Archive for the ‘Observations’ Category

I, Frankenstein (2014)...


I, Robot (2004)




(a Frankenstein who is also a Robot)

Robot and Frank (2012)




(former Nixon speechwriter who talks like a robot)

Kissing Jessica Stein (2002)


Larry Fine


(At this point I tumble down the rabbit hole of watching Three Stooges cartoons all day, and completely forget to go to the movie theater.)


Days of Thunder (1990)

The sky always looks like it’s on fire in Tony Scott’s movies.  Everything looks like it’s taking place at magic hour, but it’s like the most intense magic hour ever captured and it lasts the entire movie.  In DAYS OF THUNDER, the action takes place on raceways which lends to the notion that all the gasoline on the concrete ignited from the sparks given off from the earthbound drama and is burning up the atmosphere.

Days of Thunder (1990)

Not everyone is a Tony Scott fan — too much style, they argue — but I definitely am.  [You can read a lot more about the reasons why here.]  Honestly though, my Tony Scott fandom doesn’t begin until a year after DAYS OF THUNDER, with 1991’s THE LAST BOY SCOUT.  I’m not so into 1983’s THE HUNGER (an anomaly, his only horror movie), 1986’s TOP GUN (not my kind of macho), or 1987’s  BEVERLY HILLS COP II (I know, I’m surprised about that too.)  There were two Tony Scott movies released in 1990; first the far-lesser-known REVENGE and then DAYS OF THUNDER in the summer.  Then he got hold of a Shane Black screenplay, and after that one by Quentin Tarantino, and the rest was action-movie history.

Days of Thunder (1990)

Stylistically, Tony Scott was doing what he did from the very start.  He arrived in features fully-formed in that respect.  But it could be argued that something resembling a worldview, or thematic preoccupations, didn’t start gelling until later on.  What I personally respond to in Tony Scott’s work is a healthy distrust/ disrepect/disregard for authority and bureaucracy and an affinity for outsiders and loners.  I suppose that is present in his earlier films, but there (in TOP GUN and DAYS OF THUNDER) it’s coupled with the Tom Cruise machine, which represents something different than Scott’s most frequent muse, Denzel Washington.

Days of Thunder (1990)

I like Tom Cruise as an actor and as a star, but he’s never been anything resembling a favorite.  My favorite Cruise performances are in MAGNOLIA and COLLATERAL, both rare instances where he submitted his usual star persona to the whims of a great director.  He’s worked with plenty of great directors, of course — Spielberg, Scorsese, DePalma, Stone, Levinson — but usually by coupling his engine to their formidable powers, by partnering with their vision rather than being a part of it.  That’s how DAYS OF THUNDER, like TOP GUN before it, works.  Tony Scott’s energetic style flatters Tom Cruise, in a way that Tom Cruise himself, as a movie star, is the story being told here.  Contrast that to any of the movies Scott made with Denzel, which, whether you enjoyed them as much as I did or not, were more like character pieces.  Tony Scott only ever worked with huge stars, but the mechanism is different when you’re talking about the ones he made with Tom Cruise.

DAYS OF THUNDER was written by Robert Towne, from a story by Towne and Cruise.  That is the highest possible caliber of screenwriter.  This is how Tom Cruise got to his rarified level.  He made a point, smartly, of working with the best.  You want a script that’ll showcase your starpower?  Hire the guy who wrote CHINATOWN!   In his review of DAYS OF THUNDER, Roger Ebert picked up on the early Cruise formula, which we now know was very much by design:  Cruise plays a super-talented hothead who eventually achieves his goals through the aid of an experienced mentor figure and the love of a beautiful woman.  Here he’s untrained but naturally talented racecar driver Cole Trickle (note the TC initials flipped), who links up with a semi-retired pro (Robert Duvall) to conquer the NASCAR circuit.  After an early accident, he meets a beautiful doctor (Nicole Kidman) who nurses him back to health.  There’s a ton here for armchair psychologists, but I’m not going to go there.

Days Of Thunder (1990)

I was never bored by DAYS OF THUNDER (credit there to Tony Scott) but I also didn’t care too much at any point, due to the fact that, as a true-blue Yankee, I don’t really get the appeal of stock car racing.  It’s a bunch of cars with advertisements stencilled all over them, driving around really fast in a circle.  How is that more fun than reading?  Maybe this movie plays better with fans of the sport.  Apparently the story is very loosely based on some actual racing professionals, including Dale Earnhardt, and the presence of real-life NASCAR luminaries as announcers and so on (not to mention producer Don Simpson in a creepy cameo) makes the whole thing feel gaudily believable.  It also helps that Cruise and Kidman are supported by a murderer’s row of character actors, including John C. Reilly (way before TALLADEGA NIGHTS), Cary Elwes (THE PRINCESS BRIDE) as a surprisingly nasty villain, a surprisingly serious Randy Quaid, and a pre-JUSTIFIED Nick Searcy and Margo Martindale.  One of my favorites, Michael Rooker, plays Tom Cruise’s main-rival-turned-BFF (Val Kilmer style) who engages him in a wheelchair race — obviously the single most enjoyable part of the film to a weirdo like me.

The entire thing is held together by Robert Duvall, a bedrock if the movies have ever had one.  His unflappability and steadiness provide a nice counterbalance to the typical borderline-scary Cruise self-determination and high-achieving.  It does make one wonder, since Cruise once benefitted so much from older co-stars such as Duvall, Jack Nicholson, Dustin Hoffman, and Paul Newman, why he doesn’t seem as inclined to do the same for younger stars, now that he’s hit fifty (!).  Cruise’s last three action films — MISSION IMPOSSIBLE: GHOST PROTOCOL, JACK REACHER, and OBLIVION — are moving him further away from his co-stars, and back towards lone-wolf stature.  Advancing age suits a guy like Robert Duvall.  It didn’t much hurt the appeal of Nicholson, Hoffman, or Newman either.  What will it do to Tom Cruise, whose stardom is founded on forward momentum?  What’s the guy going to do when he can’t run anymore, and on top of that, they want to restrict his driver’s license?

Days of Thunder (1990)

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Days of Thunder (1990)

Peeples (2013)

Peeples (2013) Peeples Peeples (2013)

Much as I’d like to keep this apolitical and just talk about the movie, the way it deserves, I don’t think I can resist it this time.  Here is a statement I’m going to underline:  I paid to see PEEPLES opening weekend.  I am lucky to have a lot of chances to see movies for free, and quite frankly I need to take those chances whenever I can, because I don’t get paid much from writing yet, and my time-consuming day job pays me a barely-survivable wage.  To say I don’t have a lot of money (or time) right now is an understatement.  But I paid to see PEEPLES.

The main reason I did that is because I really love the main trio of lead actors, Kerry Washington, Craig Robinson, and David Alan Grier. They are actors who constantly make every scene they’re in a scene worth watching. In my opinion, Kerry Washington is an uncommonly passionate screen actor, with an unfakeable decency, whereas Robinson and Grier are two of the most consistent scene-dominators in all of comedy. These are guys who have shared screens with some of the most famous comedians in modern history and have stood out against them every single time. I would watch almost anything any of these three were in, and the three of them together is an irresistible prospect to me personally.  Happily, that instinct paid off for me, and their movie brightened up a gloomy, drizzly Saturday morning.

Kerry Washington

Craig Robinson, who you probably know from NBC’s The Office or PINEAPPLE EXPRESS, plays Wade Walker, a musician who plays very Craig-Robinson-style songs to school-children as a way to give them life advice.  He doesn’t make a lot of money but for the past year he has been dating a woman who does, glamorous lawyer Grace Peeples — Kerry Washington, most recently from ABC’s Scandal and DJANGO UNCHAINED.  Maybe you’re the type who’d look at the two of them and see a mismatch, but they have a sweet, eminently believable relationship in the opening scenes.  I’m not a romantic comedy kind of guy, but that’s not really because of my love of Clint Eastwood Westerns, monster movies, and ninja flicks.  It’s because most modern romantic comedies feature lead actors who go with their worst instincts and writers who can’t write relatable dialogue or scenarios.  I find either one, or both, of the romantic leads in most of these movies to be people in whose company I don’t want to spend an entire movie.

PEEPLES eradicates that reservation quite simply, with the power of good casting.  Every single actor in PEEPLES comes off well, even when they’re disagreeing with each other within the story.


Grace comes from a high-achieving family.  Her father Virgil (David Alan Grier) is a prominent judge.  Her mother Daphne (S. Epatha Merkerson) released a successful R&B album in the 1970s.  Her sister Gloria (Kali Hawk) is an on-camera newswoman.  Her little brother Simon (Tyler James Williams) is a brilliant inventor and an aspiring musician himself.  Her grandmother is Diahann Carroll and her grandfather is Melvin Van Peebles!

Wade has heard a whole lot about “The Chocolate Kennedys”, as he calls them, but he hasn’t met them yet, in a whole year of dating Grace.  This is weighing on his mind because he wants to marry Grace.  (Who wouldn’t?)  He has a romantic weekend planned, where he hopes to give her his grandmother’s ring, but she tells him she has to head home to Sag Harbor to celebrate her father’s beloved Moby Dick weekend.  (Yes, David Alan Grier dresses up like Ahab and reads from Moby Dick, yet another reason for me to feel warmly about this movie.)  When Grace heads off without him, Wade decides to crash the celebration and shows up uninvited, which immediately earns him Virgil’s disapproval, especially since Grace has never once mentioned Wade to them!

The rest of the film is a series of comic shenanigans and hijinks, as Wade struggles to endear himself to Virgil and continues to make things worse.  All of the main characters have secrets:  Wade is hiding his intentions, Grace is hiding her relationship and most of her history, Gloria is hiding the fact that she’s in a committed relationship with a woman (Kimrie Lewis-Davis), Simon is hiding his kleptomania, Daphne is hiding some recreational habits, and even Virgil is hiding… well, you’ll have to see.


This is Tina Gordon Chism’s first movie as both writer and director.  (She previously wrote the screenplays to ATL and DRUMLINE.)  If I had to be critical, I’d say her facility for staging scenes of farce is promising but not fully formed — some of the gags are hilarious, others could be more sharply carried off.  And to be honest, this is more of a showcase for Craig Robinson than for Kerry Washington, who gets less screentime and slightly less comprehensible motives.  But what quibbles I could come up with are overshadowed by my appreciation of this movie’s warmth and affable watchability.  That comes from a script which treats every character as a full human being, and direction that encourages every last actor to shine.  There are no villains here.  Every character is his or her only real enemy, but all of them have the ability to improve, and we get to see most of them do so before the movie’s done.  It doesn’t feel forced or unearned. That’s an increasingly rare experience at the movies. I laughed out loud several times throughout the running time, uncommon for me, and that happened because I enjoyed the characters and the performances.


Right this moment, PEEPLES is flopping at the box office.  That’s why I need to write this piece.  It’s not a perfect movie, but it does not deserve to flop.  It’s a generous movie about likable characters any audience would be happy to know.  For PEEPLES to flop, that means two things are happening:  People who like Tyler Perry are avoiding it, and people who don’t like Tyler Perry are avoiding it.  If you don’t like Tyler Perry, you are seeing his name on the poster and staying away.  Guess what?  I don’t much like Tyler Perry.  I’m the guy who wrote this, after all.

But Tyler Perry didn’t write or direct PEEPLES — Tina Gordon Chism did — and he sure doesn’t appear during it — an amazingly talented ensemble cast does — and very genuinely, I give Tyler Perry a ton of credit for trying to get this movie out in front of people.  To Tyler Perry’s diehard audience, I give no credit at all, since they have demonstrated with their dollar that they prefer exaggerated caricatures over believable characters and judgmental homilies over the loving themes of acceptance and honesty that PEEPLES encourages.

To me, those are themes worth supporting with my hard-won cash.  To me, it is worth supporting with my cash a film that gives Craig Robinson a long-deserved leading role.  (Judd Apatow didn’t give me that!)  To me, it is worth supporting with my cash a movie that maybe doesn’t represent my face specifically, but does represent faces resembling people in my life, dear friends of mine: teenage characters that aren’t sex-crazed morons, gay characters who aren’t mincing stereotypes, black characters who act like witty, successful, loving human beings rather than total fools.  To me, it is worth supporting with my cash the very rare case of a woman, and a black woman no less, writing and directing a feature comedy, especially a comedy that promises a career full of more to come, if only she gets another chance.


See, this is where I have to get political.  In the age of Facebook and Twitter, in the age where everyone has a blog or writes for one, in an age where we get to see and hear everyone’s opinions twenty-four-hours a freaking day, I’m not seeing a lot of put-up-or-shut-up.  In the last day alone, this Jezebel article excoriating misogyny in comedy has been in front of my eyes about a hundred times.  I happen to generally agree with what is being said in that article, and in most of the articles like it.  I’m not sure all of them apply to me specifically, but that’s not for me to decide.  I tend to think that a man who is willing to read an entire article like that in the first place is one who is friendly to the cause and interested in ways he can change if need be.  I love movies and I am trying hard to be a good person and I believe sometimes that means putting my money where my mouth is.  That last part is an important distinction, I think.

Maybe I’m overstepping a bit by suggesting it, but I’m going to do it anyway:  If you are so committed to the principle of furthering women’s roles in comedy, then will you not get out of the house and vote with your own dollar?  Will you not go pay for a movie written and directed by a woman?  Especially because I, someone who normally loves “guy’s” movies and who normally does not love movies with Tyler Perry’s name on them, is insisting that it’s a movie worth your time?  Maybe my opinion doesn’t, won’t, shouldn’t matter.  It’s true: I’m a very heterosexual male and my skin is pretty pale.   But still, the fact that a woman broke through and managed to get a comedy made and nobody’s going to see it is something that doesn’t feel right to me.  I want to do what I can about it.  Here’s one indisputable truth, feminists and fellow feminism-friendly men:  It’s not your blogs or your re-Tweets that are going to encourage studios to make this kind of movie.  It’s your hard-earned dollars.


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.



Posted: January 18, 2013 in Art, Observations, Opinions, The Future


Welcome to 2013! According to Stanley Kubrick we’re twelve years past the future. We could’ve all been in space by now. The only thing stopping us is us. Although maybe we’d better start small, with the simpler questions. Are you keeping any of your resolutions so far?


“Resolution” is a good word. It’s got a few different meanings. At the start of the year — although less so by the day, it being January 17th already — resolution indicates a kind of fortified resolve, as in: These are the aspects of living which I insist on doing differently or better in the new year.

Resolution can mean determination: If you’re resolved, you’re certain of something. If a situation is resolved, that means it’s been settled. In political terms, a resolution is an official statement put into action. And in reference to images, such as on televisions or computer screens, resolution means clarity.

Sometimes clarity can be found by watching people you respect, and listening to what they have to say. This happened to me recently while reading the Vanity Fair Comedy Issue, where the great comedian Louis CK was interviewed.

Louis CK   Louis CK

For some random cosmic reason, or maybe just out of pure coincidence, I’ve been aware of Louis CK for years and have periodically lucked into vantage points to observe the arc of his career. My best comedy-expert buddy introduced me to Louis’ short films over a decade ago, the films he made around the time he was working behind the scenes writing for Conan O’Brien and Chris Rock.

When I first moved to LA, in 2001, I ended up at a screening on the Paramount lot of POOTIE TANG, the feature film Louis directed. It was an obviously-unfinished workprint and it’s safe to say that the crowd I was with didn’t get it. It must suck for filmmakers to sit through preview screenings, but it sucks only a little less to have to sit and listen to the dumb comments of humorless audience members. The movie has since gained a cult following but it can’t have been an easy experience at the time.

Around that time, maybe 2002, I befriended a guy who hosted a comedy night at a bar in Santa Monica. I went several times, during which time I decided beyond a doubt that stand-up comedians are to be respected. That’s a hard job. I got to watch plenty of them up close through those comedy nights. One of them was Louis CK! This was the first time I got to see his brilliant “Why?” routine. I have rarely laughed so hard.

The next time I saw the “Why?” routine, it was in 2006, as the opening scene of Louis’ HBO series Lucky Louie. This show was fucking great but it only lasted one season.

Thanks to that same comedy-connoisseur friend, I have seen Louis do stand-up live several times over the years. In the last few, those tickets have become harder and harder to get as his popularity has exploded. You’ve all seen his FX series, right? It’s wonderful, a true victory for individualism and uncompromised comic vision. The most recent time I saw Louis do stand-up, it was a week before he hosted Saturday Night Live on November 3rd. Once again, I was among the privileged who got to see a routine or two earlier, in the working stages. His SNL monologue was an abbreviated variation of the material he did at that show a week before (both versions were hysterical).

Louis CK

The point I’m trying to express is the admiration I have for such a hardworking and thoughtful artist. It’s humbling. And it’s instructive.

All of which brings me back to that Vanity Fair interview. It’s their Proust Questionnaire, an exercise meant to reveal the personality of its subjects. The following is one of the questions, and Louis’ response:


Which talent would you most like to have?
I wish I could draw. I can’t make a thing in my mind go on paper. I draw like a child. Like a heavily beaten and molested child. Who can’t draw.


As a creative person who has struggled to find his way, reading something like that is incredibly illuminating. Louis CK can’t draw. Someone of so many obvious talents, who I respect so much — even he has limits that bother him. And I’m sitting here, lucky once again. I can draw! I can’t get up on stage and change the world with uncommonly perceptive and bluntly eloquent comedy like he can, but I can draw.

Believe me, that’s not ego inflation. I’m not comparing myself to anyone, or suggesting I have anything coming to me, or anything like that. This is about the inspiration I get from others, and about using it for self-motivation. There are plenty of wonderful artists who can draw far more beautifully than I ever will. But still, I can draw. I have talents that other people wish they could have, even some of the most famous and successful creative people in the world. I should appreciate that more. I should utilize that more.

So that’s my resolution, and my clarity. To use my talents, all of them. To find what I can do that other people can’t, to find what I can bring to the world that the world might need or want. I happen to believe that my writing and my personal perspective are among those virtues. My drawing ability is another.

What’s yours? Let’s all figure it out and get to work in 2013!


Well, the conceivable happened, and I fell behind on my 31-day horror project.  No drawn-out equivocating here:  A real writer makes deadlines, even the ones he sets for himself, and a real man doesn’t make excuses, but then there’s the whole matter of reality to contend with, and the way that each one of us handles our particular reality with a variety of temperaments.  Life doesn’t stop punching you in the gut just because you took on a writing project in your spare time, and as I should have expected, life punched me in the gut a few days back and I didn’t much feel like writing about anything for a while after that.

But I’m getting back on that old gray horse and mounting up for a ride through the last week of this thing.  Y’all will have your thirty-one, I promise it, and I may not even stop there, but don’t let me go making promises.  The point is, I’m back on it.  Good thing the subject is horror.  It fits the mood.  See, I think what horror aficionados know deep down is that this entire passion for the genre comes out of wrestling with the idea of death.  I spend a lot of time looking for connections between stories, looking for the common themes and the deviations.  Well the one thing you can always reckon on with a good horror tale, whether it be about ghosts or vampires or zombies or werewolves or man-eating animals or monsters of the more human variety, is that they all have something to do with death.  Sometimes death is victorious at the end, and sometimes death is kept at bay.  Either way, whether it’s sooner or later, that one truth is for damn sure:  Ain’t none of us getting out of this thing alive.  Best we can do is reconcile ourselves to that fact, enjoy it as long as we can, and watch a shit-ton of movies if that’s among the things we enjoy most.  It is for me.

Find me talking movies on Twitter (@jonnyabomb) and at Daily Grindhouse, and one thing else…

A recommendation:  If you want daily updates and engaging commentary, please check out my friend Ryan McNeely at his site — he’s been writing about a movie a day straight through since January and it’s really great.

Now, coming in the next few days from me:


How many movies are there in the world?  How many movies have been made since the invention of cinema, way back in those last years of the nineteenth century?  These questions are just about impossible to answer, so how about this one:  How many movies can one person see in a lifetime?  And if that person managed to list them, in what order would he organize them?

The answer lies with a man named Brad Bourland, a grocery store employee from Austin, Texas, who was profiled by the New York Times in April.  On April 15th, 2010, Bourland posted to his website the most up-to-date version of his current project, a movie list which represents, in numeric ranking, the greatest films of the twentieth century.

That list can be found here.

The rankings are relatively predictable in places, highly questionable in others, and outright preposterous in others.  Bourland tells the New York Times that he hopes people don’t get too wrapped up in the rankings, and that’s the right move.  What Bourland is trying to do, if I understand it correctly, is rank the movies in order of esteem – in other words, Casablanca is number one on the list because critics and audiences almost universally deem it so, not necessarily because Bourland himself agrees (although in this case, one suspects that he does.)  He also wants to make sure that those great movies which may have been forgotten, or are in danger of being forgotten, remain in the national conversation alongside the more popular and the more recent great movies.  (This is an altruistic goal, even if it’s already being done well in many quarters, for example by the good folks at TCM and the Cinefamily in Los Angeles.)

Of course, ranking movies in order of appreciation is nearly as difficult to quantify as ranking them in order of quality.  The value of a list like this one is, in part, the fact that it demonstrates how silly list-making generally is.  For one thing, it can never really be comprehensive, even though Bourland has limited the list to the films of the twentieth century, even though he has put out the call to film fans everywhere to help him add in the entries he may have missed.  For another thing, documentaries, silent movies, and animated films have not been factored in, whether that is due to Bourland’s personal tastes or his [understandable] concerns about manageability.   However, the list is called  “The 9133 Best, Most Beloved and the Most Important English Language Films of the 20th Century. In Order.”  By definition, that demands the inclusion of documentaries, silents, and cartoons – and that’s not even raising the argument for foreign films.

And really, if the list is anywhere labeled “Best,” then it really shouldn’t include – just to take a few examples off the bottom end – Leprechaun, Real Men, Q: The Winged Serpent, Alien From L.A., Silent Night Deadly Night, Cleopatra Jones, Basket Case, Night Of The Lepus, or Ratboy.  How could one reasonably compare Casablanca to those other films?  Their artistic goals are diametrically opposed.  There are only two qualities these works share: one is that they were all filmed with a movie camera, and the other is that I don’t think anyone has seen them all besides Brad Bourland and myself.

So sure, it’s just an absurd project, and one that’s conceptually flawed, even if I find it bizarrely admirable – maybe even because of how absurd it is.  People love lists – really, they do – but no one is so determined that they would list this many movies and then attempt to rank them.  Well, not until now.  Brad Bourland of Austin, Texas is that determined.

Since I’m crazy, I made a rough count of how many movies from this list I have seen.  The result is either shocking or reassuring, depending on whether you are a friend or relative, or whether you are me:  I have seen about 1,231 out of 9,133.  What is that, around eleven percent?  I found that reassuring because, as many movies as I’ve seen, it’s apparently not as many as I (or my friends and family) think – although when my thoughts venture towards the realm of movies I’ve seen that weren’t included on the list, it begins to disturb.  (Brad Bourland just plain hasn’t seen as much shoddy horror as I have, evidently.)

Doing that rough count made me see the value in this list:

1) It made me notice the gaps in my movie-watching that I’d like to rectify.  As many movies from the top 200 that I’ve seen, there are still many, many, many classics that I’ve missed.  How is it that I’ve never seen The Sting?

2) Going back and seeing the names of movies that I haven’t seen or even thought of in many years was in a way a trip through my personal memories.  Movies aren’t just entertainment, but also a road map of the memorable (or unmemorable) moments of our lives.  I remember the first movie I ever saw, and I remember the first movie I ever took a girl to.  I remember the movies that scared the hell out of me, and the movies that made me laugh so hard I couldn’t breathe.  I remember the movies I watched over and over with my best friends, and I remember the movies I might have seen only once, with people who never quite became best friends.  I remember which movies I saw at which theater in what state, and I remember some of the big dramas or small crazy moments that were going on at the time.  Seeing all of this in once place brought all of it back – it was exactly like my life flashing before my eyes.

Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

This piece appeared elsewhere on the internet on May 4th, 2010 – I liked it enough to look at again and hopefully you will too.

I first wrote this piece in 2008.  I still consider it to be among my best, because the subject matter is even more relevant today than it was four years ago. 


I’m not plagued by all too many irrational fears.  Some people are afraid of dogs, or spiders, or clowns.  Not me.  Not my issues.  I feel kind of lucky that way.  In about three decades, I have probably had exactly that many irrational fears, and I eventually found a way to defeat them all.  Here’s a quick rundown of how that process went:

Irrational Fear #1Sharks

Reason Why I Was Scared:  Soulless, doll-eyed apex predators who come out of the sea (which itself is unfathomably vast and emotion-less) in order to bite living warm-blooded things.

Reason Why I Am No Longer Scared:  Stood face-to-face with a captive great white until the fear went out of my knees for good.  (Long story, but it really happened!)

Irrational Fear #2Bears

Reason Why I Was Scared:  Way more dangerous than sharks, because at least sharks look scary as a warning, and they stay put in the [easily avoidable] sea.  On the other hand:  Bears look cute, but by nature they are lethal killers!  And they’ll get you on land or in water, if that’s what they want to do.

Reason Why I Am No Longer Scared:  Haven’t gone into the woods in almost five years.  As long as I keep that up, my chances of not running into a bear are better than average.

Irrational Fear #3Sewage

Reason Why I Was Scared:  There’s so much of it, and so much more daily.  Where does it all go?!?

Reason Why I Am No Longer Scared:  Maturity?  I just don’t think about it any more.  There’s nothing I can do about these concerns of mine, and I have to trust that the environmentalists and the poo-specialist scientists have it all figured out.

So that’s all well and good.  I mean, how excellent for me to finally be less afraid than I was of all the things that are least likely to ever threaten me.  I genuinely do wish that simple peace for all my loved ones, acquaintances, and readers.

But very recently, a new irrational fear has loomed on the horizon I’ve been sailing towards, a fear that I’m not even sure is all that irrational.  As I slowly, steadily become more active as a professional writer, I am hit square in the gut, and directly in the writer vein, more and more by the day, with this crippling worry:

Irrational Fear #NOW
What if we run out of movie titles?

This one literally keeps me awake at night.


Think about it:  There’s only something like a quarter of a million words in the English language that have ever existed.  Which sounds like a lot, but not when you consider a few things: 

¨           That a huge percentage of those words are no longer in common use (I like “Petard” or “Cicatrice” as action/horror titles, but try pitching those);

¨           That as far as movie titles go, we’re really limited to nouns, and after that maybe a small fraction of the available adjectives and verbs; and

¨           That in the century-plus of world cinema to-date, almost all of the best single words, and word combinations, have already been taken.

Making up new words, or tapping into foreign languages, as an alternative title source is simply not an option, or at least, it’s a very limited one.  Movies from Apocalypto to Zathura have suffered diminished returns by braving the waters of scantly recognizable titles.

Then there are the wealth of original, yet-unearthed words which you nonetheless just can’t use. 

Antidisestablishmentarianism: The Movie is a highly unlikely candidate for arrival at your local multiplex, and not just because it wouldn’t fit on the marquee.  It’s because if your average man or woman on the street can’t say it when they’re ordering a ticket, the studios probably won’t let it happen.  Nor should they.  Again, that’s one of those business strategies I happen to agree with – a movie shouldn’t send you to the dictionary before you even get a chance to experience it.  That would be kind of elitist, intentionally or otherwise.  Certainly it’s not inviting a practice as befits the essentially populist art form of movies.  So as much as I am curious to watch every picture originating from the word processor of Charlie Kaufman, the title of the upcoming Synecdoche, New York bothers me a little.  It might be a title that tickles New Yorker critics, but I personally can’t pronounce it, so how am I going to recommend it (or not) to my friends? 

Then again, at least he found a word no one else was using.  Ain’t too many of them left.

Make no mistake, this is a real problem.

And don’t think that the practiced professionals don’t share my fear.  The studios have vaults full of words and phrases and titles trademarked.  They’ve been stockpiling for the titular apocalypse for over twenty years, according to archived articles I found in the New York Times (circa 1986) and other such sources.  The studios own entire books full of copyrighted titles that they can slap on a movie at will.  That means if you’re a fledgling writer with a title you’re just positive hasn’t been used before, chances are you’re not right.

Most writers know the very specific brand of agony that comes with inventing a movie title that perfectly encapsulates the story you’ve told, only to see in the papers that the same title is already in development.  Well, strap yourselves onto the torture rack because the pain’s only going to get worse, as more and more thesaural real estate is claimed.

I’m positive that this downtrend has plenty to do with why there have been so many sequels appearing over the last twenty years.  Surely, sequels happen largely out of audience popularity, and because of the monumental and simple financial rewards.  But it’s also, somewhere, got just a little something to do with the shortage of titles.

A related, disturbing trend is that there are plenty of movies that start out with one title, only to be switched to another.  Hancock is one such example.  Originally titled  Tonight, He Comes, last summer’s Will Smith superhero action comedy was yanked back and saddled with the main character’s surname instead, like an overzealous kid who runs out of the house without putting his winter coat on and is called back by his mom.  Personally, I felt that Tonight, He Comes was something of an unfortunate double-entendre, but better to go with that, than to lock up a more unusual title forever.  (Particularly because it’s still kind of an unfortunate double-entendre.)

Worst of all, some of the best titles ever imagined have already been used on movies that don’t earn them.  My personal favorite example is Hell Comes To Frogtown.  I literally purchased this movie on DVD just so the title on the spine can sit alongside all of my other, more high-minded DVDs.  It’s a glorious title, Hell Comes To Frogtown.   Of course with a title like that it was never going to aspire to be more than a midnight movie, but it could have been an outright classic of midnight cinema, to rank with Big Trouble In Little China or Mother, Jugs, & Speed.  Instead, it just kind of sags.  The movie only has to recommend it the deadpan genius of the opening line (“At the turn of the century there was a difference of opinion” – and then you see a nuclear mushroom cloud).  There is also the joy of the revelation that the “Hell” in the title refers to the main character, whose full name is Sam Hell, and who indeed eventually goes to Frogtown.  But the movie otherwise doesn’t live up to the title.  And now that title can never be used again.  It’s not like a remake is forthcoming.

So more often than not, the result is unambiguous, unambitious, utterly boring monikers clogging up the marquee.  There’s more senselessness and generic branding than ever.  That’s not an attack, believe it or not.  It’s just so hard to achieve art in the naming.  I’m sitting here looking at a list of recent and upcoming movies, and it hurts:

¨           Bangkok Dangerous sounds like something a generic Thai cab-driver would warn an American tourist.  (Or like something Short Round would say to Indiana Jones.  “Bangkok Dangerous!  Very, very dangerous!”)


¨           Pride And Glory could be a movie about almost anything, from almost any era.  It’s not like having an interesting title helped a seemingly similar movie, We Own The Night, but it doesn’t hurt to differentiate as much as possible when making a movie about tormented cops.  There’s only a few thousand entries in the genre.

¨           The Haunting Of Molly Hartley?  Okay, only who’s Molly Hartley and why might we care if she’s haunted?  I’m haunted.  Most of us are, and we make do without a movie.


¨           Twilight is surely a cool title, but they’re counting on the fact that the Goth kids won’t remember a not-very-old-at-all movie, which was a solid enough piece of old-style Hollywood the first time.  It had the great, recently departed Paul Newman, and Gene Hackman, and Reese Witherspoon’s kajoobies.  It might have been a low-key effort, but I’m not sure that pasty, pouty vampires will up the coolness quotient all that dramatically. 



¨           Beverly Hills Chihuahua is a movie that should only ever exist if it were a line-for-line remake, Gus Van Sant Psycho style, of the Eddie Murphy classic action-comedy, with a golden retriever in the role of Rosewood and a bulldog as Sgt. Taggart.


Some newer movies are taking the clever, post-modern tactic of overloading a title with words.  The more title words, the better.  For instance, just recently we’ve had Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and How to Lose Friends & Alienate People.  But this is a temporary fix at best, and the inevitable shorthand is somehow incredibly annoying.  It’s somehow cringe-worthy whenever people talk about how much they love Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – because they don’t say Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, they say “Eternal Sunshine.”  Them:  “Want to go see ‘Nick and Norah’?”  Them:  “Want to ‘Lose Friends’?”   That’s one way to do it, I guess.  Want to get punched in the face?


Using a one- or two- word character name is another thumb-in-the-dam tactic.  After all, it’s a fair bet that there are many more first names, last names, and nicknames than vocabulary words.  Examples are the recent Max Payne, or W.  This tactic is solid, because it’ll last as long as there are character names, which I feel has GOT to be longer than the stable of remaining title names will last.  But remember, fellow writers, you can title your movie with only one or two names – never three – unless your movie is about a political assassin.

Aspiring namers can also whip up a recipe for a new movie title combination by using some of of the most commonly-used prefixes.  I’ll use the two most common to illustrate: 

American + [blank] = [somewhat original movie title]

EX.:  American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Splendor, American Pie, American History X, The American President, An American Werewolf In London, An American Tail, American Gangster, American Pimp, American Psycho, American Gigolo, American Buffalo, American Zombie, and American Ninja.


Dead + [blank] = [barely original movie title]

EX.:  Dead Man, Dead Man Walking, Dead Poet’s Society, The Dead Pool, Dead Calm, Dead Again, Dead Man’s Shoes, Dead Presidents, Dead Ringers, Dead Heat, The Dead Zone… and I’m barely into the horror genre yet…

The above naming strategy may be about as original as Frank Caliendo’s never-ending John Madden impression, and I do not recommend it.


Sometimes a writer will put the pitch in the title.  “Jim Carrey is Yes Man!”  It’s a successful, if cynical, way to get your movie made.  But to those who have long memories and remember a popular movie with the same star a decade ago called Liar Liar, that particular example is a cue for sighs.  Likewise Zack and Miri Make A Porno, which gets the job done in a more original, daring fashion, even if, like so much Kevin Smith, it is awkwardly worded and a high-wire act on the tongue.


Speaking of tongues and awkwardness:  Be careful, fellow writers, of the risky move of swapping out one word of a pre-existing title.  Most recent example:  Body of Lies:  Is it a political spy movie with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio, or an early-90s erotic thriller with Willem Dafoe and Madonna?  [By the way: ewww.]  It might not be the topical subject matter alone which scared audiences away from the newer film.  I’m just saying.

All of which brings us full-circle to fear.  I wish I was writing this essay with the intention of presenting a corrective, or as a ninth-inning method of salvation.  But I’m not sure it’s forthcoming.  And if I did have the answer, even being the born giver I am, I would probably have to keep it to myself.  But tragically, no, I don’t know where the new movie titles are going to come from; rather, like everyone else, I’m watching them rapidly disappear every day. 


Just a couple weeks ago, I learned that the title I had selected as one of my horror stories is already well into production… as a talking-animal kid’s movie!  [Heaven help us; It was this.]  That’s not the worst of it – the scary part is that the title absolutely works either way!  So I don’t want to unduly alarm anybody, but we have to face the creeping truth:  The boogeyman is out from under the bed.  Hiding under the covers won’t work anymore.  He’s roaming around the room, headed straight for us, and our collective national flashlight is low on batteries. 

Get scared now.





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.



Cop Vs. Clown.

Posted: September 23, 2010 in Observations

This is a picture of the time when the cops arrested a clown in my old neighborhood.  I’m very excited to have unearthed it from the archives.  (For obvious reasons I didn’t get too close, but if you look closely enough, you can see the clown over the roof of the car in the foreground.)