Archive for the ‘Murder’ Category

 

It’s been over a year since I updated this page.  A lot has happened.  I’d love to say I’ve been doing all my writing over at Daily Grindhouse, but the truth is, I haven’t done all that much writing in the past couple years. Trying mighty hard to change that. Sometimes it’s all I can do to get up in the morning and go to work and be there for my family and do the bare minimum required of me as a human being. It’s been that kind of a stretch. But there have been several things I’ve written at Daily Grindhouse and even a couple other places, so I’ll get back on track about sharing them here.

 

First, I’ll post my reflection on the movie MANDY, which I ran on Daily Grindhouse today. I saw the movie on my birthday, September 16th, and then again two more times on the small screen over the past two months before I was finally ready to write anything. Now I did, and it’s the one thing I’ve done in quite a while that I feel remotely satisfied with. I said what I wanted to say. Now I’d love to know what you think.

 

 

 

At best and at worst, movies serve as emotional prisms. Movies aren’t just stories, aren’t just artwork, aren’t just moving pictures with music. Movies are the baggage that we bring to them. A movie like MANDY, all baroque flourishes and deliberate broad strokes, is particularly revealing in the way it refracts its audience, splitting light in all sorts of directions. MANDY has been rapturously received by several. That’s an authentic reaction. But MANDY may not work for others, and they’re not wrong either. They can’t be. I’ve seen MANDY three times now and while I fall far more on the side of affection for it, even still, I’ve felt a little differently about it each time. How can that be? Some movies — maybe all — have a lot to do with the people watching them. A person’s reaction to a movie can and will vary, depending on whichever self shows up at in front of the screen on that day, at that time, in that exact moment.

 

The plot of MANDY is easily described, by design. A lumberjack named Red, when not working, lives a hermetic but harmonious existence with his girlfriend Mandy in the mountains of eastern California, an existence that is upended by the arrival of a would-be prophet named Jeremiah Sand, who becomes fascinated with Mandy and orders his acolytes to abduct her. When she rejects him, Sand murders Mandy horribly and grotesquely in full view of Red, which sets Red off on the bloody road to revenge.

 

With a storyline that elemental, the specifics are all in the presentation. That’s why the mileage varies so wildly.

 

The movie announces itself more like a 1970s rock record than a movie. In crimson, uncredited words appear on the screen, underscored by an electric-guitar overture: “When I die Bury me deep Lay two speakers at my feet Wrap some headphones Around my head And rock and roll me When I’m dead.” It took a little digging for me to find the source of that quote. Sure sounds like something a frontman might yell out to an arena while looking out at the tiny flames of a dozen-thousand cigarette lighters. But that’s not the source. Those were the last words of a murderer, just before he was executed for his crimes. In reality, in Texas, in 2005. So this florid, subjective, surreal film is grounded in a very distinct, very bleak place, though that would surely be lost on at least 99% of any audience, as it was on me.

 

The music opening MANDY is “Starless” by King Crimson, again placing this film musically and tonally somewhere between prog-rock and heavy metal. The visual world of MANDY opens as Red is completing a logging job, with a notably processed shot of a thick tree falling as Red turns from it to head to the helicopter airlifting him off-site. Red is a smoker. He tosses his cigarette away. He wears a baseball jersey with the number 44 on it. Shirts are important in this film. Inside the helicopter, a colleague offers Red a flask, but Red waves it away. Immediately that’s a detail that registers.

 

 

Mandy is introduced lips-first, as she takes a smoke. Her face is introduced alongside her painted artwork, currently in process. Red arrives home, turning off a radio playing a Reagan speech which pins the timeframe of this story in the early 1980s. A stylized, sparkling blue title card announces this is happening around the Shadow Mountains, ‘circa 1983.’ The Shadow Mountains are a real place which may sound like the name of a prog-rock or metal track title. When he enters the house, Red announces himself to Mandy with a knock-knock joke with no real punchline. He’s played by Nicolas Cage, instantly recognizable as such. Mandy is played by Andrea Riseborough, less world-famous, sure, but still a prominent talent, who here is unrecognizable by contrast. She shows him the painting she’s been working on, and he’s impressed, though not particularly articulate about it.

 

The scene shifts to the middle of the night, with a bluish glow reminiscent of the scene-setting title card. Red and Mandy lie together in bed, not sexually but intimately, talking of space and of the Marvel character Galactus. The cinematography by Benjamin Loeb, already flush with color, takes on a new glow here — the movie is already parting from reality long before any of the characters partake in mind-altering substances. In the morning, Mandy wakes to the sound of an unidentifiable animal. She goes out to the woods alone, where she finds a dead fawn. Was this the source of the sound, or the result of it? Either way, Mandy sheds a tear. That night, she shares with Red a troubling story about starlings from her childhood. Between small birds and small deer, Mandy appears to empathize with the peaceful creatures of the world. She identifies with the animals who are often prey. At the end of her story, Red says only, “Oh baby, come here,” and embraces her. It’s notable that what little personal background we get of these characters comes all on the side of Mandy. We don’t know anything of Red’s past, save one detail from which we can infer plenty.

 

 

Mandy goes for a walk and a smoke along a mountain road, which is where she encounters the van driven by Jeremiah Sand’s Children Of The New Dawn. The scene is filtered red, and everyone inside the van appears to be varying degrees of stoned. The heretofore idyllic score by Jóhann Jóhannsson turns malevolent. The screen freezes on Mandy’s face as she passes the van and her eyes meet Sand’s, in a stylish flourish that could just as well have come from an early Tobe Hooper film.

 

The narrative is hijacked here by the movie’s villain, a la PSYCHO or MANHUNTER, and not just the narrative, but the filmmaking style itself. In an interview with Rue MorgueMANDY director Panos Cosmatos reveals Linus Roache was not the first choice for Sand. In fact, he was thinking of Nicolas Cage. For sure, Jeremiah Sand is a role anyone can imagine Cage playing, with relish. Cage would not be the obvious choice for a taciturn character like Red, and likewise, Linus Roache, a fine actor, is not who any genre fan would have expected to play a deranged cult leader. In some ways, his performance is the boldest and most inarguably creditable aspect of the film. Roache invests the role with exactly the level of histrionic high-low ferociousness that Cage would have done, and he’s excellent.

 

Sand sends his henchmen after Mandy. One of them, Mother Marlene, played by Irish stage actress Olwen Fouéré, first approaches Mandy at the convenience store where she works, posing as a friendly customer. Mandy mentions she lives “up by Crystal Lake,” the naming of which cannot be a coincidence in a film like this one. Meanwhile, another henchman, Brother Swan (also played by an Irish actor little known to American audiences, Ned Dennehy), uses an instrument called the Horn Of Abraxas to summon up fearsome figures from deep in the woods, who resemble something that could have resulted from a collaboration between George Miller and Clive Barker. These men are the Black Skulls, and the first time I saw this movie, it didn’t even occur to me that these characters WEREN’T supernatural in origin, which I think is probably the point. If MANDY is a film that exists apart from reality as we perceive it, the Black Skulls, whose closest cinematic precedents are the Gimp from PULP FICTION and the Plague in HOBO WITH A SHOTGUN, feel like they exist from a reality even apart from MANDY, if that makes sense. They arrive by sound first, monstrous, and pull up on motorcycles and ATVs. Their faces are masked in leather and they snarl inaudibly. Brother Swan is visibly terrified by them. The Black Skulls accept a human sacrifice, taking one of Sand’s more expendable followers with them for undisclosed purposes, before proceeding to siege and befoul Mandy and Red’s sanctuary of a home.

 

The abduction is a horror-movie scene, and a violation of the sanctity of the three-act structure to boot. The movie’s inciting incident comes at the midpoint, if not precisely then intuitively. This disregard for convention, the kind of convention that is traditionally comforting, I think is the main reason some people are turned off to MANDY. Others call it pretentious, or predictable, and while I can’t disagree, I perceive a sincerity in the making of this film that allows me to buy into it whole-heartedly.

 

From here, the film takes a hyperdrive warp into psychedelia, as Mother Marlene “prepares” Mandy for Sand by dosing her with a sting from a [noticeably fake-looking] giant wasp. As Mandy reels from the intoxicating effect, one of the film’s most indelible, disturbing, hilarious, and temporarily gratifying scenes transpires, as Sand plays Mandy a track from his terrible folk album (where he sings lyrics extolling his own greatness) and then literally exposes himself to her. It’s disgusting and weird and upsetting, which is why it’s such a hero moment when Mandy laughs in his face, spurning his music and his speeches and his dick.

 

The victory is short-lived, because that’s when Sand and his followers burn Mandy alive, with Red bound and gagged and forced to watch the entire destruction of the love of his life. This is an odd moment to bring up the matter of costuming, but I’d like to point out that in Mandy’s final scene, she’s wearing Red’s “44” jersey, while Red is wearing a black-and-red jersey (not for nothing, the same colors as Red’s truck), emblazoned with the face of a tiger. Again, these small details register. Swan hands Sand the “Tainted Blade of the Pale Night” — these people have florid names for all of their belongings — and Sand stabs Red in the gut, vowing he and Mandy will see “the cleansing power of fire.” The viewer realizes we’ve already seen Mandy for the last time, since the Children of the New Dawn carry her out of the house inside a burlap sack, which they string up and set ablaze. The camera hones in on Red’s tormented face, all the more painful because Mandy has already been turned into an inanimate object — neither Red nor we the viewer get a chance to say goodbye.

 

Again, mileage may vary, but for me this scene works as intended, not least because of the force of Jóhann Jóhannsson’s score — sadly, his last — which in this moment is equally sad and horrifying. If MANDY is a film that intentionally aligns itself with music, it’s impossible to overstate the heavy lifting this film’s score provides. Also interesting is how Cosmatos and Loeb handle the aftermath. The music subsides, and the lighting goes more “natural” and less apocalyptic. Sand and his people get into their cars and drive away, leaving Red tied up and bleeding, but alive. To me, this is how trauma feels, the way the most mundane observations of sight and sound register after one’s entire world has been altered forever.

 

Red frees himself and watches as the wind blows away the ashes which are all that remain of Mandy. He staggers inside, clad only in his tiger shirt and tighty-whities, and sees that the TV is still on. It’s playing what has already become MANDY‘s most meme-worthy (and in some quarters, maligned) element, the “Cheddar Goblin” commercial, for which Cosmatos recruited Casper Kelly, the absurdist mind behind “Too Many Cooks.”

 

 

Red mutters, “Cheddar Goblin,” and lies down, passing out. In a weird way, this was a relatable moment to me on par with the moment in this year’s HEREDITARY, the aftermath of the accident in which Peter realizes what’s happened to his sister Charlie and is stunned into catatonia. I’ve been there. I hope you haven’t been.

 

One more time, the very substance of MANDY alters as Red has a vision of Mandy in death — presented in a brief animated segment, which is something I don’t think we’ve seen since KILL BILL. And then Red wakes up. He grabs a bottle of vodka and still bleeding, storms into the bathroom, screaming gutturally in grief and drinking. He sits down on the toilet, still wearing only that tiger shirt and his underwear, and cries. This, to me, is the heart of the film. As I said up top, any one movie can be a lot of things to a lot of people. To me, MANDY is a story about a relapse.

 

 

 

Red goes to the trailer of his friend Caruthers, who is played by the estimable Bill Duke, an under-heralded filmmaker and creative force best known as a character actor, who I revere for his work in PREDATOR. Red tells Caruthers what happened, and says he’s come “for The Reaper.” All of this is bizarrely exciting because it suggests some odd backstory we can only invent for ourselves — how does Red know Caruthers? Why is Caruthers holding a weapon for Red? Why do these guys name their weapons? (And does that make them too different from the Children of the New Dawn?)

 

Another highly-stylized chapter heading comes on screen — Mandy’s name, in the form of red veiny lines that almost appear to be transforming the name into a beating heart. It’s also the movie’s title — here now, over an hour into the film, only now does the title screen appear. Red speeds out in his truck in search of the Black Skulls. It’s telling to note that what was for an hour’s time a dreamy romantic reverie and a phantasmagoric horror show has now transmogrified into MANDY in its most crowd-pleasing form, a full-on action-revenge picture, with action-film icon Bill Duke serving as its herald.

 

As Red tears through the Black Skulls in a fit of fury and blood, he cracks one-liners and absurdist Cage-isms (“You’re a vicious snowflake!”)  and snorts some of the coke they’ve left lying around their lair. Again, this is a relapse. The violence is relapse. That it’s the movie’s most entertaining mode is what makes it disturbing — again, to me. There’s a sort of release in relapse. It’s thrilling to rip shit up, even if what you’re ripping up is your own life, or someone else’s. It’s clear by now that Red has been holding back — declining to drink, committing no violence worse than cutting down trees, and choosing instead to love and live with Mandy — but the loss of her has given him permission to unleash whatever fury he’d been holding back. If this were an Oscar-minded drama about the struggles of alcoholism, we would not want to see Red drink again, but since it’s framed as a revenge picture, we crave the relapse as much as he does. And that’s upsetting. It’s upsetting in the pleasure of it.

 

 

Also intriguing is how Red is wearing the “44” jersey in the scenes where he tears through the Black Skulls. The last time we saw that shirt was on Mandy. Really, this is the movie’s least noticeable but most notable break from “reality” — how is Red wearing a shirt Mandy had on when she died? It makes no sense, unless you maybe want to consider that Red is now Mandy’s avatar, acting out the physical equivalent of the laughter she’d leveled at Sand. In other words, the only sense it makes is movie-sense.

 

After killing all the Black Skulls, Red makes his way to their drug supplier, The Chemist (Tom-Petty-esque character actor Richard Brake), whose warehouse includes a tiger in a cage. The Chemist introduces the tiger as “Lizzie,” and as Red glares at him, covered in the blood of dead enemies, The Chemist seems to get the message, and sets Lizzie free. (Remember Red’s tiger jersey?) This particular symbolism may appear to be peripheral, but it isn’t too subtle.

 

Red continues to travel north, and when he stops to rest, he has another animated dream, this time of a nude Mandy caring for a wounded and bloody half-tiger/half-man. She reaches inside his wounds and pulls out a glowing green diamond, and then Red wakes up. He continues on to his final battles, all of which transpire in a canyon which absolutely could have doubled for a FURY ROAD set. The most gore is yet to come. Red splits Brother Swan’s head apart to interrupt him when he references the quote, “Better to burn out than to fade away” (guess Red isn’t a Neil Young fan), engages in a duel of oversized chainsaws with Sand’s most formidable henchman that ends as you might expect, enters Sand’s triangular temple and beheads Mother Marlene, and crushes Sand’s skull with his bare hands. The last two victims both offer Red sex in an attempt to persuade him to spare their lives, but Red has no interest in anything but destruction. After killing them all, Red burns the entire place down.

 

Even during my first screening of MANDY, all this climactic violence felt inevitable. Though it’s never uninteresting to watch, not remotely!, the movie is long since out of surprises. That has significance. From that first absurdist knock-knock joke to Mandy’s harrowing story about the starlings, all of the mystery, all of the reward, was in the relationship between Red and Mandy. Once that’s destroyed, it’s not hard to predict where the movie will go. Without love, without hope, there’s nothing but death. In the final moment of the movie, as Red drives away from the battlefield still caked in blood so thick his skin itself appears red(!), he first flashes back to the very first time his eyes met Mandy’s — the film’s sole flashback — and then he has a vision of Mandy, looking at him from the passenger seat. She’s holding a cigarette and smiling. Many viewers will look at this moment as a last visit with an avenged loved one, a bittersweet moment, such as we get in films like THE CROW. That’s what I’d like to see. That’s not what I see.

 

In the film’s final moment, Red turns to his vision of Mandy and bares his teeth in something approximating a smile, but in truth he’s no longer capable. She’s gone. His hope is gone. The end credits roll without music, possibly only the first or second time the movie has been without it. There’s nothing left for Red. It’s over. This is why you fear the relapse.

 

All of that said, at the very end of the credits, you can hear starlings chirping. And after the credits, the final image we see is a portrait of Red, as done by Mandy and left on her drawing table. She’s not gone, not completely. There’s something left. There always is.

 

 

 

 

 

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This weekend I watched GROSSE POINTE BLANK again, for the first time in a long time. It’s eighteen years old now! It can vote! As an undergraduate film student, I wrote a seventeen-page paper on GROSSE POINTE BLANK — that’s how convinced I was of its greatness. I still love it, but I’ll try to be more brief here.

 

 

GROSSE POINTE BLANK has a perfect one-liner comedy concept – a contract killer accepts invitation to his ten-year high school reunion due to its proximity to his latest contract – and a sharp fit of a leading man in John Cusack, always the most cerebral of 1980s teen stars, who transitioned better than most into adult roles in the 1990s.

 

 

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 way-underrated hillbilly barnstormer VIGILANTE FORCE with Kris Kristofferson and Bernadette Peters, the somewhat-underrated (many cool people know how fantastic it is) crime classic MIAMI BLUES with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh, and the most-underrated-of-all action epic 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 kills people for money and who is lovable mostly only because he’s played by that guy who everyone loved in BETTER OFF DEAD and SAY ANYTHING.

 

GROSSE POINTE BLANK is one of the best-sounding movies of its decade, which is quite a feat considering this was the era of DAZED & CONFUSED, PULP FICTION, DEAD PRESIDENTS, and FRIDAY. The score is by Joe Strummer of The Clash. Pretty epic ‘get’ there. The soundtrack is stacked with killer pop, ska, punk, and new-wave songs from the late ‘70s and early ‘80s.

The supporting cast is pretty deadly – Dan Aykroyd deftly playing against type as Grocer, an insane hitman and rival of Cusack’s Martin Blank, who in true capitalist fashion is looking to consolidate his industry.

Alan Arkin as Blank’s traumatized psychologist, Dr. Oatman, who is terrified of his patient and continually begs him to stop coming back.

Joan Cusack as Blank’s secretary, equally traumatized by her cuddly sociopath of a boss.

Hank Azaria and K. Todd Freeman as a pair of bored government spooks who Grocer sets on Blank.

MAGNUM FORCE’s Mitch Ryan — a Dirty Harry sidekick! — as the dad of Blank’s high school sweetheart (played by a very winning Minnie Driver).

Stuntman and martial artist Benny “The Jet” Urquidez, who probably has the movie’s single best line. (“It is I…”)

 

 

In retrospect, GROSSE POINTE BLANK is a bit less successful in its action-movie moments as it is any time 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. If I were making movies, I’d probably make one like this (though maybe not as witty). We flatter ourselves with self-descriptions sometimes.

 

grossepointeblank-07

 

And in case you were ever wondering where the name of my site came from, now you know!

 

 

 

 

Fire away at me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Invisible Man (1933)

Island of Lost Souls (1933)

I’m never happier than when I’m writing about old horror movies.  Hopefully that’s true for you too, because as of today, you can read what I wrote about a pair of old horror movies over at Daily Grindhouse!

>>>READ IT HERE!!!<<<

And then follow me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

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On the poster above, Quentin Tarantino describes MILANO CALIBRO 9 as “Il piu grande noir italiano de tutti i tempi”, which translates roughly to “This movie is fucking incredible.”  He also probably threw the N-word in there somewhere, but we try not to do that here.

The point is that Fernando DiLeo’s 1972 crime thriller MILANO CALIBRO 9, also known sometimes more simply as CALIBER 9, is a really, really cool crime flick, in a down-and-dirty and completely under-recognized way.  It’s about a career tough-guy who gets out of prison and is pressured by his old gang into revealing the location of money he may or may not know about.  The mob doesn’t believe him, the cops don’t believe him, even his fine-ass girlfriend (German actress Barbara Bouchet) doesn’t believe him.  Things get ugly.  That’s more than you need to know or care about the plot — not that the story isn’t worthwhile, but this movie has plenty else to recommend it besides its scriptwriting, I think.  The camerawork by Di Leo’s regular DP Franco Villa is aggressive, visceral, even a little sloppy, which makes the whole enterprise have the feel of a punch to the face in a dive bar.  The orchestral score Luis Enríquez Bacalov and the band Osanna is, most notably in the main theme, reminiscent of Morricone but with a bizarrely-awesome prog-rock twist.

It’s somewhere between documentary-style cinema-art and a brash, boistrous knuckle-dragging guy’s guy’s movie.  Just check out the opening sequence, which starts on a blatant phallic symbol and progresses into a flurry of slugfests, dynamite. and the least relaxing shave ever:

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You may notice from that sequence that, no offense, but most of the guys in this movie look a lot like like apes.  It has a lot to do with Di Leo’s apparent ambition with the picture, to portray crime as it probably should be portrayed — violent and animalistic and not as appealing as most movies paint it.

The lead actor, Gastone Moschin, who plays the excellently-named Ugo Piazza, is like a cross between Steve McQueen and Bruce Willis, but with a brow that weighs a ton.  Outside of a role in THE GODFATHER PART 2, he hasn’t been in many movies you’d have heard of, but he’s a very striking-looking dude.  Most movies wouldn’t think past casting a guy with this kind of looks (handsome but brutish) as a henchman, but it’s totally refreshing and probably necessary to have him as a protagonist.  Pretty-boys have little place in badass crime films — you want a guy who looks like he can scrap.

Mario Adorf plays the gregarious but vicious and explosive Rocco Musco as a kind of proto-Billy Batts.  Adorf was apparently Peckinpah’s first choice to play Mapache in THE WILD BUNCH, which tells you all you need to know about what this dude brings to the table.  Rocco is loud and obnoxious but oddly charismatic and you sure won’t forget his face.  Or his mustache.

Lionel Stander plays the ominous, malevolent crime boss.  Stander was an American actor with a long television career, but he played his share of roles in Italian cinema — notably in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST.  Lionel Stander, like Ernest Borgnine or Willem Dafoe, is the kind of actor who is impossible to imagine was ever a baby.

The cops in this crime flick, the detectives on Ugo’s case, are given almost equal screen time to the cons, although they hardly get to leave the station.  They’re still compelling, played as they are by a couple of terrific journeymen actors who are well-remembered by fans of Italian cinema from the era.  Luigi Pistilli is probably best known as Tuco’s brother the priest in THE GOOD, THE BAD &THE UGLY, but he also played against Lee Van Cleef in DEATH RIDES A HORSE, had a key role in the unforgettable spaghetti THE GREAT SILENCE, and also starred in the great Enzo Castellari’s EAGLES OVER LONDON.  Meanwhile, Frank Wolff was an American who worked with Corman and Hellman before moving to Italy.  Like Pistilli, he worked with Sergio Leone (ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST) and Sergio Corbucci (THE GREAT SILENCE), in the latter movie providing some much-needed sardonic comic relief as he does also in CALIBER 9.

It’s a great cast, and a rambunctious, energetic movie overall.  The ending in particular strikes like a loud howl and a gut-shot.  Quite honestly my comfort zone is Italian westerns and not Italian crime films (outside of VIOLENT CITY, STREET LAW, and REVOLVER, all fantastic), but this one, widely-regarded as a high-water mark of the genre, has compelled me to get my homework done.

MILANO CALIBRO 9 has been screening all month at the Spectacle Theater in Brooklyn.

@jonnyabomb

 

   

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which brings me to a deeper point…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Jack Sparrow. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________________________________________

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

Doesn’t look happy.

 

http://twitter.com/jonnyabomb

 

 

 

Jennifer Aniston boobs Horrible Bosses topless

In my opinion, Seth Gordon is a comedy director to watch.  He made a few short films before breaking through in a big way with the documentary The King Of Kong: A Fistful Of Dollars in 2007.  His follow-up, Four Christmases, was a big-star romantic comedy that was worth a try, even if it shrinks in the long shadow of Gordon’s debut.  He then went on to direct episodes of Community, Parks & Recreation, The Office, and Modern Family, which pretty much covers almost all of the best comedies on television, and also co-created a fun, short-lived series called Breaking In.  I’m well at the point where I’ll check out a movie based on his name.

So now, Horrible Bosses, directed by Seth Gordon from a story by Michael Markowitz and a screenplay co-written by Jonathan Goldstein and John Francis Daley (a.k.a. Sam Weir from Freaks & Geeks!!!)

Well this is going to be a short little review here, because there’s really only ever one question that counts with a comedy, which is, “Is it funny?”  Did I laugh?  Yeah, and frequently.  Horrible Bosses has an admirable joke-to-laugh batting average.  The premise, where three likable losers plot to murder their unlivewithable bosses, is an instantly compelling one.  Sure, it’s reminiscent of Strangers On A Train and its loose remake, Throw Momma From The Train, but the characters are aware of that, and not in an annoying self-referential way either.  And the cast is uniformly terrific, starting with ace deadpanner Jason Bateman (always clutch with a reaction shot), likeable horndog Jason Sudeikis (in a much more agreeable rendition of his similarly-geared character from Hall Pass), and shrieking “hamster” Charlie Day (from FX’s It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia), and continuing to a murderer’s row of great evil bosses, Kevin Spacey (as a motherfucker from hell), Colin Farell (as a cokehead philanderer sleazebag), and Jennifer Aniston (as a sexual predator, basically).

Are they all funny?  Definitely.  Did I laugh?  Several times.

Do I have a few reservations?  Yeah.  Overall, I liked and would recommend the movie, but if you want to hear the reservations, read on.

Basically it comes down to this:  In the end, in my heart, I never really bought into the premise, as executed.  The script, direction, and performance of Horrible Bosses plays well with the more questionable notions it raises – namely, that these three generally decent guys would ever seriously conspire to murder, that anyone would turn to Jamie Foxx as “a murder consultant”, that anybody would even complain about Jennifer Anistion sexually harassing them – but ultimately it didn’t sit right with me all the same.  The reason for that is, because I, as the audience, never wanted what the three main characters wanted, which is to see those boss characters dead.  Spacey is a great villain, playing a role he’s absolutely played before, in Swimming With Sharks, Glengarry Glen Ross, Casino Jack, and that serial killer movie which shall remain nameless.  Farrell has rarely had a chance to be funny, but he’s as deft a comedian here as he was in In Bruges,  He throws off the badass pretty-boy thing entirely to look and act utterly horrible in a totally hilarious way, and of all the characters, he’s the one who’s hardly in the movie enough.  And Aniston… hey, I’m already a fan, but there’s new stuff happening here.  She’s cruelly sexy, but also bold and perfectly-pitched and completely foul-mouthed, maybe more than any of the male characters.  It’s a great comedy performance, regardless of being so much fun to look at.

That’s also a problem though.  I’m supposed to want, anywhere in me, to see these characters dead, and I don’t, not for a second.  They’re the characters who keep the movie alive, who lend it whatever asshole glory it attains.  Not every comedy needs to make an audience want what its characters want, but in a black comedy like this one, it helps.  Think of Throw Momma From The Train.  Think of what makes that movie effective and funny.  That lady was scary!  (Even if you end up liking her too.)  I feel like Horrible Bosses could have been even better if the bosses went further, if they were just a couple inches meaner.  I’m not sure exactly how to quantify this, but it’s a question of tone, and it’s not easy business.  Horrible Bosses generally has the right tone, but in the crucial area of hating the bosses, or more exactly, loving to hate them, it didn’t work for me personally.  Spacey and Farrell are having too much contagious fun, and Aniston is doing the same, and is too damn good-looking to boot.

More troubling on a personal level I wasn’t comfortable with the frequent usage of the word “bitch” to describe Aniston’s character.  Defenders of this terminology can shrug off my objection if they want, but I’m prepared to die on this hill.  Horrible Bosses doesn’t have many female characters:  There’s Charlie Day’s fiancée (a non entity), Sudeikis’s “pregnant” coworker (essentially one extended fat joke), Farrell’s two Asian playmates, and Julie Bowen as Spacey’s wife, who isn’t more than one note.  Jennifer Aniston plays the movie’s only real female character, and she’s introduced with huge white letters naming her “BITCH” and then referred to as such several more times throughout the movie.  Look, I’m not calling this movie misogynist, because I don’t believe it is, but it ain’t exactly pro-lady either.  I don’t personally make a habit of calling women “bitches” and I don’t have much respect for guys who do.  There are more creative ways of describing female characters, and I would have preferred to have heard some.  It’s not as if these writers and performers aren’t proficient enough with language to have come up with other terminology.  I know this is basically a question of taste, but in this case, I think my taste is just plain better.

But overall, I had fun with the movie, certainly enough to recommend it.  The situations the characters get themselves into are generally fresh and unpredictable, and the energy of the three leads is a lot of fun.  Most modern comedies are driven by lone wolves or duos, but there’s a classic comedy symmetry to trios.  Bateman, Sudeikis, and Day make a solid trio, and their buddy-banter makes many of the movie’s best moments.  And there’s an intelligence behind Horrible Bosses’ engine and direction:  It’s one of the few convincing recession comedies of the past few years.  Why do these guys hang onto their jobs so long?  Why don’t they just quit?  Well, because jobs are hard to find.  Makes sense.  I think that the best movies, even the comedies (especially the comedies), have this level of thinking behind them, or at least can stand up to this line of interpretation.  How much does a comedy engage in its cultural moment?  The more it does, the more resonant it is, the deeper and more appreciated the laughs.  Horrible Bosses is a good distance from perfect, but in its best moments, it brings real, genuine, familiar, earned laughter.  Which brings me back to that one pivotal question.  Which is why you probably will like this movie.  Maybe even more than I did.

 

My Bloody Valentine started out as a lesser-known Canadian slasher film from the 1980s (which I haven’t seen).  Because name recognition is king, it was updated in 2009 with a bigger budget, a glossier cast, and what was at the time a technology that was way past its prime.  Two years later, it’s strange to remember, but 3D was an archaic technology and a gamble of a release strategy.  For better or worse, Avatar was undoubtedly the movie that changed that.  But the My Bloody Valentine remake beat ‘em to it by several months.

 

This week, My Bloody Valentine 3D is of interest because we are about to see the next offering from its creative team, director/co-writer Patrick Lussier and actor/co-writer Todd Farmer.  It’s called Drive Angry 3D and I can’t wait.  As I’ve noted before, My Bloody Valentine 3D was knowingly trashy fun with some real technical acuity, and Drive Angry 3D, from all the trailers, looks like more of the same.  As we roll into Oscar weekend, one of the most pretentious times of the year, this is just what the doctor ordered.

Here’s what I wrote about My Bloody Valentine 3D back in 2009.  There are absolutely no spoilers, but my brief comments on the 3D format are somewhat telling.

 

It wasn’t as easy as I thought to get to see Notorious, the cinematic life story of Christopher Wallace, The Notorious B.I.G..  Somehow I thought that I could just slip into the theater, in New York, in Times Square, on opening day – what a maroon!

Instead I bought a ticket for My Bloody Valentine 3D!  The ticket came with 3-D glasses.  The movie was a blast.  I knew that it was going to be, even before the opening sequence, because some of the other folks who couldn’t get a ticket for Notorious spilled into the theater with me.  So when the disclaimer screen appeared, politely advising, “Please put on your 3-D glasses now,” some guy in the row behind me shouted out: “PUT ON YOUR GLASSES, NIGGA!”

(If Rowdy Roddy Piper had said that to Keith David in They Live, that interminable alleyway fist-fight would’ve lasted twice as long.)

Point is, My Bloody Valentine is an audience participation movie and my audience was more than willing to participate.

Look, there are many other horror fiends and gorehounds who can explain to you what’s so fun about this movie, and whether or not it beats other psycho-killer flicks.  I will tell you that I am hardly a fan of the slasher film genre, and yet I loved watching My Bloody Valentine.  It has a couple surprises, a couple inventive ideas, somewhat better acting and character development than you expect, not as many crappy bits as you expect, a bunch of pretty girls, and a little person with a shotgun (or did I hallucinate that scene?).  No, it happened.  There is an extended sequence where the menacing psycho-killer faces down a dwarf woman who will not go softly into that good night.  That’s really not something you see every day.

The story has to do with old crimes in a small town.  A mining accident a decade in the past led to a horrific situation where the one survivor, Harry Warden, could only escape a cave-in by killing his fellow miners (to preserve the oxygen).  The mine owner’s son (Jensen Ackles from TV’s Supernatural) was partly to blame for the accident, and to compound his torment, a now-crazed Harry Warden awakens and goes on a Valentine’s Day murdering spree.  Warden is forced back into the mine, and seems to disappear, and the mine heir leaves town.  Of course, he returns a decade later with plans to sell the mine, and coincidentally, a series of murders resumes.  Is it Harry Warden?

Who cares, really, but the movie actually does do a way-better-than-average job of keeping you guessing for a while.  The main suspense is in the jump-scares, the main shocks are in the intensity and the speed of the gore-gags (Harry Warden wields a pick-axe, and you can imagine what kind of mischief a guy like that can get up to with an R-rating in 3D technology.)  The cast does the most they can with their roles, especially the excellent character actor Kevin Tighe and the genre legend Tom Atkins.

Tom Atkins!

You’d also have to single out the intrepid Betsy Rue for her work in the movie’s most memorable scene, in which she is stalked by the killer and actually does an impressive job fending him off, especially because she is running around entirely naked.  Even though my personal tastes tend to closer run to her costar Megan Boone, I have to salute this courageous young actress.  It’s a genuinely heroic performance.  That’s all I can (or should) say.

As for the technology, it’s well worth a look.  I’m sure it tripled the fun I had with the movie.  After seeing how this mid-budget horror picture looks and works in 3-D, I feel like this technology has a lot of potential.  Once I got accustomed to the wearing of the glasses and all the self-consciousness that wearing them implies, I was fascinated by every frame.  I can only imagine what Spielberg or Mann or Boyle or Nolan or Del Toro or Raimi – holy cow, Raimi! – could do with 3-D cameras.  In the meantime, see this movie in the theaters while you can – and take a date.  Or at least, your funniest friend.