Archive for the ‘Movies (B)’ Category

The Big Gundown (1966)

Sergio Sollima is only the third most famous of all the Sergios who made Westerns in Italy in the 1960s and 1970s.  You already know Sergio Leone, and you may even know Sergio Corbucci.  There’s also Sergio Martino, Sergio Garrone, and Sergio Bergonzelli, but I don’t have room to write a book here!  Sergio Sollima is a clever, versatile director who built sociopolitical concerns into his enormously entertaining filmography.  He is maybe best regarded for his terrific crime films, including REVOLVER and VIOLENT CITY — both amazing places to start.  He’s not the most prolific of “spaghetti” Western directors.  In fact, Sollima only made three Westerns, all in the span of three consecutive years – THE BIG GUNDOWN, FACE TO FACE, and RUN, MAN, RUN! but they are more than enough to place him among the exalted ranks of Leone and Corbucci.  All three of Sollima’s Westerns starred the Cuban-born Tomás Milián, who played the same role in two of them.

RUN, MAN, RUN!

In THE BIG GUNDOWN and its sort-of-sequel RUN, MAN, RUN!, Tomás Milián plays the crafty, unruly bandit Cuchillo.  In THE BIG GUNDOWN, Cuchillo spends the first several scenes entirely unseen, only discussed.  He’s wanted for the rape and murder of a young girl, and it’s his bad luck that the lethal Jonathan Corbett is the mercenary hired to find and destroy him.  Now I happened to have seen RUN, MAN, RUN! first, out of chronological order, so I knew going into it that Cuchillo may not be guilty of these crimes, but for most of THE BIG GUNDOWN, you are to assume he’s the bad guy. And that makes things complicated, because he’s so comical, funny and annoyingly likable.  Cuchillo is a thief and a scoundrel, and he isn’t always too polite to women, but he wouldn’t do something quite so horrific as the act of which he’s been accused.

 

Cuchillo & The Gang

 

One of many interesting elements of THE BIG GUNDOWN is that you don’t know that Cuchillo is innocent for most of the movie, which gives the majority of the scenes some mighty fascinating tension.  Cuchillo is a raging trickster and a puckish anarchist, a Bugs Bunny or a Daffy Duck, enjoyable and infuriating – and it’s frustrating to like him so much, if he is in fact the kind of man who the senator claims he is.  Contrast this situation to what goes on in THE GOOD, THE BAD, & THE UGLY, where a hangman rattles off a list of all the crimes of which Tuco, Eli Wallach’s character, has been accused, including “raping a virgin of the White race, and statuatory rape of a minor of the Black race.”  In Leone’s world, the way these offenses are added to a checklist is played — literally — as gallows humor.  Leone isn’t interested in exploring these accusations, preferring the punchline to the possible pathology.  In Sollima’s world, we still have the charming and devious Mexican bandit character, but not only is he more overtly interested in pursuing women throughout the course of the movie (Leone’s film runs almost three hours but has little time for female characters), but unlike Tuco, Cuchillo is definitively exonerated of egregious sexual misconduct.  Considering they were both released within a year of each other, it’s fascinating to ponder the parallels and variations between THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY and THE BIG GUNDOWN.  Most obviously, these two wonderful films share a wonderful lead actor.

 

 

THE BIG GUNDOWN is primarily built around its marquee star, Lee Van Cleef, best known for his role as “Angel-Eyes” (THE BAD) in Leone’s THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY.  This movie was made soon after that one.  Sollima wrote it with Sergio Donati, who wrote for Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) among many others. Here Van Cleef, as Jonathan Corbett, is playing a more heroic character than he did in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – but for much of the film we can’t quite tell for sure.  Corbett can be pretty nasty, as seen in the introductory scene where he calmly toys with three wanted men he’s got cornered – we know he’s bad; we just figure he’s better than the man he’s tracking.  Once Corbett sets out on Cuchillo’s trail, the movie becomes the same kind of Tom & Jerry cat-and-mouse game Clint Eastwood and Eli Wallach played out in THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY – only even more satirical and way more sociopolitically engaged.  There’s a scene where the two gunmen arrive at a ranch presided over by a beautiful woman who is surrounded by big beefy henchmen, and the subtext is practically exploding out of everybody’s ears.  It’s hilarious and awesome.

 

There is currently a version of THE BIG GUNDOWN up on YouTube, but the complete Italian cut of the film is what you want to see, and on the biggest screen possible, which is what I got to do in 2012 thanks to the “spaghetti” Western series at Film Forum.  It’s obviously one of the greats in the genre, having influenced everything from THREE AMIGOS! (in the form of the fancy-pants Teutonic killer with the monocle who haunts Corbett)to INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (Tarantino used parts of EnnioMorricone’s typically wonderful score).  It’s also, not for nothing, one of the most straight-up entertaining movies I’ve ever seen.  Ever!  No exaggeration.  Instantly one of my favorite movies of all time.  And it’ll probably be one of yours too, maybe even as soon as you hear the rousing Ennio Morricone theme song.

Visit me on Twitter!:  @jonnyabomb

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Bring it On (2000)

 

If you want to know something about me, I originally saw BRING IT ON in the theater — with my mom.  We both enjoyed it but probably for different reasons.  Something for everybody, I guess; you know how it is. 

 

Bring it On (2000)

I don’t spend a lot of time talking about cheerleading movies on this site.  It is not what one could call my métier.  As a human male with working parts, I certainly do appreciate the image of the all-American cheerleader, but I tend to prefer movies about monsters, werewolves, and fists being thrown, which is why I loved BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER so much.  Chocolate, meet peanut butter.

Bring it On (2000)

 

BRING IT ON arrived towards the end of a still relatively recent era in American movies, the late 1990s, where multiplexes were flooded with films about high school.  Some of them were DOA — dated on arrival — but BRING IT ON was one of the best-made of them, so I imagine it still holds up.  The director was Peyton Reed, making his first feature after plenty of TV comedy including the influential Upright Citizens Brigade show.  That’s a more anarchic pedigree than most teen movies had at the time.  The script by Jessica Bendiger is pretty sharp to begin with — it has great character names, one of my favorite aspects of good comedy scripts.

Bring it On (2000)

 

Kirsten Dunst, two years before SPIDER-MAN, played Torrance Shipman, team captain of the Toros, the team’s cheerleading squad.  Dunst is pretty mopey in the SPIDER-MAN movies but I imagine her performance in BRING IT ON is what got her that part:  She’s determined, energetic, and smiles in several different ways in this movie.  BUFFY‘s Eliza Dushku provides a nice, sarcastic balance as Missy Pantone, a new student who reluctantly becomes an important member of the team, and Jesse Bradford has never been as likable anywhere as he was here, as Missy’s brother and Torrance’s love interest.  Then again, I’m endeared to almost anybody in a Clash T-shirt.  Gabrielle Union is the best part of the movie by far, as Isis, the leader of a rival cheerleading squad (the Compton Clovers, brilliant name) who accuses the Toros of lifting their routines.  It turns out to be true, but it was Torrance’s predecessor who did the dirty deed.  Without belaboring the obvious, because the movie doesn’t either, it’s refreshing to see a teen movie that goes in on the issue of race and white America’s cultural appropriation of blackness.  BRING IT ON was also ahead of the curve on gender issues and homosexuality, as two of the Toros are guys, one straight and one gay.  If any of this were foregrounded too much, the movie could have been insufferable, but the writing, direction, and actors all play everything with a winning lightness of touch.

Bring it On (2000)
All of that is true, but what’s truly impressive about BRING IT ON is Peyton Reed’s control over the film’s tone.  The movie has a sweet, believable teen romance and a slightly more steely but still charming series of competition sequences building up towards its climax, yet it still manages to include things that could sink a different movie, like a bikini car wash scene and a truly astounding cameo by Ian Roberts of the Upright Citizens Brigade as Sparky Polastri, a choreographer who the Toros bring in as a specialist to help them develop new moves.  I would put this cameo up with Sam Kinison’s in BACK TO SCHOOL in the realm of hysterically bizarro outsized characters that somehow manage not to run away with the movie.  I’d definitely see an entire movie about this guy, though I applaud the filmmakers’ restraint in using him sparingly.

 

Bring it On (2000)

 

So while BRING IT ON is not normally my kind of movie, it ends up being a movie I feel kindly towards.  It doesn’t shy away from the question of sex appeal but it takes a playful approach.  It’s savvier and snappier than most high school movies, and lighter and funnier than most sports movies.  Of course I’m way more interested in the Gabrielle Union character than the Kirsten Dunst character, but this is a Hollywood movie after all.  Until somebody lets me write my own, I’ll take cultural transgression in any dosage I can get it. 

 

BRING IT ON plays tonight at 92Y Tribeca in lower Manhattan.  Take a parent and have your own mildly awkward experience.

 

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

Breaking Point (1976)

1976’s BREAKING POINT falls within the Bob Clark filmography during the period after BLACK CHRISTMAS and before PORKY’SBREAKING POINT can be loosely considered as one of those urban vigilante thrillers that were so popular in the mid- to late-1970s, exemplified by DEATH WISH and the like.  In the tradition of those cheaper action titles, BREAKING POINT is rather crude and choppy.  I can’t find much online about the history behind this movie, but even though it was distributed by 20th Century Fox, it feels like it was made on the quick and on the cheap, most likely to capitalize on the popularity of the genre.

You wouldn’t recognize anyone in BREAKING POINT except Robert Culp, as a frustrated and rather ineffectual cop, and Bo Svenson as the lead character, a karate instructor who interrupts a violent crime, feels compelled to report it to the police, and is then targeted by the mob.  He’s pretty dour and humorless in this movie, but Svenson is a really underrated presence in action movies.  He’s a humongous Swede, looking not unlike a super-sized Steve McQueen, who took over the role of Buford Pusser from Joe Don Baker in the sequel to WALKING TALL (and its eventual TV series treatment), and played in a ton of B-list action movies.  Naturally, he’s a favorite of Quentin Tarantino, who cast him in KILL BILL and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.

As I said, Svenson’s character in BREAKING POINT, Mike McBain (that name is SO 1970s) is a fairly dour guy.  He seems warm enough to his wife and stepson, to his assistant at his dojo, and even to the ex-husband who’s still in the picture, but when any of them press him as to why he seems so dead-set on endangering them all by testifying against the mob enforcers he identified, he barks out in anger that it’s something he has to do, and that’s that.  Eventually, the mobsters, who have major real-estate deals in development, become weirdly obsessed with making McBain pay for his interference, and begin a ridiculously over-zealous campaign of revenge.

They set the ex-husband on fire, shoot another friend to death, and stalk McBain’s assistant in horror-movie masks, in a creepy scene drawing upon Clark’s experience in horror flicks.  (Unfortunately, this scene culminates in the kind of sexual assault that was disturbingly common in movies of this type.)  Even relocating his family under witness protection can’t keep these thugs away from his loved ones, so McBain eventually has to get on his shit-kicking boots.

That’s an hour into the movie, but it’s well worth waiting for, if you like this sort of thing.  For starters, these bad guys are no match for Bo Svenson.  He’s well over six feet tall, and the size of a bookcase – one in which all the books are Sonny Liston autobiographies.  By contrast, the villains are so non-descript that I didn’t even notice that the soft-spoken “don” was supposed to be stereotypically Italian until the movie was half over.  And here’s how his henchmen look:

     

It hardly seems fair.  But let’s face it, we’ve seen plenty of movies where the puny nerds triumph over the dumb jock.  Let’s not pretend that none of us secretly enjoy seeing annoying little pricks get stuffed into the locker.

And that’s exactly the kind of grace with which McBain goes about his mob-stomping rampage.  After clubbing one thug to death in a bathroom, he lifts the guy up by his pants, in the most titanic cinematic wedgie I may have ever seen, and dumps the corpse on the toilet.  Then, to give the jerk that much extra ignobility in death, he pantses the corpse and drapes his lifeless hand over his lifeless crotch.

The final showdown surpasses that momentous confrontation with even more lumbering force.  In a brief setpiece that erases all of the similarities you may have been trying to draw between Bo Svenson and Woody Allen, McBain takes out one henchman by using a massive block of timber like a javelin.

Oh snap!

But it gets better.

Instead of shooting it out with the main villain, McBain comes at him with a bulldozer, driving straight into the guy’s office.  Not even the guy’s pet lizard (a ‘70s villain shorthand) is spared.  McBain drives the house, with the guy in it, over a ridge and into a ravine.  Where it explodes.  Duh.  He watches the debris burn.  And the movie’s over.

And that’s the ‘70s, dude.

I’m not arguing for BREAKING POINT as a lost classic, or even a must-see.  It’s not.  It’s a frequently dull, often sloppy, and absolutely generic movie that doesn’t rate higher than serviceable until its final third, where Bo Svenson finally goes apeshit.  But that part is really fun to watch, and beyond that, it’s profoundly interesting to me that the same director who made this movie also made PORKY’S, A CHRISTMAS STORY, BABY GENIUSES, and something called KARATE DOG.  That’s the kind of bizarre versatility that I can totally get behind.

@jonnyabomb

DAILY GRINDHOUSE BANNER

Daily Grindhouse would be pretty much my favorite website even if I weren’t writing for them, but since I am, here’s a collection of all my work so far.  It’s some of my very best stuff. Enjoy!

25TH HOUR (2002) 48 HRS. (1982) 52 PICK-UP (1986) 88  THE ACT OF KILLING (2013) ACT OF VIOLENCE (1948) Alex Cross (2012) ALIEN (1979) ALIEN ZONE (1978) ALPHABET CITY (1984) american sniper  AN AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (1981) ANACONDA (1997) ANTS (1977) The Apple (1980) ARMY OF DARKNESS (1992) ARTISTS & MODELS (1955) Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) BADLANDS (1973) BAIT (2012) A Band Called Death (2013) BASKET CASE (1982)  BATMAN (1989) BATTLE ROYALE (2000) The Baytown Outlaws (2013). Beetlejuice (1988) BERBERIAN SOUND STUDIO (2013) BEST WORST MOVIE (2009)The Big Lebowski (1998) Big Trouble In Little China (1986) BLACK CHRISTMAS (1974) BLACK DEATH (2011) THE BLOB (1988) BRIDE OF FRANKENSTEIN (1935) The Brides Of Dracula (1960) brothers-2009 BUNNY LAKE IS MISSING (1965) untitled CARRIE (1976) CB4 THE MOVIE (1993) CEMETERY MAN (1994) Charley Varrick (1973) CHEAP THRILLS (2013) CHOPPING MALL (1986) class-of-1984-poster The Colony (2013) COMPLIANCE (2012) CON AIR (1997) Conquest (1983) THE CONTRACTOR (2013) Creature (2011) CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (1954) CRIME WAVE (1954) THE CROW (1994) DARKMAN (1990) DEAD & BURIED (1981) DEADLY FRIEND (1986) deranged-1974-movie-review-jpeg-35312 THE DESCENT (2005) THE DEVIL’S EXPRESS (1976) dillinger-1973 DIRTY HARRY (1971) Django (1966) Django Unchained (2012).  DOG SOLDIERSDOUBLE INDEMNITY (1944) DRACULA (1931) Dredd (2012) DRIVE (2011) Drive Angry (2011) End of Watch (2012) EQUINOX (1970) Escape From New York (1981) Evil Dead (2013) THE EXORCIST (1973) Eyes Without A Face (1960) FACE-OFF (1997) Fast Five A tumblr_n2u9s565B11rscnczo1_500 Fist Of Legend (1994) FRANKENSTEIN (1931) GANJA & HESS (1973) the-gauntlet-1977 Get Carter (1971) ghostbusters GHOSTBUSTERS 2 (1989) ghosthouse 1988 GI Joe Retaliation (2013) THE GIRL WITH THE DRAGON TATTOO (2011) GOD TOLD ME TO (1976) GONE GIRL (2014) THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY (1966) The Great Silence (1968) Gremlins 2 - The New Batch (1990) The Grey (2012) Halloween (1978) Hannie Caulder (1971) Hardbodies (1984) Hardware (1990).. Henry (1990) High Crime (1973)  THE HILLS RUN RED (1966) . IMG_8699 THE HIT (1984)Hit Man (1972) hobo with a shotgun HOMEFRONT (2013) The Horror Of Dracula (1958) the host - no words HOUSE (HAUSU) (1977) The Iceman (2013) The Imaginarium Of Doctor Parnassus (2009) IN A LONELY PLACE (1950) THE INNOCENTS (1961) THE INSIDER (1999) The Invisible Man (1933) Iron-Man-3-2013 I SAW THE DEVIL (2010) Island-of-Lost-Souls-19331 Jackie Brown (1997) jaws jennifers body  JUAN OF THE DEAD (2011) The Keep (1983) KILLER JOE (2011) The Killers (1966) Killing Them Softly (2012) The-King-of-Comedy-1983 LADY IN CEMENT (1968) LADY TERMINATOR (1989) THE LAST CIRCUS (2010) BERRY GORDY’S THE LAST DRAGON (1985) Lawless (2012) LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962) the-leopard-man-movie-poster-1943-1020199765 Leprechaun (1993) A LIFE LESS ORDINARY (1997) LINK (1986) Liz & Dick (TV, 2012) Lockout (2012) The Lords of Salem (2013) Lost Highway THE MAGIC BLADE (1976) MAN OF STEEL (2013) THE MAN WHO KNEW TOO LITTLE (1997) The Man with the Iron Fists (2012) Maniac Cop (1988) THE MANITOU (1978) MASTER OF THE FLYING GUILLOTINE (1976) men-in-war-1957 MIGHTY PEKING MAN (1977) MILANO CALIBRO 9 (1972) MULHOLLAND DR. (2001) MY BLOODY VALENTINE 3-D (2009) My_Darling_Clementine_1946 NakedSpur-1953-MGM-one navajo-joe-1966 NEAR DARK (1987) NEON MANIACS (1986) night of the comet NIGHT OF THE CREEPS (1986) THE NIGHT OF THE HUNTER (1955) Night of the Living Dead (1968) NOSFERATU (1922) NOTORIOUS (2009) OF UNKNOWN ORIGIN (1983) ONLY GOD FORGIVES (2013) OUT OF THE PAST (1947) PACIFIC RIM (2013) pet-sematary-1989 Phenomena (1985) POOTIE TANG (2001) POSSESSION (1981) PREDATOR (1987) Premium Rush (2012) PRIVATE SCHOOL (1983) PULP FICTION (1994) Pursued (1947) q-the-winged-serpent-movie-poster-1983-1020195479 quick-change-poster BERANDAL (2014) RAVENOUS (1999) RAW FORCE (1982) Raw Meat (1972) RE-ANIMATOR (1985) Rear Window (1954) RED RIVER (1948) RED ROCK WEST (1992) Relentless (1989) RIDDICK (2013) tumblr_njo3upN5tn1sy67obo1_540 the road  ROBOCOP (1987) ROBOCOP (2014) SCANNERS  Scott Pilgrim vs. the World (2010) SCROOGED (1988) Shaft (1971) Sheba, Baby (1975) SHOCK WAVES (1977) shogun_assassin SORCERER (1977) source-code Spring Breakers (2013) SQUIRM (1976) STARSHIP-TROOPERS-1997 story of ricky  STREET TRASH (1987) Streets-Of-Fire-1984 THE STUNT MAN (1980) SUDDEN IMPACT (1983) Super (2011) SUSPIRIA (1977) switchblade_sisters_poster_02 (1) TAXI DRIVER (1976) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) Texas Chainsaw 3D (2013) THE THING (1982) THIS IS THE END (2013) thriller TORQUE (2004) touch of evil The Town That Dreaded Sundown (1976) TREMORS (1990) TRICK ‘R TREAT (2007) THE TWILIGHT PEOPLE (1972) THE UNKNOWN (1927) Under The Dome VAMPIRE’S KISS (1988) VERTIGO-1958-649x1024 Vigilante (1983) vigilante force THE VISITOR (1979) WHICH WAY IS UP (1977) WHITE HUNTER  WHY DON’T YOU PLAY IN HELL THE WICKER MAN (1973) winters-bone WITCHBOARD (1986) worlds-greatest-dad-2009 ZODIAC (2007) ZOMBI 2 (1979) ZOMBIELAND (2009)

Make Daily Grindhouse your daily destination for genre movie news, reviews, and interviews — there’s a ton of truly great content over there, beyond just the parts with my name on ’em.

And follow me on Twitter for updates!: @jonnyabomb

Bill Hicks Sane Man (1989)

If one were to step back and truly consider the unceasing patchwork of entertainment news clobbering our eyes, ears and minds twenty-four-hours-a-day, it would serve as a disturbing reminder of how little has changed since Bill Hicks prowled comedy stages, serving as a lonely voice of sanity out amongst the wilderness of institutionalized idiocy.

I’ve written about Bill Hicks once before. I was impressed by David Letterman’s 2009 tribute to Hicks, where he brought on Bill’s mother and personally apologized to her for the infamous incident where Hicks was kept off The Late Show due to Hicks’s propensity for inflammatory material. I thought it was a classy move on Letterman’s part – if belated, since Hicks died in 1994 of pancreatic cancer. I then went on to describe why I believe that Hicks’ brand of inflammatory material would have been necessary to broadcast, as it still is, because I think Hicks’ perspective, and those like his, demand to be heard.

Television, today more than ever, is absolutely flooded with mediocrity and moronity. Since television is only ever a reflection of what the American people are most concerned with at the time, that is a disturbing statement. It’s not a crime to enjoy turn-your-brain-off entertainment – but it IS a crime when the balances are off so badly. Mediocrity is rewarded and morons are everywhere, and even though we’re in the future, nothing’s changed. Some of the same exact same morons are still prominent, in fact!

It’s almost eerie that so many of Bill Hicks’ favorite targets back in the late 1980s and early 1980s are either still lingering, or have made their moronic return. The Bush family and the Iraq War are in sequels. Billy Ray Cyrus has returned with an even more ridiculous haircut, in a new role as world’s creepiest stage dad, pimping out his daughter to the world. The most recent Doritos ad, which was a huge hit at the SuperBowl, was the most-watched ad of all time. The New Kids On The Block are back on tour, clearly not recognizing the obvious irony in their name (or the obvious double-entendre in the name of their tour). And creepy Jay Leno and his gargantuan head are still clogging up the late-night comedy world, an unkillable milquetoast cockroach with a face the size of a parade float and a frame of reference the size of a peanut.

Watching the Bill Hicks concert film Sane Man, I was filled with growing irritation.

That’s not true. Watching Sane Man, I was laughing constantly.

It’s only afterward that the irritation struck, when I realized that all of the aforementioned morons are happily moving into advanced age with ever-thickening wallets, while Bill Hicks was struck down in his prime by an insidious disease. So many people have nothing useful or interesting to say; meanwhile, Bill Hicks was only getting started on expanding our brains and enlightening our perspectives. It’s just plain not fair.

But no one wise ever said the universe was fair. All we can do is keep Hicks’ work fresh in our memory, and luckily, there’s plenty of it available.

Sane Man is a concert film from 1989. It’s basically a rudimentary VHS recording of a typical Hicks performance, live, in front of a typical nightclub audience (with some amazing mullets), for a truly impressive length of time. I generally listen to Hicks’ CDs on repeat, so what struck me about watching him on screen for nearly two hours straight was his amazing confidence in front of a crowd. Hicks owned that stage. He clearly had absolute conviction that his words were worth hearing. (If he felt any personal reservations, it sure didn’t show.) His words were worth hearing, as always, but it’s nice to see that he seemed to know that too. If you like neurotic comedians, this ain’t your guy.

Sane Man probably isn’t my favorite Bill Hicks performance I’ve ever seen – for one thing the dated video elements and imperfect recording make it tiring to watch after a while. Also, a lot of the material Hicks performs here will be very familiar to diehard fans — a lot of it appeared in slightly different form on his albums — although it is a treat to see him act out his Jimi Hendrix routine. And this isn’t one for mixed company – Hicks gets particularly vulgar at a couple moments (understandable considering the fact that he’s playing to a drunken audience.) Personally, I never get tired of hearing any of Hicks’ bits and I’m not offended by his bluer material, so predictably, I loved Sane Man. I just wouldn’t recommend it as someone’s first exposure to Hicks’ brilliance. Start with any of the albums instead – they’re all still in print and available in most any music store that has a comedy section. Look for them (and more information) at the official website.

What I love about Bill Hicks is that, while his anger and disappointment were palpable, it was always clear that he was an optimist at heart. He wasn’t bitter about how things were; he just wanted things to be better. Bill Hicks left this earth too soon, but he left plenty of peerless comedy and immortal inspiration behind. He is as alive as ever, on his albums and videos.

Hear them.

And if you want to read more about Bill Hicks, I recommend tracking down Cynthia True’s terrific biography, American Scream, or this collection of Bill’s writings.

From June 23rd, 2010.

@jonnyabomb

Brothers (2009)

BROTHERS is a movie that has kind of slipped through the cracks.  It showed up towards the end of 2009, but not in enough time for me to see it for my Best-Of list.  It’s been nominated for some awards already, but not enough to make people feel like they ought to go out and see it.  It’s got some actors who people like, but it looks like a downer.  It doesn’t look like fun.

Well yeah, it isn’t much fun.  But that doesn’t mean it isn’t any good.  That doesn’t mean it isn’t even a little but important.  It sure does have the pedigree:  Jim Sheridan, the Irish director who showed his skill at creating detailed, likable characters in 2002’s IN AMERICA, directed from a script by David Benioff, the big-name Hollywood screenwriter who showed a similar skill in his script for 25th HOUR. The trio of lead characters, played by Natalie Portman, Jake Gyllenhaal, and the astounding-in-this-movie Tobey Maguire, are convincing and heartbreaking.  They’re aided by ace supporting performances by reliable actors such as Sam Shepard and Clifton Collins Jr., and by two of the best performances I’ve seen from little children since, well, IN AMERICA.  The two little girls who play Maguire’s daughters are deeply affecting. Also due for mention is Frederick Elmes, the hall of fame cinematographer who has worked with David Lynch, Jim Jarmusch, Ang Lee, and Charlie Kaufman, who shot the movie with understatement and grace.  The movie was shot largely in New Mexico, and it shows.  This doesn’t look like L.A.  This looks like elsewhere in America, the parts of America where you find the people who actually have to fight our wars for us.

That’s what this movie did for me, by the way.  It made me think about those people, who need to be thought about.  Whatever else minor flaws keep it from being considered a quote-unquote great film, BROTHERS is expert at detailing the realities of post-traumatic stress disorder. I left BROTHERS crushed and thoroughly sad – this movie is about something that is really happening right now to people our age and younger, who are sent overseas to kill and to take bullets and to watch their fellows die, only to return home without any kind of adequate psychological counseling.

BROTHERS is a wartime movie, and that’s the real reason for its lack of box-office and cultural heat.  People just aren’t interested in seeing this kind of story at the movies.  That’s starting to bother me.  There’s a massive disconnect between the America whose sons and daughters are sent overseas to fight and die, and the other America, which I fully admit to being a part of, whose lives are affected more by the recession or any number of concerns other than the war in the Middle East.  Unless we personally know someone in the military, unless we’re the type of person who follows and cares about the news, some of us are not forced to think much about the fact that we are actually at war.  We might be unemployed and stressed about that, but we don’t have to worry about the physical safety of our friends and family, or just as much at-risk, the psychological toll of their experiences.

So instead we go to see a movie like AVATAR for a fourth or fifth time, which surely isn’t wrong, but then again, if we have that kind of free time, maybe it is somewhat wrong to ignore a movie that might make us think about something that matters.  (I’m only singling AVATAR out here because it’s become the most popular movie of all time as all of this other stuff is happening in the world.)  As I have written already elsewhere, AVATAR is fun but meaningless; it is the ultimate movie of the moment expressly because it is about escaping reality – both in the way that Jake Sully escapes his wheelchair to become a nine-foot-tall forest god, and in the way that literally the act of watching the movie in those 3-D glasses is an escape.  It’s a video game movie.  It’s a luxury.  The very fact that I can post these thoughts on the internet, and any number of AVATAR fans are free to potentially comment on the many reasons why I’m wrong, is a luxury.  We’re very lucky to be able to sit at our computers and argue over and read about escapist movies.  But just recognize that it’s a distraction, ultimately meaningless comparatively.  AVATAR isn’t about anything but coolness.  There’s a place for that, to be sure, especially for those people who actually need a little escape.  But it’s not the only movie out there.  That’s all I’m saying.

BROTHERS forced me to think about something other than my own life.  I haven’t been exactly the same since I saw it.  It somehow changed my thinking, just the tiniest bit. If that isn’t an important movie, I don’t know what is.

You can still see BROTHERS theatrically in many cities, I think.  If you have the time, give it a chance.  Don’t let me make it sound like homework – it’s not in the least bit boring.  When I call BROTHERS a good movie, that doesn’t mean “good for you” – it really means “good movie.”

 

From January 18, 2010.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

Big Fan (2009)

BIG FAN clinched its spot on my Favorite Movies Of 2009 list, instantaneously, the day I saw it.  This is the movie written and directed by Robert Siegel, whose work was most recently seen in theaters as the writer of THE WRESTLER.

BIG FAN stars the brilliant stand-up comedian Patton Oswalt as Paul Aufiero, Staten Island’s biggest New York Giants fan.  He lives with his mother and spends his days tailgating Giants games with his best and only friend (played by Kevin Corrigan of so many movies, from GOODFELLAS and PINEAPPLE EXPRESS), and his every night calling in to the Sports Dogg talk radio show.  One of Paul’s favorite topics to rave about is Giants star Quantrell Bishop (played by Jon Hamm, but not the one you’re thinking about), and one night he actually runs into his hero.  Things do not go well.

I’m sure that part of my love for this movie comes from my own history – I grew up in the tri-state area and this movie expertly captures sights, sounds, and people that are remarkably familiar – but I wouldn’t respond to it so strongly if it wasn’t so good at drawing those environments.  Beyond the obsessed, belligerent sports fans without much else to distract them, there are the decent Italian mothers burdened with difficult adult sons, the hometown lawyers (like Paul’s older brother) who aren’t as smart as their degrees and nice suburban houses lead them to believe, the housewives (like Paul’s sister-in-law) whose cartoonish makeup and absurd cleavage don’t lend them an ounce of class, and the law officers who see patterns and are annoyed by them, but resigned to them.

I’m making a point of this stuff, but a strength of Siegel’s work as writer and director is that he doesn’t underline anything to make a point.  BIG FAN is rich in finely-observed detail, but it is admirably subtle about its approach.  When you hear that Patton Oswalt, one of the funniest people in the world at the moment, is playing in a movie that could easily be described (and frequently has been by critics) as a non-sexual version of TAXI DRIVER Paul loves Quantrell a bit differently than Travis Bickle loves Betsy and Iris — you couldn’t be blamed for expecting a comedy.  But that’s not what this is.

While the movie is consistently fascinating and absorbing, I didn’t find it funny for a moment.  While Patton Oswalt is a hilarious comedian everywhere else he goes, here he completely disappears into his role, committing fully to a disturbingly sympathetic portrayal of a very sad yet strangely fulfilled life.  It’s one of the best sustained feats of acting I’ve seen all year.  Everyone in the movie, in fact, is ideally suited to the movie’s gray tapestry, whether they’re more unfamiliar, unpretty faces, or if they’re recognizable and reliable character actors, such as Kevin Corrigan, or the perfectly-cast cameo by the not-to-be-revealed-by-me actor who plays Paul’s on-air nemesis Philadelphia Phil.

BIG FAN is bound to be overlooked, because it’s probably not what you’d expect when you hear that Patton Oswalt has his first lead role, and if you don’t know who Patton Oswalt is, his performance might feel too real and then the movie will probably feel more depressing than its premise might lead you to believe.  I write this piece with the express purpose of keeping this humble and unflashy but great feature from being overlooked.  For me, it was one of the most eagerly awaited movies of the year, and it did not disappoint.

Between THE WRESTLER and BIG FAN, Robert Siegel has staked a very specific claim as a chronicler of untold sports stories that could just as easily have been comedies, about tragic, optimistic characters who are far from the mainstream and far more interesting than the typical subjects of sports movies because of it.  THE WRESTLER was about a big man who feels small, and BIG FAN is about a small man who feels big.  Neither character is entirely right about himself, but neither of them is entirely wrong either.  The disconnect is where the truly interesting stuff happens.

See this movie the first chance you get.

From November 15th, 2009.

@jonnyabomb