Archive for the ‘Reruns’ Category

I haven’t posted much in a while.  I alluded to the reasons here, in the post which so far represents the unintentional culmination of my October horror column (which I still hope to resurrect in some form before years’ end.  This damn optimism will never die!)

The point is, sometimes life gets in the way.  And sometimes life refuses to get out of the way.  And occasionally, life mercilessly pummels your face in.

So I haven’t been posting here much this month, but when I’m not around these parts I can be found over at Daily Grindhouse  — here are my recent pieces on VIGILANTE, GET CARTER, HIT MAN, GREMLINS 2, END OF WATCH, DREDD, LAWLESS, and DRIVE ANGRY — so please check them out.

And I’ve certainly been thinking plenty.  I’ve got enough thoughts stored up for several volumes worth of reviews and essays.  There’s a lot of writing to come from me.

But one thing I’ve been thinking about is a particular movie I watched last year.  I added VIVA RIVA! to my 2011 top ten list without any idea that a year later, it might have any parallel to my own life.  Quick synopsis:  A gasoline shortage in the Congo leads to violence and distress.  Quick synopsis of the past month:  A gasoline shortage in the Tri-State Area leads to violence and distress.  I’m not saying we had it worse here than they have it in a third-world country.  I’m only saying that it feels a lot less foreign to me.  Hurricane Sandy gave us a small taste of what is commonplace in many places in the rest of the world.  Having seen neighbors getting into screaming matches and fistfights over a tank of gas, I’ve had my perspective shifted just a little bit.  It wasn’t scary to me, though it was to some (understandably).  It was just weird.  Strip away a few modern-day conveniences and you start to learn some harsh truths — and surprising virtues — about people.

Anyway here’s the trailer, and then what I wrote in 2011:


VIVA RIVA! (Congo, released in U.S. in 2011)

What It’s About:

In a community where gasoline is a precious commodity, a devil-may-care rogue thief (Patsha Bey Mukuna) rips off a gas shipment from some very bad men, then runs into trouble when he falls for a local gangster’s girlfriend (Manie Malone.)

Why I Love It:

Because it’s electric.

Before I get to what makes this film so thrilling on a cultural level, let me start out by promising that it’s a solid crime film no matter what part of the world it’s from.  The plot relies on familiar noir tropes – the femme fatale, the murderous nemesis, the doomed hero – but where the story lacks in originality, the film more than makes up for it in atmosphere and intensity.

This is a low-budget movie shot entirely practically in a real community using primarily local talent, which gives the movie an added urgency and veracity.  This isn’t some ROAD WARRIOR future where gangs battle over gasoline — this is really happening in the world right now.  Imagine that; imagine the gasoline we Americans so take for granted being the currency that believably powers criminal enterprise in crowded, poverty-stricken villages.

But even amidst all that urgency and desperate verisimilitude, there’s also a harsh beauty to this movie.  The nightlife in Kinshasa feels vivid and seeped in detail and danger, and the sexuality in this movie has a fierceness and forthrightness rarely seen in European cinema, let alone puritanical American movies.  If there were rankings based on 2011′s most assertive (and acrobatic) cunnilingus scenes, this movie would have that position licked.

But it’s not just honest sex that makes this film so intriguing.  VIVA RIVA! serves as nothing less than the ignition of a nation’s film industry.  On the DVD, director Djo Tunda Wa Munga talks about how he specifically designed the film’s plot to be familiar and genre-based because there aren’t a whole lot of Congolese films out there, and he wanted this one to be as accessible as possible in order to gather the international appetite for more films from the Congo.  With VIVA RIVA!, we’re seeing an entire film industry start from the ground up, and that’s an exciting thing to watch.

Is It On Netflix Instant?:  Yes!

And find me, instantly, on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

Any survey of worldwide horror cinema, even one as haphazard as mine has been, would be incomplete without mention of the Hammer horror films, so let’s give them their due:

Hammer Film Productions was a British production company whose heyday was the late 1950s to the late 1970s.   The Hammer brand has actually returned recently, under new management, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to stick to the old-school.  Hammer made all kinds of movies – from science fiction to comedy to prehistoric adventure – ONE MILLION YEARS B.C., with Raquel Welch and Ray Harryhausen dinosaurs, is a personal favorite – but they are most renowned for the series of horror films that they churned out with methodical regularity.

Hammer was something of a repertory company for those years. You see many of the same names cropping up from film to film: Terence Fisher (director), Jack Asher (cinematographer), Jimmy Sangster (writer, who passed away in August of 2011), Anthony Hinds (writer), Michael Carreras (producer), and most famously, Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee, the stars who topline the Hammer film I’d like to discuss today…

HORROR OF DRACULA, originally released under the more simple but often-used title of DRACULA, is one of the earliest and probably best Hammer horror movies.  It is the one that introduced Christopher Lee and the late Peter Cushing to their most famous roles – Count Dracula and Professor Van Helsing, respectively – and in doing so, made them kings to future generations of brilliant film fanatics as diverse in talent and influence as George Lucas, Joe Dante, Peter Jackson, and Tim Burton (all of whom cast either of the two repeatedly, in their own films).  HORROR OF DRACULA also co-stars a young Michael Gough, who later appeared in Burton’s BATMAN and SLEEPY HOLLOW.

Horror Of Dracula is considered by many horror fans to be one of the truer adaptations of Bram Stoker’s novel, which is ironic because it takes so many liberties with the original plot in order to adapt it to film.  As in the novel, the story begins with Jonathan Harker travelling to Transylvania to meet with the mysterious Count, but under the guise of starting work as his librarian, not handling his real estate affairs.  Harker is really there with the intention of killing the evil Count (already a huge change from the book), but when given the chance he inexplicably chooses to stake the Count’s Bride rather than the Count himself.  Big mistake:  Dracula kills Harker.  (A massive change from the book.)

Van Helsing tracks down Dracula’s castle, arriving to find Harker turned into a vampire.  He dispatches his friend off-camera (though the Hammer films didn’t shy away from blood and murder on screen, they also used a fair amount of class and restraint) and heads back to London to inform Mina, who in this telling is not Harker’s fiancée.  Instead, Lucy is.   (More changes!)  As in the novel, Lucy is turned vampire by Dracula, although by the time she appears in the movie, she’s already been bitten.  She eventually becomes a full-on vampire and Van Helsing has to handle that also.

I could go on and on about the changes from the book – Dr. Seward’s role is reduced to a couple cameos as the family doctor, there is no Renfield, etc. – but I think what the scholars mean when they applaud HORROR OF DRACULA and its fidelity to Stoker’s novel is that the spirit of the adaptation feels right.   Dracula is the most compelling character in the movie – with a surprising minimum of dialogue, Christopher Lee plays him as a tall, dashing figure; ominous and threatening to men yet somehow magnetic to women (maybe he’s threatening to men because of that magnetism for women).

Moreover, Van Helsing is the true protagonist of the film, and a perfect counterbalance to Lee’s Dracula.  Dracula in this film is like a coiled snake or some other dangerous animal – he’s silent and still, bereft of emotion until he flares up and strikes at his victims – while in contrast, Van Helsing is an emotional figure, constantly fighting a horrific battle and laboring under the weight of constant loss, but he carries himself with the most English reserve.  I like the scene where Van Helsing sits in his babe lair, propped up with the most rigid posture, listening to audio tapes of his own voice, dictating vampire-killing methodology.  It’s a lonely life.

Also, a lot of the changes make sense, at least for a movie not much longer than an hour.  Van Helsing is always the most important of Dracula’s arch-enemies, and this particular story doesn’t suffer too much from the absence of Dr. Seward or the American, Quincey Morris.  Michael Gough’s character, Mina’s husband, is named Arthur, so in that way he’s a stand-in for the novel’s Holmwood.  Since a team eventually assembles by the novel’s latter half, it makes a kind of sense that Van Helsing and Harker were a vampire-fighting team.  At the very least, it’s a creative, thoughtful change rather than a travesty.  I could have done without the extra-long, extra-shticky scene at the shipping clerk’s office, but maybe that’s a mid-century British cinema thing.

Overall, HORROR OF DRACULA is a cool, classy Dracula film, and a great gateway into the Hammer world.

This essay originally appeared here last year, but I’m re-running it because Turner Classic Movies is showing HORROR OF DRACULA this evening.  Also airing will be 1957’s THE CURSE OF FRANKENSTEIN, 1959’s THE MUMMY, and 1964’s THE GORGON, all starring Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee.  It all starts tonight at 8pm! (Check local listings just to be sure.)


See me turn into a bat on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb


The Creature From The Black Lagoon wasthe last to arrive of the major Universal monsters. CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was released in 1954, over twenty years after Universal introduced Frankenstein’s Monster, his Bride, the Mummy, the Invisble Man, and Count Dracula, and over ten years later than the Wolf Man (longer if you count the Werewolf Of London).  The Creature, or the Gill-man as he’s often called, is the only Universal Monster to have arrived after World War II.  As such, he has a much different, maybe weirder thematic significance than any of the others.

Frankenstein is the Promethean myth, about the things man isn’t meant to mess with.  The Bride Of Frankenstein is about bad dates.  Dracula, like all vampires, is about lust and corruption.  The Mummy is about lost love and how creepy it can get.  The Invisible Man is absolute power corrupting absolutely.  The Wolf Man is about rage.  I can keep going with this stuff (and I have).  Zombies are about our fear of death.  King Kong is about the way that chicks dig jerks.  Godzilla is about post-war atomic anxiety.  And so on.  But back up for a minute — that last one’s gotta be important somehow.

GODZILLA, released in 1954, is widely acknowledged to be a film that reflects a nation’s very understandable reaction to the atomic bomb.  GODZILLAis literally about how American nuclear testing created this horrible (eventually lovable) mutant monster.  One of Japan’s most iconic film characters was inspired, in a way, by Japan’s greatest tragedy.  But check this out:  Look at Godzilla.

Now look at the Gill-man.

I’m not saying they’re identical twins or anything, but ya think there’s a distant family relationship there?

Released into theaters the same year.   Both reptilian (or amphibious).  Both up from out of the aquatic depths.  Both angry.

There are as many differences as similarities, but it is interesting to note that the Creature, like Godzilla and unlike most other famous monsters mentioned thus far, has origins more rooted in science than the supernatural.  Specifically, CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON (the movie) begins at the Big Bang!  As a narrator intones “In the beginning…” a explosion appears on screen, many times over.  This movie is based in science, explaining quite literally that when the earth was created, all sorts of creatures developed — while still allowing for the fact that an earth covered in water surely has some creatures as yet unseen.  The humans in this movie are on an ichthyological expedition down the Amazon, searching out rumors of a creature which bridges the evolutionary gap between land and sea.  They’re expecting to find fossils, however, not a six-foot-tall Gill-man with a yen for the lead scientist’s girlfriend.  Yup, somehow this cold-blooded fish on two legs gets all kinds of warm-blooded when he’s horny, so much so that he’s willing to kill.

The Creature could never be a truly American film legend without violence and awkward sexuality.

CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON is a fairly direct story, owing more to BEAUTY & THE BEAST or KING KONG than to any ancient legend (a la vampires, werewolves, or zombies).    Dr. David Reed brings along his girlfriend Kay, and for the first segment of the movie her main purpose is to smile and look terrific in short shorts and a one-piece.   Concurrently, the Gill-man is making the standard monster-movie roll-out — first he appears only as a webbed hand, retracting back into the lagoon.  Later, he assaults some local guides in their tent, in a scene which must have been far scarier in 1954 (these guys have comically oversized Prince Valiant hairdos that detract majorly from the suspense).  The Gill-man appears in full in a shock cameo, where the two lead male characters first venture into the lagoon.  For the first half of the movie though, he’s mainly been observing the expedition from a distance.  Things really change once Kay goes for a swim, and this still-remarkable scene happens:

The “underwater ballet” scene is weird, magical, ominous, bizarre, and eerie all at once.  It plays like a love scene, even though the Gill-man is essentially an underwater stalker.  We have to cut him some slack on his method, though — I mean, this is the first time he’s even seen a woman.  And imagine if the first woman you ever saw was Julie Adams!

Julie Adams may never have become a huge movie star, but maybe all some actors and actresses ever get is one iconic movie, and if that’s the case, then she sure shines brightly here.  Looking like a 1950s Jennifer Connelly, with an irresistible smile and an expert way with that wardrobe, Julie Adams is the thing most people remember about this movie, directly after the iconic make-up design of the Gill-man.  Nearly sixty years later, I guarantee Julie Adams is still inspiring crushes every time a young fella (or gal) sees this movie.  I’m not advocating the way the  Gill-man chooses to handle his crush, mind you — I’m just saying I can understand.

More back-and-forth ensues between the Gill-man and the expedition, but the movie’s end run begins when the Gill-man abducts Kay, and her human admirers have to rescue her from the deranged beast.  Unlike Ann Darrow and King Kong, there isn’t as much romantic chemistry between Kay and the Gill-man.  Maybe it’s because the Gill-man isn’t as tall.  (Chicks dig a tall guy.)  Eventually, of course, the human beings win out, shooting down the Gill-man and leaving him to the depths of the lagoon.  Since they never retrieved the body, the door was left wide open for sequels, and those of course happened.  CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON was a huge success, owing much of its appeal to having been released in 3-D.  The first sequel, REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, is most notable for being the first screen role for one Clinton Eastwood Jr.  (I’ve seen the movie but I don’t remember much of it besides Clint’s cameo), and the second sequel (which I haven’t seen) is best known for having the Gill-man wear clothes.

Now I kind of want to see that!

The Gill-man is actually one of the most influential screen monsters in history, having made semi-official appearances in movies like THE MONSTER SQUAD (where Stan Winston’s make-up design had a bit in common with Winston’s own creation of the Predator), and unofficial appearances in movies like the HELLBOY films.   According to Wikipedia, failed remakes have been mounted several times over the last thirty years, including attempts by John Landis, John Carpenter, Ivan Reitman, and Peter Jackson.  Newer productions continue to be set up and dismissed all the time — it seems inevitable that it will happen, but personally I’m not clamoring for it.  The Gill-man is my favorite old-school monster, next to the Wolf Man, and I kind of like the way he currently wanders the wilderness of all of our imaginations.

I love the Gill-man for all sorts of reasons.  I love the look of the character.  I love his roots in science, pseudo- as it may be.  I love the fact that he’s a horny bastard, and it makes him cranky.  And there’s one more thing:  If he has atomic origins, in a way he’s a son of Einstein.  And between that and the name, I have some hunches about his heritage.  I mean, I went to Hebrew school with at least three kids with the surname Gilman.  “Gill-man” is less refined, but it still looks mighty Hebraic from where I’m standing.  I’m gonna go with it.  I mean, there are plenty of Christianity-laden vampires and demons out there for the goyim to enjoy; couldn’t just this one monster share some heritage with us Jewish kids?

More ethnic pride every day on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

If you live near New York City you can see CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON all week at Film Forum, in its original 3-D no less!


Some of my constituents, particularly my very vocal hot-girl readership (there are a few), rightly point out that I keep going back to “old” movies.  To some of them, anything before the 1990s is considered “old.”  So I hate to disappoint, because 1961 is positively ancient, but THE INNOCENTS is too goddamn creepy for me to skip over without recommending.  Particularly now, in an era where people are somehow satisfied by PARANORMAL ACTIVITY movies where literally nothing happens, I have to make a case for a real-deal scary movie like this one.  Call it “old” if you want, but at least in THE INNOCENTS, you actually see the ghosts.

THE INNOCENTS has a remarkable and surprising literary pedigree — based on the novella The Turn Of The Screw by Henry James, and co-written by Truman Capote — but it’s as eerie as a ghost story gets.  I was asleep during most of English class, so I was surprised to find out that The Turn Of The Screw was a ghost story, and apparently a fairly sophisticated one.  I did’t know that they were writing spooky ghost stories with psychosexual subtext and supernatural over-text as far back as the Henry James era, but here’s the evidentiary pudding.

Deborah Kerr (FROM HERE TO ETERNITY, THE KING AND I) plays a repressed woman who is hired as a governess at a remote mansion in the country, where she’s meant to watch over these two spooky little kids, who have been corrupted by the haunted nature of the estate.  The ghosts aren’t just sightings — which are the scary, throat-catching highlights of the film — but they also seem to be halfway-possessions, which leads up to a still-shocking-even-by-today’s-standards kiss between the governess and the pre-adolescent boy.  It’s one of the creepiest kisses in cinematic history.

THE INNOCENTS is clearly influential, from the most direct, such as in the Nicole Kidman film THE OTHERS, to the more stylistic, such as in much of Guillermo Del Toro’s work and as in plenty of Asian horror cinema.  The stark, sweeping, remarkably crystalline black & white cinematography by Freddie Francis is absolutely a landmark.  The sound design is ingeniously eerie, as is the staging, courtesy of director Jack Clayton.  Fifty years later, this movie still retains its ability to haunt.

Martin Scorsese lists THE INNOCENTS as one of the scariest movies ever made.  Are you prepared to argue with Martin Scorsese about movies?  Or would you rather check out a great movie and be creeped out masterfully?


There is always a third, creepier option. Me on Twitter: @jonnyabomb


THE INNOCENTS is playing tonight at the Anthology Film Archives as part of their “From The Pen Of…” film series.






Film Forum’s phenomenal “Spaghetti” Westerns series was such a huge hit here in New York this summer that for one week only (starting today, August 29th, through September 4th), they are bringing back a beautiful print of my personal favorite anything, The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.  I’ve written about this big, beautiful, belligerent odyssey before, and if you haven’t read that yet, please take a minute to do so…




What can you say about your favorite movie?  This one is mine.

There is literally nothing I can write about The Good The Bad & The Ugly that hasn’t already been written about it, and by more famous names.  It’s not exactly an underrated movie.  It’s certainly the most straight-ahead entertaining Great Movie that regularly makes the greatest-ever lists.  (It clocked in prominently on my own all-time top-50.)

Watching it again recently, as I so often do, I was struck by the fact that it’s not a movie with much of an agenda beyond pure storytelling.  It’s not a grand statement on humanity or history.  It’s a story.  As the poster’s tagline (one of the best ever written), “For three men, the Civil War wasn’t hell.  It was PRACTICE!”  Sure, for some characters in this demented picaresque, war is hell, but for the three leads, those monosyllabic archetypes in the title, war is just an appropriately chaotic backdrop for their self-involved quest.  The whole thing is about three guys looking for buried treasure! 

Good, Bad, Ugly:  Does it really matter? They all have the same damn goal.

THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY is a callback to the previous Leone classic, FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, in that it stars the blond/brunet tandem of Clint Eastwood (The Good) and Lee Van Cleef (The Bad), although it escalates the setting and the scale (and the running time) to an operatic degree.  Whereas Lee Van Cleef’s General Mortimer was the true protagonist of the previous film, here his Setenza is the nastiest kind of villain.  On the other hand, Clint is basically playing the same guy — there’s not much background offered for him in any of the three Leone films, which is how “The Man With No Name” moniker stuck, despite not being wholly accurate.  (He was named “Joe” in A Fistful Of Dollars and Monco in For A Few Dollars More.)  But again, he seems like the same guy, and it’s totally believable that he’s just an enigmatic drifter who saunters through this unofficial trilogy, committing random acts of kindness and murder.  

What’s really fascinating to me about THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, the more I watch it, is that Eli Wallach (The Ugly) is truly the star of the movie.  The movie begins and ends with him, and he seems to have the most screen time by a wide margin.  After the first introductory scenes of The Good and The Bad, I don’t think either of them have a scene that doesn’t also include The Ugly.  He not only has a first and last name, but a ton of middle names (Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez) AND an alias (a.k.a. The Rat), and he is the only one with the backstory — a life of crime which he started in order to assist his sick parents, which has now alienated him from his brother the priest (classic-Italian-genre-cinema mainstay Luigi Pistilli). 

Meanwhile, Clint’s character does in fact have a name, even if it’s probably one that Tuco gave him – “Blondie” – and Van Cleef is referred to as “Angel-Eyes” – which is hilarious if it was also given him by Tuco, but either way is still an alias.  These two guys are flippin’ awesome, striking and iconic, but they don’t run as deep.  THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY is really Tuco’s movie.

Again, the underrated scriptwriting of Leone and his staff and the accurately-praised career-highlight score of Morricone, along with the cinematography of Tonino Delli Colli, have everything to do with the perfection of THE GOOD THE BAD & THE UGLY, but the importance of the casting of Eli Wallach to the tone of the movie should not be underestimated.  He brings a wealth of serious training to the role, but also a go-for-broke sense of humor.  There’s a real mischievous sparkle in Tuco’s eye – he’s a quintessential survivor and a classic rogue.  Wallach really commits to this role – you couldn’t call him handsome in this movie, and his accent is as solid as any gringo has ever pulled off.  And he’s funny.  God DAMN.  Holy shit.  This movie is so damn funny, without ever losing its mythic grandeur.

It’s weird though – for a movie that defines its three main characters in such rigid terms, “good,” “bad,” and “ugly,” the morality (or faltering degree of such) isn’t remotely as rigid.  Clint’s character doesn’t do much good for anyone outside of offering and lighting a couple of cigars, and even Angel-Eyes, as unrelentingly violent as he can be, clearly operates under a certain code of behavior.  Tuco doesn’t seem to have any rules or boundaries or philosophy – just greed, gluttony, and self-preservation – but at least we have a faint suggestion of how he became that way, so even he isn’t strictly “Ugly.” 

So it’s not a morality play.  It’s just a story.  It’s just a story, but it’s the one I’d watch all the way through, any time of night or day, right now if I could.

Try me.

Take a shot at my noose on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

When Starship Troopers was released, the TV spots went heavy on the use of Blur’s “Song #2” (Woo-hoo!) and explosions and the Melrose Place prettiness of its cast.   I remember seeing those ads.  I remember how the marketing went overboard to make Starship Troopers look like, for example, Independence Day, from the year before, the kind of hooting-and-hollering us-versus-them supermovie that raked in cash like dead leaves throughout the 1990s. 

This is the part where I normally go, “This movie is SO not that.”

Only this movie is so totally, absolutely, completely that.

It’s also more than that, as an ingenious satire of the big dumb ugly-American blockbusters that were popular at the time (and are even moreso now — how YOU doing, Transformers franchise?)  Starship Troopers was written by Ed Neumeier and directed by Paul Verhoeven, the devilish tandem previously responsible for Robocop, one of the great satires of any decade.  These guys have the tools  — state-of-the-art special effects, smooth cinematography by Jost Vacano, crisp editing by Mark Goldblatt and Caroline Ross (Terminator 2: Judgement Day), a triumphant score by the late Basil Poledouris (Conan The Barbarian) — to produce a thoroughly rousing action epic, and the brilliant perversion of Starship Troopers is that they totally did. 

Starship Troopers is as well-made, visceral, and stirring as any other action film of the 1990s, even predicting the disturbing carnage of Saving Private Ryan by a year, but while it’s played straight, its soul is anything but earnest.  Starship Troopers was originally a novel by Robert Heinlein, which I haven’t read, but by every account it’s not a very faithful adaptation.  The basic premise is that in the distant future, humanity is colonizing planets and facing competition/resistance from literal giant “bugs” whose home planet is excellently named Klendathu.  As the story opens, this war against the bugs has been going on for years, and human teens are recruited right out of high school to enlist and see combat.  Military service is expected of them, and also generally desired by them.  Most of the kids in the movie are totally enthusiastic to sign up and suit up.  One reason is that the armed forces are co-ed, which, because this is a Paul Verhoeven movie, means shower scenes.  The other reason is that these bugs are nasty — gigantic, spiky, slimy beetle things — which of course stands in counterpoint to the almost-comical prettiness of the movie’s heroes (including a pre-Charlie-Sheen Denise Richards, and not counting Jake Busey). 

Starship Troopers confused mainstream audiences and humorless critics as much as it delighted those with sensibilities more finely attuned to skepticism, cynicism, and irony.  The original release is often classified as a “flop”, which isn’t technically true — it made money, but only a little, which isn’t viewed as a success because of how much it cost.  What is true is that many of the “straights” were turned off to Starship Troopers.  Here in America we seem to like our blockbusters the same way we like our wars:  Unambiguous, neatly resolved, with as little consideration as to the thoughts of the enemy as possible.  Verhoeven uses conspicuous facist imagery straight out of Leni Riefenstahl in his depictions of the surging Space Marines, and unsurprisingly many critics of the movie missed the point.  The masses don’t much enjoy these sorts of dangerous ideas either.  We want to see our armed forces as Captain America, and everyone they battle as The Red Skull.  I’m not necessarily criticizing that instinct.  I’m the same way.

But I also happen to believe that the point Neumeier and Verhoeven are making is a viable one:  That war is violence, and engaging in violence makes monsters of all of us.  If you disagree with me, I invite you to see how you feel after reading this news article which I read just this morning.  If we really love our troops, we can show it by not sending them away to face (and occasionally to become) monsters if it isn’t absolutely necessary.

Or we can just keep on squashing the bugs and enjoy watching those green guts ooze out.  There’s plenty of fun in that too.

Starship Troopers is the midnight movie Friday and Saturday at Brooklyn’s Nitehawk Cinema.

Find me there, or on Twitter: @jonnyabomb

Masterpiece.  Masterpiece.  Masterpiece.  Masterpiece.  I almost don’t want to write about Unforgiven, not because it’s been written about to death but because I could write about it all day (and you’ve seen the length of some of the articles I write, so you can believe me.)  It’s one of my top five favorite movies, it is among the zeniths of arguably the greatest career in American movies, and it has what is in my opinion one of the greatest scripts ever brought to screen.

The truth is that almost anybody could have made a good movie with the script (originally titled “The Cut-Whore Killings”) by David Webb Peoples, but of course Clint was the best man for the job, because he brought the full weight of his literally-legendary cinematic persona to it.  He also brought out the humor in it, which is something I notice that people scarcely mention about Unforgiven.  Clint’s humor is such a part of his films.  Clint’s brand of humor is a light touch – gentle and breezy, so subtle you could miss it sometimes.  Why would you ever think that the guy with that squinty glare was joking?  It’s easy to overlook.  But you’d never care about William Munny’s friendship with Ned Logan, and you’d never feel the way you do about what happens to Ned and what Will does about it, if you didn’t have those light moments of humor that pass like gusts throughout the early going.

Unforgiven showcases what is maybe Clint’s greatest acting performance, as understated as ever but with vast reserves of rage and loss just beneath the surface.  Every other actor in the movie rises to that level — particularly Gene Hackman, who won the Academy Award for his performance as the charmingly down-home yet viciously despotic Little Bill Daggett.  Morgan Freeman is wonderful as always as William Munny’s trusted friend, Ned Logan, bringing a needed warmth to the movie.  I’ve read examinations of Unforgiven that accuse the film of dodging the issue of race in the old West, since the presence of Morgan Freeman automatically makes it pertinent.  I don’t buy those critiques.  Ned’s eventual fate has everything to do with race, whether or not it was originally written that way, and despite the fact that the matter of race is never overtly stated or discussed.  Unforgiven chooses to portray the matter using the most subtle method possible — with casting.  What happens to Ned would be horrible if it happened to anyone.  But when it happens to Morgan Freeman, there is a historic context that doesn’t need to be spoken.

Everything about Unforgiven evinces this theme, which I personally find so appealing as a mission statement:  Emotional power can still be derived from subtety and understatement.  Eastwood’s insistence on choosing and staying loyal to like-minded collaborators has everything to do with the lasting impact that is taken away from every viewing of Unforgiven.   The score by jazz composer Lennie Niehaus is spare but unforgettable.  The production design by Eastwood’s longtime collaborator Henry Bumstead is absorbing and utterly, invisibly convincing.  The most invisible cinematic art of all is editing, and the work done on this film by editor Joel Cox should not be overlooked.  (And it wasn’t, by the Academy Awards that year.)

And then there’s Jack Green’s cinematography in Unforgiven – it’s probably my favorite look of any movie ever.  I wish that every movie looked like Unforgiven, but then I guess they wouldn’t be Unforgiven.  It’s an important thing to talk about, how a movie looks.  So many people write about movies, but never talk about what they look like.  They talk about the script, which you can’t see, but not the photography, which you can.  They talk about the most obvious virtues, like actors and their appearances, but not the next most obvious, and that’s the reason why stars look as good as they do.  Movies are moving pictures, that’s what they are.  Few pictures move me like Unforgiven, and yeah, in this case I know for a fact it’s because of how good the script is, and how good the actors are, but I also know that it has plenty to do with how it looks.  And that’s a credit to Jack Green.  For his work alone, Unforgiven demands to be looked at on as big a screen as possible.

Unforgiven screens tonight FOR FREE! in Brooklyn Bridge Park

And you can find more from me here:  @jonnyabomb





If you have been reading this page for a while (thank you), then you have noticed that I tend to rhapsodize over the films of the Coen brothers.  Believe it or not, there are some Coen Bros. movies that I don’t care for very much.

Raising Arizona isn’t one of those.  I care for Raising Arizona very much.  It’s one of my favorite of their movies.  It’s one of my favorite movies.  It’s half a cartoon and half a fable, and somehow it feels more genuine than most dramatic fiction.  Maybe it’s that ending.

Raising Arizona arrived in 1987, three years after the Coens’ debut, Blood Simple.  That same year also saw the release of Evil Dead 2.  That’s no coincidence.  In between Blood Simple and Raising Arizona, the Coens worked on Crimewave with their buddy Sam Raimi.  Crimewave is a hard movie to track down, and one of the few movies in either Coen or Raimi catalogue that I haven’t seen; by most accounts it didn’t work and none of the principles seem particularly rushed to mention it.  That’s almost besides the point, though – it’s little surprise that the Coens were co-conspirators with Raimi early on, since they’re all pranksters at heart.  They’re also exceedingly capable and distinctive filmmakers, but even with all of the mainstream success and accolades they all enjoy today, their best movies still have that puckish spirit to this day.

But on Raising Arizona, the similarities have never been so apparent, primarily in the fluid and ingenious yet hyperactive and deranged camerawork (by eventual Men In Black director Barry Sonnenfeld, who also shot Blood Simple and moved on from the Coens after Miller’s Crossing).  Look at every single scene that involves the mythic Leonard Smalls (Randall “Tex” Cobb), that whirlwind force of nature who is conjured out of a nightmare and loosed upon the world when Hi and Ed steal one of the Arizona quints – particularly the early scenes, such as the one where the camera roves off-road and into the Arizona household.  It’s pure Evil Dead 2.  It’s the famous “Dead-cam” – that point-of-view roaming from the woods to the cabin that torments Bruce Campbell so relentlessly.  Same thing here, only it’s from the point of view of a mud-crusted bounty hunter on a roaring motorcycle.

That’s the first thing I focused on during this latest viewing of Raising Arizona.  Another fascinating detail is that star Nicolas Cage was just 23 when he immortalized the role of H.I. McDunnough.  23 – six or seven years younger than co-star Holly Hunter, yet never less than totally convincing and totally capable of delivering the tricky tragicomic tone.  Whenever people crap on Nic Cage for some of his modern-day film choices, I just remember that he gave the world this, and give him a pass.  (Nobody ever craps on Holly Hunter, at least – she’s just constantly terrific, and nowhere more than in this movie.)

I also checked out some of the reviews of the day.  Some of the most important and influential critics, such as Pauline Kael and Roger Ebert, didn’t understand the significance of what they were looking at, and either underrated or dismissed what time has proven to be one of the more original and dynamic American comedies to date.

But really, the one thing that sticks with me more and more every time I watch Raising Arizona (which is fairly frequently) is the performance of Trey Wilson, as furniture titan Nathan Arizona.  Trey Wilson was a character actor who died at the shockingly young age of 40, two years after he totally nailed this role.  What’s so great, and so underrated, about what Trey Wilson does here, is that he needs to be a standard Coen-movie blowhard, a real loud and shouty and slapsticky-character, but then he needs to surprise with his understanding and forgiveness late in the film.  There’s one line in particular, yes the one about how much he loves his wife Florence, that the rest of the movie gives us no great reason to believe, but Wilson’s delivery makes it sound like the truest oath ever uttered.  And it’s clear that he’s not just saying it to Hi and Ed, but also to himself.  He’s getting across an entire ethos of parenting and marriage and love in one relatively brief scene.  That’s not easy business.

This is one reason that Raising Arizona has always resonated with me.  I think the craziest comedies always need that one key scene, which is almost always laugh-free and totally heartfelt.  All the best comedies have that scene.  (Ghostbusters does.)

There are more personal reasons for my love of this movie.  Longtime Coen collaborator Carter Burwell’s astoundingly great score, built in part on American folk music, uses some Pete Seeger cues that go all the way back to my childhood.  (My parents were big Pete Seeger fans.)  Even without that personal connection, this is the kind of score that’s impossible to forget, and it lives in your head for days after you’re done watching the movie.

Did I mention that I watched Raising Arizona this time with my three-year-old niece?  She really dug it, and later on, she reminded me of the best reason to keep on watching this movie for years to come:

“That was a really funny movie.”

One of the funniest and most quotable movies of the last thirty years, Raising Arizona is one of my true favorites, and I don’t think that anyone can now argue against this movie’s excellence.
Raising Arizona is playing tonight at McCarren Park as part of the “SummerScreen” series.
Find me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb

BERNIE is a friendly little film about friendship, truth, and murder, and what’s more, it has the feel of something new: I’ve been playing around with the term “documockumentary.”  The restlessly creative director, Richard Linklater, wrote the movie with Skip Hollandsworth, the journalist who wrote the article in Texas Monthly upon which this fictionalized true-life account was based.  The story is a whopper; its telling is even better.

In small-town Texas, (Carthage to be exact), Miss Marjorie Nugent, an elderly, church-going woman whose departed husband left behind a sizable wealth, was murdered by the town’s assistant mortician, Bernie Tiede.  Marjorie wasn’t a beloved figure in town, but she and Bernie were best of friends, to the point where she rewrote her will in order to leave all her money to him.  After killing Marjorie, Bernie hid the body and carried on for nine whole months as if it hadn’t happened.  Once he was finally caught, Bernie immediately confessed to the crime, yet there are plenty in Carthage who still refuse to believe that he did it.  Marjorie may not have been beloved, but Bernie was, and it’s an old story that perception counts for plenty in the court of public opinion.

It’s a pleasing irony that BERNIE the movie feels so much like a documentary, considering that Bernie and Marjorie are played by Jack Black and Shirley MacLaine, two of the most outsized film actors on the planet.  Jack Black is known as a pop-comic barely equalled in modern comedy for his energy and anarchic enthusiasm, whereas Shirley MacLaine has, over the course of a film career that has seen her go charisma for charisma against massive stars the likes of Clint Eastwood, Dolly Parton, Jack Nicholson, and Frank Sinatra, built up an on-screen and off-screen persona as a formidable battle-axe of a lady.  For what Linklater is up to with BERNIE, he couldn’t have cast it any more perfectly.  Is it possible that Bernie was quite as boundlessly spry as Jack Black is?  Is it possible that Marjorie was nearly as intimidating as Shirley MacLaine is?  Maybe so and maybe not, but that’s definitely the way their friends and neighbors seemed to perceive them.

What makes the movie feel so fresh and so enjoyable is that Linklater, in a narrative masterstroke, has stocked the movie with a mixture of local Texas-area actors and actual Carthage townspeople, many of whom actually knew Bernie and Marjorie.  The movie is structured like a documentary, where the peripheral characters are interviewed about their experiences with Bernie and Marjorie and their knowledge and opinions of the crime, while the actors “recreate” the dramatic scenes in between.

This gives the movie an uncommon sense of local atmosphere and believability (the older fella who describes Texas geography is worth admission all by his own self), but also a hugely comical friction, considering that we’re watching real people interact with real-deal Hollywood movie stars.  While Shirley MacLaine either doesn’t, can’t, or chooses not to disappear fully into character (which isn’t a huge deal since, let’s be honest, she ain’t in the movie for as long), Jack Black gives one of his very greatest performances as the sprightly Bernie Tiede.

Jack Black is a guy who it’s somehow become easy to take for granted.  He started out doing brief roles in baroque movies like MARS ATTACKS! and DEMOLITION MAN, started gaining steam in the alt-comedy scene with Mr. Show and Tenacious D, and then broke huge with his revelatory supporting role in HIGH FIDELITY and with his over-charged lead role in Linklater’s own SCHOOL OF ROCK.  Like any major comedy star, he’s ended up in as many bad movies as good ones, which has seemed to put him in the Robin Williams category in too many minds.  I hope that enough people see BERNIE to be reminded of what a phenomenal talent Jack Black is.

For one thing, he’s really playing a character here, not doing a riff on what has come to be recognizable as the hyperactive “Jack Black” persona.  He’s actually using that expectation against you, as he plays a very different person so very well.  It helps that Bernie isn’t exactly a low-energy role — Jack gets to channel that contagious energy into another direction.  There is a key scene where Bernie plays the lead in a community-theater version of The Music Man where Black gets to unleash the full force of his remarkable performing ability, and it’s actually one of the best musical moments we’re likely to see on screen all year.  But it’s not Tenacious D and it’s not KUNG FU PANDA.  It’s something very unlike any role Black has played before, which makes it all the more rewarding.

If you, as many people, see Jack as “the indie-rock Belushi”, it’s another layer of humor to see him play a guy who sings along with gospel music in the car, sings like an angel at church, acts with the most proper Southernly table manners, and, if he isn’t gay, sure doesn’t take much interest in the ladies other than in the most sisterly way.  That last point is one of the most fascinating parts of the story — Linklater and Black play Bernie’s sexuality as kind of an artful dodge.  By all reasonable appearances, Bernie is a gay man, but while the question is raised, it never seems to ultimately matter that much.  It’s especially rewarding to see how the very Southern town of Carthage loves and embraces Bernie despite every sign of him being outwardly homosexual besides the -sexual.  As Northerners, we probably don’t expect that kind of tolerance.  And maybe there isn’t even that much tolerance — maybe people just loved Bernie THAT much.

This is where the third central performance of the movie comes in.  Matthew McConaughey plays Danny Buck Davidson, Carthage’s District Attorney (another real person), who is determined to prosecute Bernie for the murder of an old widow despite the overwhelming pro-Bernie sentiment in town. McConaughey, who made such a strong comedic impression all the way back in Linklater’s DAZED AND CONFUSED and always seems to be at his best as an eccentric character actor rather than a straight-ahead leading man, not only seems at home in the world in this movie but also does something somewhat extraordinary when he’s the odd man out:  He’s both the movie’s straight man and a satirical figure at the same time.  McConaughey’s reactions as the townsfolk harangue him to let that poor Bernie go are hysterical, but so too are his brag-heavy pronouncements to every camera in a five-mile radius.  Danny Buck comes off as the voice of reason (sure Bernie is a nice guy, but he also did kill somebody) and as totally silly at the same time.  It’s just another aspect of the warm, inclusive anima of the movie, which has fun with its characters even while recognizing that everyone is a human being with thoughts and feelings and all are worth hearing out, whether they’re on the right track or otherwise.

I have so much affection for this movie.  It’s modest, in that it’s not filled with space robots, farting cartoons, or punching people in latex suits, but narratively speaking it’s a high-wire act that I think is pulled off with wit and charm. Again, it’s one of Jack Black’s best performances, and it’s one of Richard Linklater’s most successful and accessible experiments.  Most incredibly, unlike so many movies, there isn’t a single dull moment in BERNIE.  It’s thoroughly entertaining and engaging, and if I see many more movies I enjoyed as much this year, I’ll be feeling pretty good about life.

BERNIE is available now on DVD and Blu-Ray.

Find me on Twitter!: @jonnyabomb

True Grit was my favorite movie of 2010.  There wasn’t much hesitation there.  I saw it and I made that decision right quick.  Normally there’s a fair amount more deliberation in my mind over such declarations, but movies so impeccably mounted and  raucously enjoyable on a simultaneous basis are rare enough that it gave me the instant courage to say so.  I admit it’s a tenuous climb out on a slender limb to advocate for the greatness of a Coen Brothers movie, but that’s just me.  I take the big risks. 

In True Grit, the great Jeff Bridges plays Marshal Reuben “Rooster” Cogburn, a grouchy slob of a drunk with an eyepatch over one eye and a burning enthusiasm for frontier justice in the other.  True Grit was originally a novel by Charles Portis, and then it was a movie in 1969, in the cool-down phase of John Wayne’s long career.  I regret to admit that I haven’t seen that earlier movie, but I have read the book so I can tell you that the Coen Brothers’ rendition is eminently faithful to Portis in both spirit and text.

True Grit is the closest we’ve come so far to a mainstream, crowd-pleasing Coen Brothers movie.  It has all the virtues and eccentricities and technical brilliance that the Coens have taught us to expect from them, but it also is just a bit more conventional than usual.  The heroes are actually heroic, for one thing.  There’s the aforementioned Jeff Bridges, as charismatic and ingratiating as ever, even when he’s playing a character that often looks as lousy as he often acts.  There’s Matt Damon as Texas Ranger LaBoeuf (pronounced “La Beef”), the uptight lawman who ends up as a reluctant teammate.   Matt Damon is hilarious in this movie, toning down his impeccable way of making an audience believe he can do anything, until he appears to be a total dunce, only to end up surprising you all over again.

But before these two guys enter into the story, and after they leave it too, there’s Mattie Ross, played by the young Hailee Steinfeld.  Mattie’s father was killed by an outlaw named Tom Chaney (Josh Brolin), and she wants him brought to justice. She hires Marshall Cogburn, because she’s heard he has “true grit,” and insists that she get to accompany him in the pursuit.  (For a pre-adolescent in a man’s belchy, farty world, she’s ridiculously, brilliantly persuasive.)  LaBoeuf, already in pursuit of Chaney across state lines, joins them.  Nobody gets along. 

The confrontational banter between the three main characters is some of the most pure joy that movies can provide.  Obviously the Coens provide some of the most distinct and musical dialogue of any writers around, but it should be said that a lot of the dialogue in this film comes directly from Portis’ novel.  The Coens, as one of the most unique filmmaking forces to emerge from America in the past thirty years, aren’t exactly known for their skillful facility with adaptations, but they should be — it is a part of their resume.  Their planned adaptations of James Dickey’s To The White Sea and Elmore Leonard’s Cuba Libre have yet to be realized, but of course they reached new heights with their 2007 adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s No Country For Old Men.  They also know their detective fiction; as their debut, Blood Simple, referenced the work of Dashiell Hammett, and their most popular movie, The Big Lebowski, is essentially a take-off of The Big Sleep, originally a Raymond Chandler novel.  The Coens know how to enliven the work and the influence of others while bringing their own individualistic stamp to it.  They know their pulp literature and they know their film history, and they bring all of it to bear in True Grit.

Did someone say “bear”?


Yeah, there’s a lot of humor in True Grit, both ridiculous and profound.  The trailers and promotional materials have emphasized the pure badass-ness of the movie – and that’s there, no mistake – but it’s a wonderful surprise to discover how hysterical it is.  It’s funny even in its most tragic moments, just like real life.  There’s a black humor and a sharp tang to the unsentimental nature of the movie, and it’s totally refreshing to experience, particularly at a time of year that can either go too sweet or too sour.  The tone of True Grit isn’t too treacly and it isn’t too harsh.  It’s just right.  (There goes that bear reference again…)

True Grit is really kind of perfect, from the imagery captured by the legendary Roger Deakins, to the wonderful score by underrated Coen regular Carter Burwell, to the two memorably uglied-up and weirdly compelling villains of the piece, Josh Brolin and Barry Pepper as Lucky Ned.  It should get repetitive to note how dependably watchable Matt Damon and the Coens are, but it really doesn’t.  They’re that good.  Everyone involved in this project is working at the peak of their respective craft. 

But in the end, if there’s a defining feature of this movie, it will be that unusual, indelible relationship between the two riding companions, Rooster Cogburn and Mattie Ross, and there are no two more ideal actors on the planet (or in the throughways of time and space) to play them than Jeff Bridges and Hailee Steinfeld.  There’s something both truly real-world relatable and movie-perfect that happens in the alchemy of casting and characters here.  The magic that occurs between the two of them make True Grit something truly special, even by the absurdly high standards that the Coen Brothers have set for themselves and for the rest of us. 


True Grit is now playing at MoMA, since it has been officially added to their library of notable and classic films.



As something are a bonus, here are some random thoughts and observations that passed through my head as I watched True Grit on subsequent occasions and couldn’t settle on how to edit into my main review:

  • One thing that cracks me up is that this is the Coens’ idea of a kids’ movie (*).  I completely approve, don’t get me wrong, but it brings to mind the notion of a Clint Eastwood Preparatory School For Girls.  (Actually, that very thing happened once, in The Beguiled, and it didn’t work out too well for anyone.)


  • True Grit is as close as the Coens will probably ever get to convention, but it’s still as unusually wonderful as any of their original creations.  It is, actually, aside from all the talk of killing, not unsuitable for younger folks.  There’s a keen moral streak running through this movie, distinctly and typically contradictingly American.  And it’s an absolute celebration of language.


  • Between the first and second times I saw the movie, I read the original novel by Charles Portis.  It’s striking to see how closely the Coens stuck to the original text in their adaptation.  Some of the stuff you’d swear they invented were already there, although some, like the bear suit guy and the hanging man, were Coen additions.  Much of the dialogue is spoken verbatim from the book, and how wonderful that is.


  • Mattie doesn’t shed a tear when presented with her father’s dead body.  She doesn’t shed a tear, until later on, when she’s handed his gun.  Then the water trickles down.  This is a distinctly American touch.


  • In both the book and the film, the major setpieces are more often structured around language than incident.  (The haggling over horses, the courtroom scene, the campfire scenes, etc.)  In other words, the conversations are as important and as thrilling, if not moreso, than the shootouts.


  • J.K. Simmons vocal cameo as Lawyer Daggett!  (Daggett is a  character with slightly more of a presence in the Portis book.)



  • The climactic snakepit scene is very strongly foreshadowed, the closer you watch the movie.


  • Barry Pepper (as the badman Lucky Ned) is such a great, unfairly-unheralded actor.  Just always good.


  • The guy who makes all those crazy animal sounds, believe it or not, is in the book.  The Coens didn’t make him up, although I would’ve sworn to it.


  • Tom Chaney turns out to be exactly the way Mattie had him pegged, a wretch and a whiner.  Dumb: “I must think on my situation and how I may improve it.”  And mopily repetitive:  “Everything is against me.”  (Pretty cool of leading-man-type Josh Brolin to be willing to play such a lame-ass.)


  • Speaking of which, again I say, how ridiculously consistent is Matt Damon?  Does that dude have to be so good at everything?  Obviously Jeff Bridges and little Hailee Steinfeld are totally incredible in this movie, but don’t take what Matt Damon does here for granted.   He lets himself be the butt of the joke, almost until you forget that he isn’t.  So well done, this supporting act.


  • The valiant end of Mattie’s horse just guts me, every single time.


  • In fact, the end of the movie is so damn sad.  Bittersweet, I guess, but seeing as it’s about how quick life can go, even leavened with humor and optimism as it is, that’s a sad topic.


  • Some of the all-time great lines in literature are in this movie:

“Fill your hand, you sonuvabitch!”  [Bridges’ reading trounces Wayne’s, I venture to say.]

“The love of decency does not abide in you.”

“I’ve grown old.” [Best part is the Chewbacca sigh that Bridges does right after he says it.]

“Time just gets away from us.”

“This is like women talking.”

The last one is how I plan to end most of my conversations from now on, by the way.

This is like women talking.  Just watch this movie already.