair amount of new blood, and I’ve updated the links to any movies I’ve written about at length (those are bolded in red.) 

This list is absolutely subject to change, so keep watching this space, but while you’re at it, don’t forget to keep watching the skies.

1. THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY (1966).


3. DAWN OF THE DEAD (1978).


5.  UNFORGIVEN (1992).

6.  KING KONG (1933).

7.  PREDATOR (1987).

8.  MANHUNTER (1986).


10.  MOTHER, JUGS & SPEED (1976).

11.  John Carpenter’s THE THING (1982).

12.  HEAT (1995).

13.  FREAKS (1932).

14. JAWS (1975).

15.  Berry Gordy’s THE LAST DRAGON (1985).

16.  THE WILD BUNCH (1969).

17.  SHAFT (1971).

18.  BEVERLY HILLS COP (1984).

19.  THE BIG GUNDOWN (1966).

20.  SEA OF LOVE (1989).


22.  EVIL DEAD 2 (1987).

23.  OUT OF SIGHT (1998).

24.  THE INSIDER (1999).

25.  ALLIGATOR (1980).

26.  COLLATERAL (2004).

27.  THE GREAT SILENCE (1968).




31. PRIME CUT (1972).

32. WATERMELON MAN (1970).


34.  25th HOUR (2002).

35.  COFFY (1973).

36. QUICK CHANGE (1990).

37.  MAGNOLIA (1999).

38.  HANNIE CAULDER (1971).


40.  48 HRS. (1982).

41.  GOODFELLAS (1990).

42.  SHOGUN ASSASSIN (1980).

43.  PURPLE RAIN (1984).

44.  THE UNHOLY THREE (1925).

45.  TRUE GRIT (2010).


47.  VIOLENT CITY aka THE FAMILY (1973).

48.  THE HIT (1984).


50.  ATTACK THE BLOCK (2011).

50 1/2.  The five-minute skeleton swordfight in JASON & THE ARGONAUTS (1963).


And that’s that…. for now.

For a little bit more all the time, find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

I probably should be doing about 50 other things at this very moment, but I saw this great top-50 list today and was inspired it to immediately answer it.  I made my list very, very quickly, so in plenty of ways it’s the most honest form a list like this could ever arrive in.  While the numbering is fairly arbitrary (until the top five, where shit gets definite) and while the contents could easily change as soon as five minutes from now, this is still a fairly good representation of what a top fifty movies list from me should look like.  Anyway, let’s hit it.  Links where they fit.  I eagerly await any and all comments you might make!

50. Watermelon Man (1970).

49. Fletch (1985).

48. The Great Silence (1968).

47. Creature From The Black Lagoon (1954).

46. The Hit (1984).

45. Knightriders (1981).

44. The Night Of The Hunter (1955).

43. Of Unknown Origin (1983).

42. Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid (1973).

41. Prime Cut (1972).

40. Grosse Pointe Blank (1997).

39. Coffy (1973).

38. Trainspotting (1996).

37. In Bruges (2008).

36. Quick Change (1990).

35. Collateral (2004).

34. Out Of Sight (1998).

33. Halloween (1978).

32. Magnolia (1999).

31. Raising Arizona (1987).

30. Escape From New York (1981).

29. Shogun Assassin (1980).

28. Goodfellas (1990).

27. Purple Rain (1984).

26. True Grit (2010).

25. The Unholy Three (1925).

24. My Darling Clementine (1946).

23. The Insider (1999).

22. Alligator (1980).

21. Animal House (1978).

20. High Plains Drifter (1973).

19. Freaks (1932).

18. Beverly Hills Cop (1984).

17. An American Werewolf In London (1981).


16. Predator (1987).


15. Jaws (1975).

14. Shaft (1971).

13. Evil Dead 2 (1987).


12. The Wild Bunch (1969).

11. Manhunter (1986).

10. Mother, Jugs & Speed (1976).

9. Heat (1995).

8. King Kong (1933).

7. John Carpenter’s The Thing (1982).

6. Big Trouble In Little China (1986).

5. Unforgiven (1992).

4. Dawn Of The Dead (1978).

3. Ghostbusters (1984).

2. Once Upon A Time In The West (1968).


1. The Good The Bad & The Ugly (1966).


Today is Michael Mann’s birthday.  I celebrate by re-watching (and re-posting) my initial thoughts about his most recent, and apparently most controversial, feature film.  The following is what I wrote about Public Enemies on July 3rd, 2009.  Public Enemies, I still maintain, has plenty to recommend it, but its unconventionality makes it a point of debate.  Is it among Mann’s best films?  Is it even remotely as good as I obviously think it is?  Read this and see if you agree or not — and be sure to watch Mann co-production Luck on HBO tonight.


I’ve been talking up my excitement about this movie for a while now, so I would have to understand anyone who takes my opinion about Public Enemies with a grain of salt (or the entire shaker). I was looking forward to it like crazy and I was looking to love it, and if that has any effect on the fact that I did, I can’t be sure yet. This was only the first screening of what is likely to be many, if my history is any indication. Michael Mann is my favorite filmmaker working today, and he is unquestionably one of the best, and even his so-called lesser efforts are to me always worthy of consideration.
The following things about Public Enemies I doubt will be debated:
1. Johnny Depp is pitch-perfect as John Dillinger. He is so likable and watchable that he easily manages the job of making an audience root for a career criminal (while not a sadist or a murderer, Dillinger was not any kind of hero) – even though most of us know how Dillinger’s story ended going into the movie, we’re all rooting for things to go differently. Depp also conveys a stoicism and a confidence of nature that feels right for the character. Turns out he is the perfect star for Mann’s signature brand of tragic romanticism.
2. Marion Cotillard is a great match for him as Dillinger’s true love, Billie Frechette. The criticisms will center around the fact that she doesn’t get as much to do, and gets far less screen time. That’s true. However, she makes the most of the time she has – just like her character states at a memorable moment in the movie. I really believed her in this movie, believed in her love for John Dillinger, and not for what he could give her, but for his dedication to her and his confidence in what he wanted. (Her.)
3. Christian Bale’s role, as Melvin Purvis, is by far the more thankless one. As I’d anticipated, he is a good fit as the rigid counterpoint to the debonair Depp as Dillinger. He’s relatively humorless, and you pretty quickly come to root against him in his pursuit of the flashier, more charismatic character. However, keep in mind that Bale has to carry the half of the film that Depp isn’t in, to keep it grounded and compelling, and that’s a role that not just any actor can manage.
4. The filmmaking style is different than what we’re used to.
It’s this last point where the debate about Public Enemies is going to begin. For me, obviously the way the movie is made completely worked. For others, it may not, and I (and any other fan of the film) probably have to respect that. Michael Mann and his cinematographer, the great Dante Spinotti (Mann’s guy on Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider), not to mention the crew of film editors and sound designers, take a lot of stylistic risks that to me, made for an incredibly immersive experience, but to others may be less effective (at first – hopefully they’ll give the movie another chance).
For one thing, the high-def photography is startling in this venue. We’re not just un-used to this look in gangster pictures – we’re un-used to any period piece ever looking quite like this. As Depp reaches out a hand to a wounded comrade, we see the pores in his hand – such intricate detail makes the scene seem more real than usual, less romanticized and more disturbing. An older man is dying in front of our eyes; when Dillinger can’t hold him any longer, he’s let go and becomes dead weight on the road.
The way that the lighting plays across the view of these cameras is new and different. The scene where Dillinger stops in a phone booth off a country road to phone Billie had me catching my breath for the unusual look of it, as did the more overtly spectacular scene of the plane carrying the captive Dillinger towards a throng of hysterical reporters. The shootout at the hotel in the woods (you’ll know it when you see it) is destined to become a classic, as are the penultimate and ultimate scenes at the Biograph Theater, if there is any justice. We just haven’t seen a huge-budget period piece that has ever looked like this.
The sound design is equally startling. It either forces you to pay attention, as it did for me and the rest of the packed, raptly-focused audience I watched it with, or it could conceivably distract you, as it seems to have in some of the reviews and feedback from friends I’m getting. Wild sound (that additionally recorded sound that keeps the noise consistent between shots) is often left out of some scenes. Soundtrack music often drifts in and out of scenes subtly, and occasionally cuts off abruptly between them. [Honestly, that second point was a little distracting even to me.] By losing some of the artificial contrivances that films have conditioned audiences to expect, Mann has made a film that to me is all the more hypnotic. Others will not see it that way, especially in a movie season where most people are looking for artifice.
Also, the storytelling demands complete attention. Many recognizable faces pop up through the course of the movie, some very briefly, and it can be difficult to keep track of who’s who on first viewing. Bryan Burrough’s source material book had maps and character keys and indexes so that the reader can keep track of what is a dense, multi-character story. A movie can’t do that, so Public Enemies necessarily moves quickly in that regard. Many of these characters are detailed enough to warrant movies of their own (in the case of the high-profile bankrobbers like Pretty-Boy Floyd and Baby-Face Nelson, many of them have) and I can see how it would be frustrating to not spend more screen time with them.
For me, the story of Dillinger and his lady is enough, as I suspect it is for Mann. Again, I just plain believed it. I believed how much he liked her, I believed how much she liked him, I believed their desperation when they were apart, I believed their desperation when they were trying to get back to each other. The “Bye Bye Blackbird” motif just killed me. I guess I’m a tragic romantic in my own right. This kind of stuff just works at the right note on my heartstrings.
I imagine that I will have more to say on the subject of Public Enemies as time goes on. (MORE?!?) Michael Mann’s movies have a way of entering the fabric of my consciousness – they just often resemble the way I perceive the world, or maybe they influence that perception. That’s how it is with some people and some movies. In Public Enemies, Mann even suggests a similar idea, with the scene where Dillinger watches his last movie – he brilliantly suggests what Dillinger may have been thinking about as he watched that particular film; using authentic, specifically-selected clips, that early Clark Gable film, Manhattan Melodrama, takes on a mythic, yet crushingly personal, potency.
Michael Mann’s movies have often affected me the way that Manhattan Melodrama affects John Dillinger in Public Enemies. So I doubt that all of the above is my final word on the subject, as it all will continue to sink in, and then I will inevitably see it again. My goal in writing this today is to encourage anyone reading this to go out and see the movie for themselves, on the big screen, with a theatrical sound system, as it is meant to be seen, because I can’t wait to hear what the rest of you are thinking.




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.


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.



I’ve been thinking about something lately, and seeing Drive recently turned out to be a bit of synchronicity since, in its own way, Drive is largely an illustration of the concept: Just because something isn’t true doesn’t mean it isn’t real.  And vice versa.  Drive isn’t something that happened.  It started as a terrific, mean little novel by James Sallis, and was adapted into a screenplay by Hossein Amini, envisioned by director Nicolas Winding Refn with star Ryan Gosling, and filmed (impeccably) by cinematographer Newton Thomas Sigel.  It’s an incredible movie, far and away one of the most accomplished of this year, but it’s not reportage.  It’s a daydream for nighttime.

Somehow, that makes it truer than many movies that purport to be “based on a true story.”

The story is as simple and quite frankly, as familiar as any in noir history:  The central character is a young man (Ryan Gosling) known only as Driver.  That naming comes from the book and the press: he’s never named in the film, at best only called “The Kid”.  His only friend is a man named Shannon (Breaking Bad‘s phenomenal Bryan Cranston), a crippled mechanic who keeps Driver employed by day as a stunt driver for the movies, and at night as a wheelman for low-level armed robbery jobs.  Driver lives by himself in a sparse apartment in Los Angeles.  Eventually, he forms a potentially romantic connection with a young mother (Carey Mulligan) and her son, whose father (named Standard, played by Oscar Isaac) is set to return from jail soon.  As Shannon puts Driver in contact with movie producer Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks) and his underworld affiliate Nino (Ron Perlman), Driver’s personal and criminal lives are due to intersect.  Basically, the loner meets a nice lady as he’s descending deeper into darkness.  Oldest noir tale in the book; all it’s missing is the femme fatale.  What makes this movie so dramatically far apart from business as usual is its style.  This movie is so distinctly orchestrated that, even though on paper it’s similar to so many other movies, on film it resembles a precious few.

Nicolas Winding Refn is one of the most compelling visual stylists working in movies today.  Here he’s made what feels exactly like a long-lost Michael Mann movie, frozen somewhere between 1983 and 1986 and thawed out just now for a modern audience.  Guys, I don’t think I have a higher caliber of compliment in the chamber than that one.  Honestly, the movie that Drive most resembles is Mann’s 1981 breakthrough feature Thief:  It has the same seemingly languid yet impeccably deliberate pace, the roiling mood, the shocking outbursts of realistic violence, the addictively throbbing electronic score, the exacting attention to detail, the blue-collar sidekick played by a familiar TV actor (Cranston in for James Belushi), the bizarre but thunderingly effective left-field casting choices (Willie Nelson as the heart of Thief, Albert Brooks as the snake in Drive) — it’d be easy to describe Drive as the most successful Michael Mann homage in memory, except for the fact that it’s its own thing. Refn has been building up to exactly this, for a while now.  Drive is an irresistible blend of the stylized realism of Bronson (2008) and the universalized dreaminess of Valhalla Rising (2009).  It also brings a whole new color palette: While Michael Mann favors steel blues and pistol grays, Refn experiments with warmer colors like greens, browns, and even pinks.  Somehow, both interpretations of Los Angeles are apt.

Having spent a formative portion of my life in Los Angeles, I have always recognized a measure of truth in Michael Mann’s movies.  Mann shoots L.A. the way L.A. looks to me.  In his first movie set in Los Angeles, Nicolas Winding Refn manages the same feat.  It’s not just the look; it’s also the atmosphere.  In a scene where Driver takes Irene (Mulligan’s character) and her son on a joy ride through the L.A. river, it looks and feels just the way L.A. looks and feels at sunset.  One reason so many people discount the virtues of Los Angeles is because we’re pummeled with pedestrian images on TV shows such as 90210 and Entourage; uninspired, pansy shit selling emptiness.  There is actual beauty to Los Angeles if you know where to find it, along with an existential isolation and a visceral spookiness; all of which is contained within Drive.

So I recognize this movie to be true.  It fits in with my experience, particularly now, when I am thinking and writing about Los Angeles from the East Coast.  In my mind, my memories merge with cinematic imagery: In my opinion, that’s how both individual memory and the art of cinema work; it’s why movies mean so much to so many of us.  So while I’m not half the driver that Driver is (an understatement), while I’ve never carried on with the estranged wife of an imprisoned felon (as far as I know), while I’ve never taken a blunt instrument to a strip club owner (that I can remember), there is a lot contained in Drive that I can attest to resembling the world of Los Angeles.  This is one reason I loved the movie so much.

I’m also fully enamored of Refn’s style, most particularly the way he works with violence on-screen — his editing rhythms and lolling camerawork manage to lull the audience nearly into a trance, which makes the sudden eruption of savagery all the more unsettling.  It creates the effect in people that violence in movies should have: it makes violence scary.

I also love the way that, just as he did in Bronson, Refn perfectly deploys music, both the score by Cliff Martinez (Traffic) and the poppy Euro-trash electro-candy that punctuates the ongoing events.  The music is both functional, enhancing the mood of the story, and diagetic, which means that the songs that are playing on the soundtrack are often the songs that Driver is listening to in his car or in his apartment.  It’s easy to imagine (as Refn and Gosling intended), that these are the songs Driver chooses because of how they make him feel about himself, which is the way that most of us listen to our favorite music, which in fact tells as much about a person as any dialogue passage could ever do.  The one song that’s repeated throughout Drive, “A Real Hero” by College featuring Electric Youth, seems to be the most indicative of Driver’s inner thoughts, since he sure doesn’t speak them aloud.

Right there’s another thing to love, the performances.  Ryan Gosling seems like such a canny dude, he seems smart and well-adjusted enough to not crave being a  movie star, even as he’s clearly got the required talent and charisma.  If Ryan Gosling becomes a major star, it’ll be because enough people saw Drive.  His character says the bare minimum, speaking mostly through his actions and as previously noted, his iTunes shuffle.  I’m a Clint Eastwood man.  I respect the hell out of that.  I also read in an interview that one of Gosling’s main sources of inspiration for the role was Prince as “The Kid” in Purple Rain.  That, I don’t just respect.  That, I goddamn adore.  And I can see it!

I’ve also become a huge fan of Bryan Cranston, due to his tremendous work on Breaking Bad, the best drama on American television today, by a long shot.  If you listen to the subtle voice work he does in Drive, as a Valley veteran — so different from New Mexico’s Walter White — you’ll see what a great actor he is.  Cranston has a relatively small role, but a pivotal one:  His character, Shannon, is the more [necessarily] talkative partner to Driver, and the one who humanizes him to Irene in the first place.  He’s also the character, I believe, who starts off the interesting motif in this movie of characters describing how they met each other — Shannon describes how he first met Driver, Standard describes how he first met Irene, Bernie Rose describes how he first met Nino — for a movie that doesn’t overdo it on the dialogue, it sure is telling where they decide to distribute their exposition.

And let’s talk about that pair, Ron Perlman as Nino and Albert Brooks as Bernie.  They’re both playing Brooklyn Jews, and fairly stereotypical ones at that — the wannabe-Italian who runs his operation out of a pizza joint in a San Fernando Valley strip mall, and the movie producer (who sets up a pivotal confrontation at a Chinese restaurant, for Pete’s sake).  Being one of that tribe, I never love to see Jewish bad guys, but these guys are so authentic and so damn fascinating that I’ll allow it.  It helps that they’re badass as all hell.  Perlman is a veteran character actor who can do the monstrous thug thing in his sleep (though I hope he doesn’t, for Mrs. Perlman’s sake), but Brooks is something of a revelation.  He’s scary!  Look at the poster below, where he looks like John C. Reilly’s evil twin.  There’s something great about when comedians play villains in serious movies.  It almost always seems to work.  Why?  That’s a question to ponder for another time, but meanwhile, see this movie and see a truly unique bad-guy performance.

There’s plenty more to admire about Drive, but at a certain point it’s time for me to shut up and insist you see the movie.  Movies like this one demand to be seen theatrically, where you can get lost in the sound and the big picture, and besides, a movie this good deserves your hard-earned shekels.  If you don’t love it on first watch, as some people who have seen it don’t, give it a minute to percolate.  Drive is the kind of movie that is absorbing to watch, but takes on a second life once it seeps into your mind.  It grows in potency the more you think about it.  Kind of like a memory.  Like I said, Drive didn’t actually happen, except it totally happened.

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