Archive for the ‘Profanity’ Category

 

 

 

WHY

 

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

 

 

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

 

 

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

 

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– Jon Abrams.

 

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When kids stampede to movies like Twilight: Breaking Dawn and The Hunger Games, it’s easy to make fun.  But which one of us hasn’t gone a little overboard in our enthusiasm for a movie which may or may not deserve that level of ardor?  After all, back when I myself was a ‘tween’, I saw Demolition Man in the theater four times.  When it comes to fandom, there aren’t many of us who don’t live in a glass house, and we ought not confuse those stones we’re throwing with the skeletons in the closet.  (Pause briefly for the image of irony-deficient internet movie-nerds throwing skeletons from glass houses.)

Demolition Man is one of the more excessive and over-the-top blockbusters ever to come from producer Joel Silver (which is saying something), at a time when I couldn’t get enough of what he was selling — Lethal Weapon, Predator, Action Jackson, Die Hard, Road House, Lethal Weapon 2, Die Hard 2, Ricochet, The Last Boy Scout, Lethal Weapon 3 — you get the picture?  I was also getting deeper and deeper into a major comic book habit, which made Demolition Man the perfect storm.  It’s certainly one of the more blatantly comic-booky pictures to emerge from that the late-80s/early-90s action/sci-fi heyday.

A huge part of that comes from a stable of screenwriters which most notably featured Daniel Waters, who had written The Adventures Of Ford Fairlane for Silver and Batman Returns for Tim Burton, but whose most notable credit will probably always be Heathers, the darkest and wickedest of the 1980s teen movies.  Daniel Waters’ endlessly satirical mind could have plenty to do with the cynical streak which runs through Demolition Man. Just look at the naming of the characters — John Spartan, Simon Phoenix, Edgar Friendly, Lenina Huxley, Associate Bob, Alfredo Garcia, Dr. Raymond Cocteau, etc.  Barring Warren Ellis having zipped back to the early 1990s in a time machine, these names are conspicuously original and witty and/or comical and cartoonish.

The thing that makes Demolition Man such a bizarre anomaly is that it is an exact blend of interesting dystopian/utopian science-fiction commentary and gratuitous action-movie idiocy.  It’s almost as smart as it is dumb.  It’s like a kid took two flavors of Play-doh — clever and moronic — and smooshed them together.  Clearly this could only have been a collaboration, directly or indirectly, between Daniel Waters and Sylvester Stallone.

Stallone plays the aforementioned John Spartan, a supercop who is cryogenically frozen and then thawed decades later to help stop an old enemy, Simon Phoenix (Wesley Snipes), who has been thawed out before him.  Both men were frozen in a cryogenic jail, Spartan wrongly, because that was the way violent crimes were prosecuted in the 1990s.  (Check your history.)  When Spartan does his Rip (not Rob) Van Winkle and re-enters society, he finds that things are different:  No one says bad words, physical contact is illegal, crime is non-existent, and Taco Bell is a fine-dining establishment swank enough to make Nobu look like, well, Taco Bell.  Note:  This came a decade before Idiocracy!  About as tough as the cops of the future get is a young, mega-cute Sandra Bullock, bright-eyed and enthusiastic — not yet to unleash a few dozen terrible movies upon the face of cinema.

The joke is that things have gotten so nice and polite that by the time Simon Phoenix shows up, it’s a cinch for him to start a catastrophic crimewave threatening the very foundation of this fancy society.  Welsey Snipes is basically taking his Nino Brown character from New Jack City (which was already way over-the-top) and taking that into hyperdrive.  I don’t know if this movie is perceptive enough to recognize the racial overtones of the situation, but I do believe that Wesley Snipes is, and he gives a canny comedic performance as the worst possible nightmare of every “nice” white country club in America.

Stallone isn’t nearly as suited for comedy, but even that works in a way, since he feels like a bull in the china shop of manners.  This movie is also cinematically significant as being the first time Stallone demonstrated his affinity for wearing a beret, which he later put to use in two Expendables movies and counting.

I make no arguments for Demolition Man as some kind of lost or under-recognized classic.   It has the kind of inconsistent tone that suggests major differences from script to screen (this is reportedly not uncommon with Sylvester Stallone).  My uneducated guess is that Daniel Waters’ script was probably somewhat better than the movie, which is goofy, but fun.  The director, Marco Brambilla, has a mysteriously truncated IMDb filmography, and seems to have abandoned features entirely for music videos, apparently working as an abstract video artist — his site is kind of awesome.

As for me, I haven’t watched it in years.  I think if I were to watch it now, I would still like it, but not for the exact same reasons.  When I was a kid I thought Demolition Man was awesome enough to pay to see four times in a month.  Today I’m just a little more discerning, and not nearly as outwardly enthusiastic — although, full disclosure, I have seen The Raid twice theatrically so far.

But I tell you these things because I believe in keeping my skeletons out in the open, especially if I’m ever caught throwing stones.  My skeletons live happily in the glass house.  It’s more like a greenhouse, where the skeletons can do gardening.

Demolition Man is playing tonight and tomorrow night at 92yTribeca.  It’s part of their Beer Goggles series, so you can attend with your favorite frosty beverage.  Sounds about right.

Find me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Take my words with as big a helping of salt as you choose, since I have got to be the biggest Clint Eastwood fan this side of forty.  I have found something worth remembering and studying within every entry of his directorial output, even in the ones I don’t happen to prefer, and if the man himself actually appears in said entry, so much the better.  I do believe that Gran Torino has something important to say, and – forget what you may have read – it’s not about race.  That issue factors in here, of course, but not as much as most of the  reviews seem to think.  It’s not Clint’s way to hit you over the head with ideas about race.  Instead, in Gran Torino he’s talking about America, and the national character upon which America was built, and how we later generations were given that America and how we’re beginning to forget it.  It’s about the pussification of America, and what to do about it.

The reviews I’ve seen that use the word “racist” in conjunction with Gran Torino are simply stupid.  Clint has never once made a movie endorsing racist views –  on the contrary, in fact – and he isn’t about to start now.  He’s playing a character here; don’t ever confuse the story with the storyteller.  His character, Walt Kowalski, says plenty of racist things, but even he isn’t necessarily racist.  Pussies put so much value on words that they forget that, more than anything, men are defined by their actions.  Look at the actions, not the words.  When Walt sees how his young Hmong neighbor Sue handles herself bravely in an intimidating situation, he immediately warms to her.  When he sees her brother Thao help a lady with her spilt groceries after a couple other little shits laugh her off, Walt starts to see a kid worth knowing, worth toughening, worth ultimately saving.

Race in America has become THAT complicated, and some people are nearly that complicated:  Walt hates everybody equally, his use of racist epithets are primarily a method of distinction, not judgment.  He calls Asians “zipperheads” not necessarily because he hates all Asians – he calls them “zipperheads” simply because that’s what he has always called them.  Walt is so used to disappointment, from his chubby yuppie sons and their little-shit kids, from the pussy-ass gangstas walking his streets, from the young college-boy pussies who think they have all the answers, that at this point he hates everyone he meets on sight.  When people prove his hate to be justified, he growls.  When people prove their worth, he warms to them, even if he stubbornly refuses to drop the lingo.

Gran Torino is a vintage Malpaso production, with all the class and smarts that tag has always guaranteed.  Joel Cox edits with a pleasing rhythm, cinematographer Tom Stern provides an appropriately washed-out (and later, stark) palette, Clint’s son Kyle (with Michael Stevens) provide the neat score, and the script credited to Nick Shenck works just right, with an ending that even longtime Clint fans won’t see coming.  I really hope that Clint isn’t done with acting, and if he isn’t, I hope he directs himself again – he knows how to use Clint Eastwood as an actor.  He understands the history and audience expectations that come with a Clint Eastwood film, and he knows how to subvert, parody, and/or work alongside all of that.  I haven’t seen a Clint character spit this much since The Outlaw Josey Wales, and I would guess that the reference is very much intentional.  Love it.

Find me on Twitter:  @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

 

 

And now, my top ten favorites of 2000-2009 starts to get explosive, with

#6.  Team America: World Police (2004)

It was a strong decade for comedy, or maybe I just enjoyed comedies more because I needed them so much.  (Depressing-ass decade.)  But of the dozens and dozens of comedies I saw between 2000 and 2009, there was not a single one funnier than Team America.  The uncensored version in particular is a guarantee that if I watch it, I will literally have trouble breathing. That sex scene… The idea that world-class technicians such as Bill Pope (The Matrix, Spider-Man 2, Scott Pilgrim Vs. The World) spent all that time making that scene happen… It’s all simply breath-taking.

How did this movie happen?  Who let it happen?  Can we find them, and thank them from the bottom of our hearts?

Team America is a classic American action film in the Bruckheimer/Bay tradition, where Broadway megastar Gary Johnson is recruited by a top-secret anti-terrorism unit called “Team America”, who police the world.  Throughout his adventures, Gary makes friends, finds love, and learns how to use his amazing acting to save the world.  The villain of the movie is Kim Jong-Il, who, if you don’t read the New York Times, is a real person.  He’s a flamboyant dictator who rules North Korea.  It is not known if he actually owns a piano, or giant panthers.

In answer to my earlier question, how this movie happened is that Trey Parker and Matt Stone, the brilliant anarchic creators of Comedy Central’s South Park, are huge fans of both musical theater and weird old cartoons like Thunderbirds.  They’re also some of America’s most astute and sly social critics, and this movie is clearly their response to eight years of George Bush Jr.’s America.  How it happened the way it happened is that Matt and Trey had the power to get it made this way.  By all accounts, it will never happen this way again.  Team America is one big brilliant flash in the sky; in addition to all of the above it’s a tremendous satire of bombastic action films and absurd movie conventions.

The funniest part about Team America is realizing that guys like Michael Bay and Stephen Sommers totally didn’t get the joke – to the point where 2009’s G.I. Joe movie saw an Eiffel Tower scene that completely ripped off Team America’s!  There’s nothing better than comedy that has the balls to get right up under the nose of their targets.

This is brilliant satire, and at the same time, as immature and potty-mouthed as it gets.  Essential scene:  The “Pussies, dicks, and assholes” speech, obviously.

Oh yeah, and if you’re just hearing about this movie for the first time and you follow the link to that speech you will finally find what I have not mentioned so far but which you may already suspect:  Yes, the stars of Team America are marionettes.

As many great moments as we were given by Steve Carell, Seth Rogen, Will Ferrell, and all the other terrific comedians to emerge during the decade, those guys were all at a disadvantage, because they weren’t puppets.  If Matt Stone & Trey Parker didn’t bother to write a script for Team America and just did a shot-for-shot remake of some piece of shit like Van Helsing or Transformers 2, as long as they shot it with puppets they’d still have topped every other comedy all decade long.  Puppets are just that funny.

Winnebago Man