Archive for the ‘Tributes’ Category

 

 

These are some words I wrote four years ago about a comedian who many people never got the chance to know, one worth rediscovering.

 

 

 

“You know how it ends? We all die, that’s how it fucking ends, and you can’t bring your iPod. Sorry!” — Mike DeStefano.

 

 

Mike DeStefano was a known name in New York comedy, steadily gaining in widespread fame. I’m ashamed to say that I hadn’t heard of him until the seventh season of Last Comic Standing, where he made the final five contestants, and at first, I didn’t even like him that much. His voice was loud and abrasive and exactly reminiscent of those big-mouths who stand out in Bronx crowds, the kind of pricks who spill peanuts and popcorn on you in the stands at a Yankees game. He definitely had a distinctive look, unconventional among many of today’s comedians, with his spiky gray hair and tattooed arms and a furrowed brow that looks not unlike the Scottish actor Brian Cox. DeStefano’s manner was equally brash and confrontational – when he got voted off the show, he told America what they could do with their vote.

 

 

That’s the moment I became a fan. A little late to the party, sure, but I made up for lost time by enjoying the tons of clips of DeStefano’s comedy on YouTube and elsewhere. His one recorded album is called OK KARMA and it remains a refreshing blast of noxious energy and battered honesty. It’s still one of my favorite comedy albums ever. It helped that he was a Bronx guy – I grew up the next town over, admittedly in somewhat more comfortable circumstances, but believe me, I know a ton of guys like Mike DeStefano, so I know a little something about what he’s talking about. I’ve walked the same beat, though his stories are way better. If I say I know a ton of guys like him, I’ve rarely heard anyone express themselves as clearly, as simply, and as recognizably. He might sound a little angry, but that’s good, isn’t it? There’s a lot about this world that should make you angry. If you can live in contemporary American society without getting angry sometimes, then I hope you like the taste of sand, because you’re an ostrich up to your neck in it.

 

 

DeStefano’s comedy was unapologetically angry, born of real hard living and pain. In the startling episode of WTF where he was interviewed by host Marc Maron, he laid out the wreckage of his past in raw detail. DeStefano used Maron’s show, one of the most thoughtful and probing venues anywhere in America, to talk about his HIV-positive status. It was just one more brave admission in a long line of them. DeStefano’s rap wasn’t intended to get sympathy or accolades for himself – he talked about his substance abuse issues and his HIV diagnosis in order to show that anyone could overcome similar histories and still live a worthy life. He spoke about recovery and comedy with the zeal of a preacher, and it was both inspiring and hilarious. This was a guy who was on the front lines of truth-telling. He spoke to his own truth, emboldened with the confidence speaking truth gives a person, and personally speaking, it was a truth that I can recognize and that I happen to believe. Every word I ever heard him say about religion, race, and sexuality was more accurate and concise than anybody I ever agreed with who wasn’t nearly as funny. Maybe that’s why I was initially, temporarily put off to his comedy: Because I knew it was true. This was a great comic who had important things to say.

 

 

Mike DeStefano died on Sunday March 6th, at the age of 44.

 

 

 

 

He had been touring a one-man show based on his life and experiences, to strong reviews. Could have been the breakthrough he deserved. I never met this man, and the loss belongs to his family and friends alone, but I still can’t help feeling a great sadness. We really can’t afford to lose people like this one. There aren’t a lot of people in the public eye who are so fearless in speaking such brutal, twisted, and – yes – loving thoughts. Mike DeStefano was a truth-belching bulldog of zen and comedy, and we can only hope that he was able to inspire enough people and change enough minds in his brief career that losing him so soon makes any kind of cosmic sense.

 

 

Mike-Destefano

 

 

 

Peter O’Toole (1932-2013)

Posted: December 15, 2013 in Tributes

Peter O'Toole

The first time I saw Peter O’Toole was either in CLUB PARADISE or CREATOR.  Neither of those are movies I suspect meant much to him, or to most of the film fans who love him best.  CLUB PARADISE would have been on my adolescent radar due to its being a Harold Ramis joint.  I may have came for Rick Moranis and Eugene Levy, but I came away with the sense that the old British guy was pretty cool, in a louche way.  He was a little more soulful in CREATOR, I think.  Unfortunately I don’t remember much from that movie beside Mariel Hemingway being naked in it, but I’ll grant the whole thing was over my head at the time and I focused on the parts I could handle.

CLUB PARADISE

Club Paradise (1986)  Creator (1985)
Creator (1985)

What I didn’t know at the time, as a foetal cinemaphile, was how important an acting career Peter O’Toole had.  He was a stage actor in England, with an emphasis on Shakespeare, before his worldwide success after taking on the lead in David Lean’s LAWRENCE OF ARABIA.  O’Toole was startlingly beautiful in that film, and in several to follow.  After much hard living, his looks eventually faded to the point where he resembled everyone’s favorite grandma, but seriously, there will be few O’Toole retrospectives today which will avoid fixating upon his appearance in his youth.

Peter O'Toole as Lawrence of Arabia

He had the presence and the skill to match: If we must measure an actor in terms of Academy Award nominations, it should be noted that he was nominated for eight over the course of his career, never taking one home until 2003, when they gave him the honorary Oscar.  The majority of those nominations (including those from LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, BECKET, and GOODBYE, MR. CHIPS) came from the first phase of his career, when he was anchoring weighty and ambitious epics and dramas.  Even a cursory glance over his filmography would lead the armchair observer to conclude that O’Toole quickly lost interest in being an international star, or at least had other pressing concerns.  That’s generally how you go from LORD JIM to Zaltar in SUPERGIRL.

LORD JIM

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The book HELLRAISERS by Robert Sellers is an irresistible, if gossipy, read, as it lumps O’Toole in with the other great problem drinkers of the British stage and the worldwide screen — Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Oliver Reed.  It’s problematic to link four phenomenal careers on the basis of off-screen alcohol-fueled antics alone, but this is a heavily-detailed account which aggregates a lot of interesting information on the films as much as the brawls and the womanizing.  O’Toole outlived them all, and his quotes stand out as the wittiest in a book that has no shortage of quotable moments.

HELLRAISERS

It certainly isn’t that O’Toole never appeared in a worthy film after the early 1970s; more that his roles, especially in the better films, relied on O’Toole as an icon, a shorthand for a film’s desire for cinematic import, rather than as an actor.  MY FAVORITE YEAR, for which he was again nominated by the Academy, is the best first example of this trend.  For every one like THE LAST EMPEROR, there are more like KING RALPH.  O’Toole, along with Julie Christie, was trotted out for 2004’s TROY as an attempt to give the movie more of a grand imprimatur than it deserved.  It’s arguable that his last truly noteworthy and memorable role was as Anton Ego, the intimidating food critic, in 2007’s RATATOUILLE.

TROY

RATATOUILLE

As unknowable as O’Toole was in his most famous role in LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, that’s how wry and witty I remember him from some of those junkier paycheck movies he did, and how he is in the great under-recognized cult classic THE STUNT MAN, and certainly that’s how he was in print and interviews.  Looking up some of those would be a nice way to remember him today.

The Stunt Man

I’ve only written about Peter O’Toole and his movies twice, and both times rather briefly, but the films I chose to write about are films which represent two of his finest moments.  Here are my pieces on THE STUNT MAN (1980) and of course LAWRENCE OF ARABIA (1962).  Thanks for reading.

The Stunt Man

@jonnyabomb

 

 

One of my very favorite writers ever has passed away.  If you are a person who loves reading as much as I do, you know that, while losing the person is solely the loss of his or her loved ones, losing the author can be devastating to the appreciative longtime reader.  Their voice is in your head.  You carry their influence with you, particularly if you are a reader who also writes.  That’s a loss, even if it’s nothing compared to what the family and friends must be going through.

 

If you’ve never read his stories, I urge you to change that pronto, for your own sake.  When you do, don’t thank me, thank him.  For a full list of everything he ever did, visit Elmore Leonard’s excellent personal website.

 

For my own meager tribute, please click over to Daily Grindhouse to read the few words I could muster.  Seriously, I hope that’s a little bit adequate, because it’s all the blood I could squeeze from the stone.  I’m really down about this.  Below I put together an appropriately sloppy and scrappy photo montage of moments from Elmore Leonard’s career, to match my state of mind.

 

The only two Elmore Leonard film adaptations I’ve written about at any length are 52 PICK-UP and KILLSHOT.  I wrote a little bit about JACKIE BROWN in my Pam Grier overview.

More is sure to come, eventually.

 

@jonnyabomb

 

 

 

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Out Of Sight

 

      

 

 

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Jackie Brown

 

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Vanity

 

Gandolfini

I can’t actually do this right now.  Sometimes it just hits you.  This world, and this life.  I really can’t.  But I wanted to put something up on my site in honor of an unforgettable talent, who has for quite a while been much more than just one performance, regardless of how monumental and iconic that one performance was.

Even still.

This scene right here. THIS scene, right now.

The entire song if you’d like to hear it (and the episode is “Long Term Parking” from Season Five):

 

Commendatori

 

Commendatori

 

 

Michael Mann At 70.

Posted: February 5, 2013 in Michael Mann, Tributes

Michael Mann

The internet reminds me that today is a day to consider Michael Mann.  But when it comes to your greatest inspirations, it doesn’t take a birthday or a new release to celebrate the work that means so much to you.  It’s a year-round process.  If I’m stuck for something to watch, in goes a Michael Mann movie.  If I’m in the mood for excellence, in goes a Michael Mann movie.  If I’m looking for focus, in goes a Michael Mann movie.  There’s almost no director in film history whose movies I’d rather watch.  Taking an entire filmography into consideration, he’d be my guy.  (It’s him and Sergio Leone, basically.)

Why do I love Michael Mann’s movies?  Energy.  Atmosphere.  Sound.  Picture.  Geography.  Faces.  Intensity.  Airlessness.  Density.  Psychology.  Ambition.  Restlessness.  Composure.  Deliberation.  Urgency.  Ferocity.  Thoughtfulness.

He’s one of the rare action directors who shows an obvious interest in women and the uniqueness of femininity.  You couldn’t get more macho than a Michael Mann film, yet he works harder than most male filmmakers to pair his male leads with equally strong women.  His movies center around acts of violence and codes of dispassionate professionalism, yet nonetheless have a seemingly incongruous romantic air.  The male characters in these movies don’t disregard or disrespect women.  They aren’t afraid of women.  They desire women, often yearn for sustained partnerships, even if the unions are fleeting or doomed.  This gives the films a tension, a cool warmth, unique to cinema.

And in a Woody Allen world, here’s the rare Jewish-American director who presents the male of the species with the smarts that go without saying, only — and this is the important part — coupled with toughness .  Michael Mann doesn’t make movies about nebbishes, and he doesn’t make movies for them either.  Not for nothing, I suspect, was James Caan the first leading man in a Mann feature (THIEF).  Not for nothing, I suspect, was THE KEEP his second feature.  Jewishness isn’t an overt theme of Mann’s work, and identifiably Jewish characters in his work are rare — Lowell Bergman in THE INSIDER and Ace Bernstein in the TV series LUCK are two of the few — but it’s the identity of the lifework that matters, the assertiveness and the authorship.  Michael Mann characters don’t stammer or fumble or shit themselves — they have style, strength, and determination.  I went to Hebrew school, folks.  On a molecular level, this stuff matters.

When we talk about the modern greats, we talk about guys like Spielberg and Scorsese, who I adore and admire, but these are fairly conventional guys by comparison — Michael Mann is working at the same level, but his work often borders on the experimental.  He’s earned a seat at the contemporary Round Table.  This is a life’s work with consistency and scarcely-paralleled craftsmanship from outset to present day.  There’s a sense of purpose in every film he makes.  Because some will always need to argue, there are those who would debate Mann’s level of success from film to film, but god damn, people — how rare is it in mainstream American film that a director works so hard to push the boundaries of the medium on a technological level while also being so absorbed by story, character, and performance?  The following poster gallery represents a survey of an unparalleled career, and even the nitpickers in the crowd, whatever they think of the ones that they didn’t appreciate as much, will be forced to agree that this is a redoubtable array of films.

THIEF (1981) The Keep (1983) Manhunter (1986)  Miami Vice Crime Story The Last of the Mohicans (1992) Heat (1995) The Insider (1999) Ali (2001) Collateral (2004) Miami Vice (2006) Public Enemies (2009) Luck (tv)

That’s one epic resume you’re looking at.  Holy hell, do I ever hope he keeps on making these things for as long as humanly possible.  As far as a birthday tribute to a man I never met goes, that’s the most important wish I could ever put forth.  Health, clarity of mind, financing, and movies.  Many, many more movies.

Beyond the above, I haven’t written at length about many of Michael Mann’s movies — since my thoughts on HEAT or MANHUNTER alone could fill a book apiece — but here are my scattered thoughts on the three most recent feature-film releases (click on the images for the words):

Collateral (2004)

Miami Vice (2006)

Public Enemies (2009)

@jonnyabomb

R.I.P. Leo O’Brien.  He played “Richie Green” in THE LAST DRAGON, maybe the best character in the movie.  Definitely the one with all the best lines.

I don’t do irony well.  I tend to take the movies I like in the spirit they were intended.  If a movie feels genuine to me, then my affection for it is genuine.  THE LAST DRAGON is a kid’s movie, but one of the few I will still watch from time to time because it’s guaranteed to lift my mood.  If I’m being completely honest, I love this movie way more than I love most conventionally accepted “classic films.”  Given the choice, I’d opt without hesitation to watch this movie over CITIZEN KANE, CASABLANCA, and even THE GODFATHER. There, it’s out.  I said it.

I accept that no one will ever let me call this a good movie, but the rest of the world is going to have to accept my insistence that this is a one-of-a- kind genre occurrence, and for that alone it deserves respect.  There aren’t two like it.  As the story of young Leroy “Bruce Leroy” Green (Taimak) and his mission to defend popular VJ Laura Charles (Vanity) against evil arcade owner Eddie Arkadian (Chris Murney) and local bully The Shogun Of Harlem (Julius J. Carry III), THE LAST DRAGON stands alone in its genre — it’s the first, last, and only Motown-kung fu-action-romantic-comedy musical.  There’s so much genuine goodness about THE LAST DRAGON.  It encourages the mild-mannered to stand up for themselves.  It teaches kids about Eastern philosophy.  It teaches kids about Bruce Lee.  It gave early-career employment to legendary character-actors Mike Starr, Chazz Palminteri, and William H. Macy.  It has music from Willie Hutch, Stevie Wonder, and Vanity.  It has a kid (Leo O’Brien) who’s been tied up by bad guys escaping capture by break-dancing out of the ropes.

This movie is a positive force for the universe.  I watch it and I smile.  It’s one of my few nostalgic indulgences – but it’s still fun to watch as an adult.  I fear the potential remake, despite the involvement of Sam Jackson and the RZA and despite the personal assurance I’ve received from Taimak himself (!).  THE LAST DRAGON was lightning in a bottle, and let’s face it, it’s not actually possible to catch lightning in a bottle… unless a genuine miracle is involved.

This post originally appeared on Rupert Pupkin Speaks.  Give ’em a visit!

Follow Taimak on Twitter:  @iamtaimak

On March 16th of this past year, I attended a screening at the 92Y Tribeca of BODY SLAM (1986), attended by its director, the literally legendary Hal Needham.  BODY SLAM was the last theatrical feature he directed, and probably not his best, although it was still a whole mess of fun, like pretty much everything else he’s ever done.  Now, Hal Needham is arguably best known to the mainstream as the director of THE CANNONBALL RUN, but that really is only a small part of what makes him a Hollywood legend.

Honestly, I sat in awe through most of the Q&A after the movie, since I know more than most people do about Hal Needham’s career, and still I knew only a little.  Hal Needham doesn’t have a household-auteur name like Spielberg or Scorsese, but rest assured that his is an essential career in American movies.  If you look over his list of credits, you will see that he worked on over a hundred films in the stunt department, whether as a coordinator, actor, or stunt performer, or some combination henceforth.  Here is a partial list of movies with his vital contributions (I’m sticking to the ones I personally have seen or else we’ll literally be here all day):

THE SPIRIT OF ST. LOUIS, THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, DONOVAN’S REEF, 4 FOR TEXAS, MAJOR DUNDEE, OUR MAN FLINT, BANDOLERO!, 100 RIFLES, LITTLE BIG MAN, RIO LOBO, THE NIGHT STALKER, THE CULPEPPER CATTLE CO., WHITE LIGHTNING, BLAZING SADDLES, CHINATOWN, 3 THE HARD WAY, THE LONGEST YARD, and THE END.

Before getting into directing, Hal Needham was Hollywood’s number-one go-to stunt man. He made over 300 movies and broke over 50 bones.

Here are some other facts about Hal Needham, which I excitedly sent out on Twitter after meeting the man in person:

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Hal Needham worked on THE MAN WHO SHOT LIBERTY VALANCE, and was in the bar fight in DONOVAN’S REEF.  Both alongside John Wayne & Lee Marvin.

(Here’s a pair of Hal Needham bar-fight scenes:)

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Hal Needham jumped from one airplane to another, mid-flight.

Not Hal Needham. But it could be.

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Hal Needham drank with Billy Wilder.

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Hal Needham was best pals with Burt Reynolds and lived for fourteen years in his guest house, “rent-free.”  This was during the time when Burt Reynolds was the biggest box-office draw in the country.  Reportedly, it was exactly the party it sounds like.

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Hal Needham got paid $25,000 to drive a car straight into a concrete wall.  “It was easy,” he told us.

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Hal Needham escaped a Russian invasion and lost his hearing in an explosion in Czechoslavakia.

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When Hal Needham talks about the Rat Pack, he refers to Sinatra, Martin, and Davis as “Frank, Dean, and Sammy.”  BECAUSE HE KNEW THEM PERSONALLY.

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Hal Needham broke the sound barrier in a car.

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Remember the blonde who drives the car with Adrienne Barbeau in THE CANNONBALL RUN?

Hal Needham did that too.

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Hal Needham gave Jackie Chan and everybody else who does it the idea to run the blooper reel over the end credits.  I asked him if he ever saw ANCHORMAN, specifically the end credits, which hilariously just rerun the blooper reel of THE CANNONBALL RUN.  (Adam McKay and Will Ferrell, along with their protegee Danny McBride, are obviously familiar with the Needham catalogue.  EASTBOUND & DOWN is a reference to the theme song of SMOKEY & THE BANDIT.)  Hal Needham told me he hasn’t seen ANCHORMAN, but would check it out.

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Many of the above stories are written about at length in Hal Needham’s autobiography, STUNT MAN!

That’s Hal Needham on the cover, by the way.  You’ll recognize him because he’s on fire.  (He said it didn’t hurt.)

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When writing about Hal Needham’s accomplishments, it starts to feel like making up Chuck Norris Facts.  The difference?  Hal Needham is a badass for real.

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At the screening and Q&A, Hal Needham was a great sport, and a great, great storyteller.   The crowd was cool and asked about almost everything I would have asked.  So most of my questions were about THE VILLAIN.  (Hal Needham started Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career!)  THE VILLAIN is a little-remembered comedy-Western which Needham treated as a live-action Tex Avery cartoon.  Arnold plays the well-intentioned but dopey hero, Handsome Stranger, Ann-Margret is at her all-time most luscious as Charming Jones, and Kirk Douglas plays the Wile E. Coyote styled black-hatted title character, Cactus Jack (which is sometimes the title of the movie in some markets).  Paul Lynde has a very funny cameo as Indian chief Nervous Elk, and Western-movie veteran Strother Martin plays the excellently-named Parody Jones.  Look guys, I’m not gonna argue that this is a great movie in the classical sense, but goddamn did it make me laugh.  And I really shouldn’t have glossed over just how attractive Ann-Margaret is in the movie.  It’s about as good as a lady can, possibly.

BODY SLAM is equally silly — like THE VILLAIN, probably second-tier Needham — but it has plenty of moments.  This was at the peak of pro-wrestling’s popularity in the 1980s, and it’s easy to see why a stuntman like Needham would feel an affinity for pro-wrestlers, who are also under-appreciated athletes.  Like John Carpenter, he also saw the star power of “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, who was famous in the wrestling as a ‘heel’ but in movies like BODY SLAM, THEY LIVE, and HELL COMES TO FROGTOWN* — *the greatest movie title of all time — made a thoroughly likable, blue-collar, and naturally funny (also very, very Canadian) protagonist.  Most of BODY SLAM is concerned with the antics of Dirk Benedict’s character, as the fast-talking, somewhat shady promoter who takes on Piper’s character as a client.  It’s also concerned with ogling Tanya Roberts, as the love interest prone to wearing very, very, very small bikinis.  I was way into all of that as a kid — Dirk Benedict was on The A-Team, of course, and I knew Tanya Roberts from Charlie’s Angels and SHEENA: QUEEN OF THE JUNGLE.  Throw in Billy Barty, Sydney Lassick, and Captain Lou Albano, and there you go, another [very strange and occasionally awkward] party.  The wrestling scenes are great, though.  I’m also a big fan of the Latin-freestyle theme song, though a saner person might not be.

Can’t find a trailer, but here are some clips from BODY SLAM:

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That’s Hal Needham, man.  He likes to make movies with pretty girls and silly gags, some amiable shit-talking and braggadocio, and a couple big crazy stunts.  If he wasn’t so busy jumping from planes and trains, he could have been a big hit as a staffer at MAD.  He’s not one who’s out to change the world with his art.  He just wants to brighten up your day.  Sometimes that’s a noble cause.  I know I’m someone who believes it to be.

In the end, there was little I could say to the man besides “It’s an honor. Your movies have given me and my friends a lot of happy times.”  I don’t tend to get overly excited about meeting famous people.  I had a fun run-in with Stan Lee once, and meeting Clint Eastwood was a highlight, but yeah I will admit this was a really cool experience.  For a Yankee born and bred, I’m a huge fan of the work of this man who is quite possibly the most successful Southern filmmaker of his era.

I’m finally posting this tribute officially because I read some good news for once:  It was announced today that Hal Needham is getting an honorary Academy Award for his decades of pioneering stunt work.  (Read about it here and here!)  It’s well-deserved, especially considering how the ‘major’ awards show so little appreciation of the value that stunt performers bring to action cinema.  We wouldn’t have most of our favorite movies without them.  They literally risk their necks for our entertainment.  (To be fair, they do usually pull the babes also.  It’s a trade-off!)

Hal Needham is one of the most prolific stuntmen ever to work in American movies, and as a director he created some endlessly enjoyable party movies.  Obviously I’m willing to praise his work all day, but it’s great to see that he’s finally getting his due from his peers, his industry, and other fancy people in tuxedos.

Me on Twitter:  @jonnyabomb