Celluloid Heroes and Real Villains

The song stuck in my head this week is “Celluloid Heroes” by The Kinks. It is unapologetically nostalgic and verges on mawkish, but that is the point. After the horror on Friday in Newtown, I heard this on Little Steven’s Underground Garage and settled into its familiar comforts, but not for long.

Everybody’s a dreamer
Everybody’s a star
Everybody’s in show biz
It doesn’t matter who you are

The song got me thinking about whether the murderer of those 27 people in Newtown was seeking the same kind of fame. If so, the media surely gave it to him. Notice I did not use his name, and I won’t. His name should be forgotten. What we should remember is that we allowed this to happen, and we will allow it again.

We live in our own reality shows. The Newtown killer ended his season hoping for the best ratings of his pathetic life. It is certain that he did not come to this eruption of rage alone. We will learn every facet of his life: whether he was mentally ill or abused or bullied, on medication, and whether he was taught to shoot by the mother he shot while she slept or not. I already know that he shot each victim multiple times, thanks to his military-style rifle and hi-cap magazines.

I am a gun owner. I have fired guns since I was a child. My father had an unhealthy interest in guns to the last act of his life. I myself flirted with “tactical fetishism” as I will call it. We worship the military and the militarized police. Did you call the mass murder the “shooter”? Did you think “double tap” when I said he shot children twice in the face? Why do we glamorize it?

This isn’t meant as a deflection against the argument for stricter gun control. Mental health care is one part of the issue. Read my friend Chad Eagleton’s post about his violent mentally ill brother, whose only treatment option appears to be life in prison. Another good read is by my friend Neliza Drew, who also grew up with guns, and sees that despite the protests to the contrary, we no longer see them as tools.

To quote Marc MacYoung–who has most likely been shot at more often than you have–to many of us, guns and other weapons are talismans against fear. Violent crime is down, yet fear is at an all-time high. Kids play indoors. We don’t walk the streets. We bought 283,000 guns on the Friday after Thanksgiving alone, and I am sure the gun shops are doing great business after the Newtown massacre from frightened parents and gun lovers afraid of one more law. The fact is, the guns used in this massacre, the Aurora massacre and the Clackamas mall massacre were purchased legally.

mall ninja

So your “criminals don’t obey laws” argument is invalid. Even in New Jersey, one of the strictest states, there is no differentiation between a shotgun for hunting and a military-style rifle. NJ has a 15 round limit on magazines, but you can buy them online, have your 100 round Beta-C mag shipped to a buddy in Pennsy. Why not a waiting period for any military style weapon? The 2nd Amendment? The Constitution also says I have the right to assemble for a petition of grievances, but I need a permit to protest or hold a parade. I may be caged in a “free speech zone.” I find that more offensive to the rights supposedly protected in the Constitution and Bill of Rights than asking me to undergo a psychological evaluation before I purchase an easily concealable weapon or a military rifle.

No one began hunting with military rifles until the Assault Weapons Ban was lifted, because gun owners wanted to justify our fetishism of military-style equipment. We didn’t want a sporterized rifle. Those look lame! We want the same toys you get if you undergo military training, without the responsibility. We want a mil-spec wristwatch and a tactical pen.  A few years back gun owners made fun of the tactical violence geeks–we called them mall ninjas–but now they have taken over. Doomsday preppers. Bug-out baggers. Fear junkies.

There are 270 million guns in America, and depending on your definition, 10 to 30,000 deaths due to them annually. Cars kill more, but you need a car to get to work. And you are licensed, registered, and tested. And our car regulations are some of the laxest out there as well, which is one reason we have so many traffic fatalities. We need to have realistic laws concerning the most dangerous of weapons. A shotgun without a pistol grip is a hunting gun. A .223 semi-automatic rifle with a pistol grip is a military weapon. Personally, I think we should be able to own them: with proper licensing, training, testing and psychiatric evaluation. You can own a machine gun in many states. They are so highly regulated that they haven’t been used in a crime since the law was enacted in 1934. Not so, with the “safer” semi-auto versions. Why? The regulations.

It is a very emotional time. We should use this emotion to force a conversation about guns and our refusal to treat them in a rational manner. This is from someone who fired a Thompson submachine gun with his groomsmen. I like guns, I just think we can get them too easily, and we like them for the wrong reasons. Changing the culture will take decades. We see guns as magic wands, and violence and revenge as valid solutions. Changing that takes generations. Limiting access to military-style weapons can be enacted in a month with the proper will.

If you believe strongly enough in gun control, you will not waver. You will not be distracted by another issue next week. You will not vote for the NRA’s poster boy because he also wants to lower your taxes. You must have focus, on one issue, like the NRA does. That is why they are so powerful, not because of some cabal of rich conservatives. They tell politicians “vote for gun control and our members will vote against you, no matter what.” Those tactics must be used against them.

Stop signs and traffic laws don’t protect us from all accidents, but what road would you rather drive on? One with state troopers hiding in the bushes and lines painted for the lanes, or in Russia, where you make rules?


“Kin I git another peek?”

Unfairly maligned revisionist Western about a pair of gunmen who clean up Western towns- Ed Harris and Viggo Mortensen. They’ve been working together so long that they;’re closer than fellow soldiers in a long war. They get hired to bring law to a frontier town where Randall Bragg (Jeremy Irons) and his men have had their way for too long. Ed’s damn quick with a gun, and Viggo lugs around an 8-gauge shotgun that looks like two lengths of sewer pipe over his shoulder, capable of peppering entire gangs with buckshot with one pull of the trigger.

It shoots through little houses on the prairie.

Things get complicated when a Renee Zellweger, “a woman who ain’t married or a whore,” comes to town. Ed falls for her hard, and is quite innocent in the ways of women. And as a woman in the wild west, she has a way of “always landing on her feet.” It’s not as straightforward as 3:10 to Yuma, nor as contemplative as The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford, but somewhere in-between. I enjoyed the characters and the story, and while the end seems a bit rushed, it works. If you’re expecting a simple shoot-out movie, you may be angry at Zellweger’s intrusion, but she’s much of the point of the tale- just listen when she’s dismissed from the “man talk” and performs scales on her piano. Passive-aggressive much? We also get a fine bit part by Lance Henriksen as another hired gun. If you like modern westerns, this is a good one, based on a Robert “Spenser” Parker novel.
8 out of 12 gauges

Gran Torino

There are great stories, and great characters; the rare times they converge, and you have a classic. Gran Torino has a great character, and a good story; but it just may be a classic. Because Clint has crafted a character we instantly dislike, yet want to spend more and more time with. A character this good can make a minor classic all on his own.

We meet Walt at the funeral of his wife, where he’s smoldering as his grandchildren show up, in football jerseys and bare midriffs. His sons mutter to each other about whose kids will disappoint him more. The stage is set- an irascible old man who no one is good enough for, living alone in “the old neighborhood” where he’s a final holdout who hasn’t sold his house to immigrants. His craggy face is sculpted in a constant sneer; he doesn’t like what he sees. The repast is at his home, where his sons mumble with their wives about whether it’s time for him to sell it, and his pierced granddaughter is eyeing the classic car that gives the film its title, as she sneaks a smoke in the garage.

Naming a movie after a car when it’s not a road movie is an odd choice, but it makes sense. The 1972 Gran Torino is rough, unforgiving relic from a bygone era. Walt treasures his- he helped build it on the Ford assembly line, and keeps it looking brand new in his garage or driveway. We never even see him drive it, or take enjoyment from it. He just sits on his porch with his Lab, Daisy, drinking PBR’s and sneering at the sorry state of disrepair his Asian neighbors keep their homes in. He’s the kind of man who feels great pain at the sight of a patchy lawn. Next door, the family is celebrating the birth of a child. There are two teenagers in the family, a shy, hunched over boy named Thao and a smart and independent girl named Sue.

They are Hmong- the original “boat people” who sided with us in the Vietnam war, and fled here when we retreated. It’s to the film’s credit that they cast unknowns in the parts, let the actors ad-lib in their own language, and portray their customs. Like Walt, we feel like we’re in a foreign country surrounded by them. the infamous “Get off my lawn!” scene, where he aims the M1 Garand he fought with in Korea at some Asian gangbangers ensues when Thao’s cousins begin hassling him to join up with them. They stumble onto his lawn, and he goes outside. When Thao’s family try to thank him for his help, he tells them to get off his lawn too.


The next day they shower him with gifts- flowers and food. He shuns them, but Sue persists. He may call her names, but they seem to connect because she is a polite and courteous person who is sure of herself. She’s not offended or afraid of him. He can’t scare her off. Eventually he makes an unlikely bond with her brother Thao, without giving away too much of the plot. Thao and his family, the upright side, keep banging heads with his criminal cousins. But Walt’s a fixer. He fixes things. Eventually he’s worn down by Sue’s hospitality, and goes to a family party. Good food, free beer, and good company get the better of him. He may call them zips or gooks to their faces, but he doesn’t hate them. It’s apparent that he hates the shabby state of the neighborhood more than anything else.

The n-word is just about the only slur not used in this movie. I was just in a forum discussion about whether Walt is racist or not, which I find beside the point. He’s a misanthrope; he says it plainly that he wants to be left alone, and slurs are an easy way to make that so. As the story unfolds, we don’t get any obvious revelations of why he is the way he is. It’s left to us to piece together. He’s a child of the Depression and a veteran of the forgotten war, the Korean conflict. They didn’t get parades, or monuments, and our troops retreated in shame. The battle was a slaughter, with stacks of Chinese and Korean soldiers used as sandbags.

The local priest sniffs around too- Walt’s wife made him promise to get Walt to give confession, as if she knew the burden he carried. The film eschews the predictable; it is not a revenge tale, and while it is one of redemption, it knows that sometimes we are beyond it. Walt spars verbally with the young pastor, badgers Thao into becoming a man, and faces his own shortcomings- that he never got to know his own sons. The ending is satisfying, but not the one we wanted. Sure, we want to see Dirty Old Man Harry drive around town in his beat-up truck, being a bad-ass and facing down thugs forever. We know he’ll fix the problem with the thugs- but we just don’t know how.

The movie lives and dies on Eastwood’s performance, easily his best in years. Walt is a brick wall; he never blinks, never winks at you. Even his sense of humor is brash. We see him with his barber (Marge’s husband from Fargo) trading insults and ethnic slurs, and telling awful jokes with his drinking buddies. Some have said that the Hmong actors are too amateur, but they felt natural to me. It was a great choice, just as shooting on location in Michigan was. We haven’t seen the gritty streets of Detroit since Four Brothers and 8 Mile. And the story may not be great, but Eastwood knows just what to tell and what to leave us to figure out. He takes a simple story and makes it gripping, and as much as I like his output, I think this is his most enjoyable movie since Unforgiven.

4.5 out of 5 30-06 rounds.


Marky Mark’s come a long way, but he still can’t grow a proper beard. He’s always reliable as the hot-tempered quiet man, and Shooter is no exception. If you’ve seen the trailer you know the setup- if you haven’t, avoid it, because there’s a twist that you might see coming, but why not go in as a tabula rasa? It’s a solid action thriller, with plenty of headshots to please any AWP whore or Second Amendment enthusiast. And with Ned Beatty, Danny Glover, and Rhona Mitra (Doomsday) rounding out the cast, there’s good performances to back it up.
We meet Bobby Lee Swagger in an undisclosed desert country in a ghillie suit; his scout beside him, they are picking off enemies blocking the road as Marines extract from a mission. We get to see Bobby’s skill as he takes out gunner, then driver; when they think the road is clear, a huge force rolls in and they call for air support, but none comes. A chopper does roll in, but it’s the enemy. They lose comms suspiciously, and Bobby barely makes it out alive- and his scout is not so lucky.
Fast forward to 3 years later and Bobby is a disgruntled Force Recon Marine, retired- living on a mountain with his big slobbery dog, reading the 9/11 Commission Report and shooting Dinty Moore cans to stay sharp. That’s when Isaac Johnson (Danny Glover) and two stubbly goons show up. Yeah, we know the government screwed you and you’re retired, but we need you for one last mission. They say there’s a hit out on the President- from a good source, and they believe it will be a sniper, and the shot a mile away. He’s one of few people capable of such a shot, so they want to know how to defend against it. Bobby Lee is wary and reluctant, but when Johnson whips out his Congressional Medal of Honor, we know he’ll give in. He says he’ll think about it.

Who’s this broad? Find out later, but tits always make the front page.

Like a clever heist, the machinations of the assassin have always been alluring to audiences. Take The Day of the Jackal for instance; there’s an excellent example. Even the inferior remake with Bruce Willis was compelling, and a decent director can make us almost want to see the guy succeed, just because we’ve seen how clever his plan is and how much trouble he’s gone through. Here we see it from reverse; Bobby is scouting the locations they think the assassin might use, and we see angles, windage, and cover. It will take seconds for the bullet to travel those 5280 feet, so he needs a stationary target, and markers around it to see which way the wind blows.

In the infamous sniper fan fap-book Marine Sniper: 93 Confirmed Kills, the story of Carlos Hathcock, I learned the difficulty of long range shooting. Targets look like a match-head; wind is the enemy. Hatchcock had the record for longest confirmed kill shot for many years, having used a .50 caliber machine gun loaded single. This led to the Barrett .50 caliber sniper rifle in use today, and a Canadian sniper in Afghanistan recently broke Hathcock’s record with a 2430 yard shot. That’s nearly a mile and a half away. So it is possible, with incredible skill and the proper conditions, to kill a man with a rifle from a mile away. Shooter still operates in action movie world, but it doesn’t strain credibility too much, and we learn a lot along the way.

If you hadn’t seen the trailer, and didn’t notice Danny Glover’s sleazy looking right hand goon, aptly named Jack Payne (Elias Koteas, Some Kind of Wonderful), you might not expect the twist. It’s a setup, and as Bobby tells them to shield the President, the shot is fired, and then all hell breaks loose. Bobby Lee Oswald is the patsy, and manages to escape with a gunshot wound only due to his wits as a Force Recon sniper and being the action hero of the picture. As he staggers away, he takes down a rookie FBI agent (Michael Peña, Babel) and escapes in his car. Now he’s got to evade police, find out who set him up and why, and bring them to justice.

The twists and deceptions, as in Enemy of the State, are largely irrelevant. The pacing is what matters, and Antoine Fuqua, who also directed Training Day and King Arthur, manages to let us turn our brains off and enjoy the twisty road this runaway truck of a story hurtles down. Peña’s Nick Memphis is about to lose his job for letting the assassin get away, but he clamps onto the case like a bulldog, because he heard Bobby Lee say he didn’t do it. Eventually they are teamed together, along with Bobby’s scout’s widow, who tended to his wounds, against the shadowy government agents who want them dead. It gets a little silly when the bad guys want to make Nick look like a suicide- they have a complicated rig to make him point a gun at his own head. How’s this? Knock him out, and put the gun in his hand, and pull the trigger. But hey, cool “we made you shoot yourself!” rig.
The film takes what at first seem to be brave stances, pitting Marky against rogue elements of our government who performed genocide for oil, but this ain’t Syriana. It’s all about the action, and when that’s what it gives us, the getting is good. As Bobby traces the web of deceit, he faces a squad of 24 special ops troopers in a remote farmhouse, and another helicopter, and it seems a hell of a lot more believable than let’s say, 24: Redemption did. Fuqua has developed solid action chops, but doesn’t care so much about solid stories, and likes depending on twists. As always, there is a Mexican standoff as they trade MacGuffins at the end, and Bobby has to face 3 other snipers; the scene is tense and exciting, and when he faces his nemeses, it ends different than I expected. Of course the sleazeball gets his, but in politics, the bad guys often win.

Sadly Rhona Mitra is completely wasted as a fellow agent on Nick’s side; sexy Kate Mara (Brokeback Mountain) picks up the slack as the scout’s widow, plucky and resourceful, and also looking hot in a bra and jeans. Best scenes are when they look up an aging sniper fanboy to figure out some of the technical aspects of the setup, and the old coot- played by Levon Helm from The Band- lays some conspiracy facts on them about where the bodies are buried. “I still got the shovel!” Rade Serbedzija (Boris the Bullet Dodger from Snatch) has a great small part as a spooky guy in a wheelchair with a rather colorful past.

The movie drags on after this, giving us an unnecessary scene where Bobby is exonerated and yet powerless to put the blame where it is due. This is the usual Hollywood “well that’s the way it is” scene that justifies the ridiculous tacked on ending where he assassinates them in their remote mountain cabin, putting a gun in a man’s hand and setting the place on fire to use their own “setup medicine” against them. Sure, it’s delightful watching Ned Beatty’s untouachable, slimy Senator squeal like a pig, but why didn’t he just kill them on the mountaintop? It’s bad screenwriting. But hey, they killed the man’s dog. We gotta see them die. If you don’t think about the movie too much, it’s damn good fun. There is a dearth of good sniper movies, and this is a decent one.

3 fully jacketed Hornady .50 caliber rounds out of 4


Death Sentence – James Wan takes a saw to our balls

Where do I begin? This is one of the biggest train wrecks I’ve scene in recent years. What the hell Kevin Bacon and John Goodman are doing in this confused, pretentious pile of crap is beyond me. It is apparently based on the sequel to the novel Death Wish, but discards its story for a bizarre combination of revenge and morality tale that makes little sense and is incredibly tedious to sit through. The Mouth from the South warned me about how bad it was, but no, I read Roger Ebert’s review, and figured what the hell. Ebert also gushed over the mediocre revenge fantasy The Brave One, which had Jodie Foster as a liberal talk show host in the Charles Bronson role, to make it more intellectual-friendly. I should have known better. Spoiler alert. When a movie sucks this badly, I don’t bother hiding spoilers.

On the other hand, Mouth hated No Country for Old Men and loves Tom Selleck direct-to-video westerns, so maybe I should have just checked Rotten Tomatoes first. Like The Brave One, Death Sentence‘s only redeeming qualities are the performance of its lead. Kevin Bacon can play oily scumbags like the pedophile prison guard in Sleepers with ease, or tortured ones like in The Woodsman; here he’s not a pedophile, but an insurance adjuster, so sort of in the same realm. Nick Hume lives in suburban paradise, which we learn about through home movies that look like they’re from the ’70s; he has a wife and two sons, and a typical suburban life until his golden boy hockey player son has a game in… The City.

From the Director of Saw and the writer of Death Wish comes: Shit.

From there he drives into an urban legend; on the way home from the game, he sees two suped up muscle cars driving without headlights, and flashes his high beams at them. They turn around, play chicken with him a bit, and disappear. He gets lost, and is also low on gas, so he drives into a shady gas station to fill up before a third cliche strikes. He doesn’t have to wait long; the two muscle cars show up to rob the store, complete with shotguns and ski masks. They blow away the shopkeeper, who for some reason isn’t behind bulletproof glass like most poor schleps in shitty neighborhood gas stations, and his son witnesses it… so they goad a younger gang member into offing him with a machete, and then leave him there… to make him a man. Don’t ask this to make sense. It only gets worse.

Nick attacks the now unarmed ‘banger and unmasks him, but he escapes only to be hit by a passing car. Flash forward to months later at the trial; the family is still grieving over their lost son, and when the prosecutor tells Nick that the killer will likely only get a few years, he sabotages the trial by saying he can’t identify him. And no one has any idea what he is obviously planning. Even when his family finds him in the basement with a machete and a hunting knife, they don’t suspect anything. (How many insurance adjusters have machetes in their basement? I know I’d have a dozen, but I’m a crazy knife guy.)

Why was it my cool hockey star son and not the loser!

Nick doesn’t have to work himself up to kill, and of course gets in the requisite struggle that ends in someone getting stabbed. His hand gets all cut up, too; when the cops come to tell him that his son’s murderer has been killed, they don’t even notice the huge fresh bandage on his paw. No wonder they haven’t found the two flame-painted muscle cars he saw at the scene! The cops are pretty stupid in this movie, unlike The Brave One and Death Wish. The rest of the gang immediately figure out who offed their homie, and hit back at Nick in his office. The cops still don’t figure out what’s going on. Between action sequences we get pretentious, dramatic scenes set to insipid or annoyingly dramatic music, as James Wan tries to make something deep out of this. But the set piece in the parking garage, when the whole gang is chasing Nick after trying to whack him outside work, defines everything that’s wrong with the movie:

Nick is walking from work and we see the one black member of the otherwise skinhead gang (these guys just take the tattooed skinhead look, but are racially tolerant thugs) stalking behind him. When he pulls a gun to execute him, Nick psychically knows this and swings his briefcase, disarming him like a super spy, then runs when the gang leader (Garrett Hedlund, Four Brothers) opens fire. They chase him through a maze of alleyways and finally to a parking deck, where he starts setting off car alarms to get people’s attention, or attract the police- it doesn’t work, of course. No one pays attention to car alarms. He makes his way to the top, where a lone thug is searching, and tackles him to disarm him. This leads to a protracted battle, wild gunshots that no one hears, and finally a struggle into a parked car. Nick releases the parking brake and the car slowly begins rolling toward the edge, dramatic music playing as he tries to kick out the windshield, while also tying the bad guy with a seat belt. As the car inches toward the edge, with the flimsy guard rail, instead of being excited about impending death for our hero, I began wondering what sort of parking deck has a rail so weak a car can roll through it. That’s sort of an insurance liability right there. You’d think an insurance adjuster like Nick would have pointed that out to his employers. Of course he leaps out just in time, while thug #2 plummets to his death. What’s wrong with that? Why wouldn’t he just push the guy off the roof? He’s already stabbed someone and watched him die. There’s no need for that convenient Hollywood killing, where self-defense, mixed with “I didn’t push him, I just didn’t help him” morality.

Equal opportunity skinheads

Later, they deliver a threat to his office, because he dropped his briefcase and they now know who he is and who his family is; as if they couldn’t figure this out when their first buddy went on trial. Inside the briefcase is a photo of Nick’s family with X’s on their faces, and if we can’t figure it out, the leader calls him at work and says that he has put a DEATH SENTENCE on his family. It’s always refreshing to know that movies still think they need to recite their title, in case the audience was wondering why it was called that. Especially in a movie about a guy who’s kid is murdered, and the bad guy is only going to get 3-5 years, instead of a death sentence, which is what we’d like to see. And a movie in which the father then goes to execute a death sentence on that criminal. I for one still don’t know why Star Wars is called that, since it was about a rebellion, and no one fought over any stars. Hopefully Lucas will rectify that in yet another special edition, where Porkins rolls his eyes and mutters, “I’m sure tired of all these star wars,” right before he’s shot down.

At this point in the movie there’s still an hour left. Nick goes to the cops, who practically say “well, you started it.” Cops typically look down on vigilantism, but you’d think when they know who the bad guys are, they’d do more than put one cruiser outside. You know, especially since she knows Nick avenged his son, maybe they’d arrest him, and put his family in protective custody. But no, a cruiser with 2 cops who are immediately killed is parked outside, and the thugs invade the house with ease. Now, a director with some talent can make a home invasion one of the most gut-wrenching examples of cinematic horror, because seeing your loved ones at gunpoint is a real and terrifying threat. A shitty director like James Wan wouldn’t know suspense if Alfred Hitchcock and Wes Craven branded it on his nutsack with a curling iron, because Lead Thug just immediately shoots Nick’s wife and remaining son in front of him, before shooting him too. In the shoulder. Without a finishing shot. Why? So he can survive and avenge them. Now, in the first half hour of this movie, Nick has hunted down and stabbed the guy who killed his other son, but now he’s really driven over the edge. Now he’s gonna avenge his family like a real movie bad-ass.

You suck at criminalizin’!

When Nick wakes up from this onslaught, and I’m not joking, he walks out of the hospital in the rain, wearing his gown and no shoes, and goes all the way back home. To sad music. He takes a bunch of money out of the bank and goes to buy some guns, from… the gang leader’s Dad! John Goodman, who plays a psychopathic poppa and owner of a body shop slash illegal gun bazaar, must be the only place in town. And the best part is, he recognizes Nick. It’s been established earlier that Goodman prefers money to his feckless small-time crook sons, so he says flat out that he don’t mind him killing his other son, because he’s a “paying customer.” He also warns him not to ask where his son is. Cuz that’s crossing the line! I’ll sell you the guns to do it, but I sure ain’t gonna help any more!

“I will dare to reference Straw Dogs with my shitty motion picture.”

Goodman is always good as a bad guy, but he’s so incredibly over the top in his few scenes that you wish the entire movie was in that tone, instead of trying to tell us that revenge is bad, and that if whitebread suburban dorks like Nick kill street-tough thugs’ siblings…. there might be repercussions. They even try to make an allusion to war, and that war is bad, because people die. Well, yeah, we knew that. But the movie lets Nick shave his head and go on a successful killing spree, ending with him and his nemesis sitting wounded next to each other. “Look what I made you become.” Wow, he even shaved his head like the bad guys! He has become one of the bad guys! Holy shit!

I’ll cry when I’m done killin’.

Yes, it’s that stupid. I have no idea what Kevin Bacon was thinking by taking this horrible movie, yet his acting skills are what make it watchable. Maybe he just wanted to have some fun and play Bronson. Either way, stay the hell away from his movie. It can’t make up its damn mind about whether to be a drama, a revenge film, or even whether revenge is worth the cost. You want to see a good over the top revenge movie? Go see Four Brothers, by John Singleton, starring Markie Wahlberg, Terence Howard and Tyrese Gibson. Set in Detroit, it’s like an old ’70s exploiter modernized. It’s a lot of fun, and vengeance is not without its price, and the director isn’t a fucking hack who should stick to movies about killer ventriloquist dolls and silly twist within a twist gimmicks. I enjoyed Saw and Dead Silence for what they were, but Wan needs to stay in the B movie realm. If Death Sentence had played out on that level, it would have been enjoyable. If you want an arty revenge movie, see Dead Man’s Shoes; if you want an intellectual one see The Brave One. If you want the classic, see Death Wish; the first one is quite good, and if you want silly, see Death Wish IV- the Crackdown:

David Zucker makes Michael Moore parody 4 years too late

Dennis Miller used to be funny; then 9/11 happened and made him crazy. Now I was working in Manhattan on 9/11; it affected me as much as anybody who didn’t lose loved ones there. I got heartburn every time I thought about it for years. But let’s face it, when Dennis Miller decided he was a conservative pundit instead of an equal opportunity political comic, the humor drained out of his butt like he ate 6 bags of Olestra potato chips. There are funny conservatives- I’m pretty sure Norm MacDonald is conservative, and I find him funny as hell.

David Zucker, who helped bring us classics such as Airplane!, The Naked Gun, Top Secret! and Kentucky Fried Movie, has suddenly decided that not only is Michael Moore relevant, but is deserving of an entire movie parodying him. The last few movies he produced were the Scary Movie sequels, so it’s obvious he’s lost any comedic talent he once had as the famous Zucker-Abrams-Zucker team. Or maybe like the Order of the Triad, he only has power when the ZAZ work in tandem. I’ll let you be the judge, when you view this trailer to his new movie, An American Carol that debuted on “The O’Reilly Factor,” since Bill O’Reilly actually stars in the movie as someone who gets to slap Michael Moore.

Michael Moore is a polarizing director. I was a huge fan of Roger & Me, and his TV show “TV Nation.” I even went to Philly to see Crackers the Corporate Crime Chicken. I also liked his movie The Big One, and went to the premiere in Minneapolis, met him again, got his autograph. Then Columbine happened and he went sort of crazy. He always brings up that he learned to shoot in a youth rifle club of the NRA, but he got unhinged after a kid in Flint Michigan brought an illegal gun from his uncle’s drug-dealing roommate’s dresser to school and shot a young girl that he’d previously stabbed with a pencil. The NRA was somehow to blame for this.

We got into an email argument over it; this was back when you could email him. Sadly my old email program ate them and I can’t share them here. His argument was “it’s gone too far,” and attacking a senile Charlton Heston was the answer. I never forgave him for that, and think his documentaries have suffered since he’s gotten so strident. Even in Roger & Me he was accused of setting things up to look one way when reality disagreed, and most documentaries have a slant. Some of the greatest, like Harlan County U.S.A. and The Thin Blue Line have definite agendas. The father of the documentary who gave us Nanook of the North infamously staged most of the scenes. But those films didn’t take a complex, polarizing issue like gun control and try to stack the deck and convince people to your side of the argument with bad facts.

That being said, I loved Sicko, where he seemed to get back to his prankster style of filmmaking, when he tried to bring a bunch of American citizens who’d been failed by our ridiculously expensive and coldly bureaucratic health care system to Guantanamo Bay, where enemy combatants were getting better treatment. Then again, one of my favorite recent comedies is Team America: World Police by the “South Park” guys, which makes fun of Moore and American foreign policy.

An American Carol looks like it’s 5 years too late to be funny. There was a time when we might have believed that critics of the Iraq War actually hate America. $500 billion later, when we’re still pumping cash into Iraq when they have a $90 billion surplus in their budget and our economy is taking a plunge, folks are starting to question why we threw 4000+ American lives and 30,000 American limbs to put the party who blew up our Marine barracks in Beirut into power. Yes, they’re our friends now, apparently. At least compared to the other parties trying to run Iraq. And this is from paleoconservative Paul Mulshine, not Michael Moore or some “America hater.” The fact is the bad guys were in Afghanistan, we still haven’t caught bin Laden, and we’re losing Afghanistan because of lack of troops. And Russia is flexing its muscles because it knows we’re spread thin. and… nevermind, everything’s fine. Go see Scary Movie 8.

So who’s going to see a movie where a country singer, Bill O’Reilly and a poor facsimile of General Patton show Michael Moore what makes America great? I didn’t see one remotely funny thing in the trailer, sadly. It’s old news, and was done better with pooping puppets by Trey Parker and Matt Stone. You know what makes America great? That Michael Moore can make his movies without being beaten down like a journalist who aims his camera at a “Free Tibet!” sign at the Olympics in China. That we can make fun of Michael Moore and call him out when he skews his facts. That really funny movies like Airplane! were made here, and yes, that even crap like An American Carol can be made here. It would be greater if useful idiots like Zucker didn’t think that anyone who disagreed with his politics “hates America.” Though I can imagine having to deal with the insipid Hollywood political activists is pretty infuriating.

Dead Man’s Shoes vs. The Brave One

The revenge picture may owe its roots to The Count of Monte Cristo, but in Britain everything will be compared to 1971’s excellent Get Carter. Dead Man’s Shoes, written by and starring Paddy Considine (In America; one of the dick cops in Hot Fuzz) plays out like a grainy, arty version of that movie, where a man comes back to town to avenge his wronged brother. Here the brother is Anthony, a mentally retarded young man who was first mocked and then abused by the local small-time toughs.

Richard and Anthony

Paddy plays an Richard, ex-soldier who returns home a bit unhinged, and we watch his anger build as he first taunts them, then plays scary pranks; soon the pot is bubbling over, and it almost becomes a slasher picture. He begins breaking into their homes for his pranks, or stalking outside in a gas mask, reminiscent of Jason Voorhees in his hockey mask. The movie’s genius lies in how it draws us in with these mild hints at genre conventions, and then pulls the rug out from us. First, revenge; then slasher, and finally we come to a bleak realization that changes things just enough to imbue the whole tragic tale with crushing guilt.

Confronting the leader

We see the past abuse of Anthony in grainy, home-movie style flashbacks; this reminded me of Steven Soderbergh’s excellent film The Limey, where the flashbacks were of Terence Stamp in an early role, in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow. Some of the abuse is quite hard to take; at first they toy with him, making him think they are friends, when he is really just a plaything. When we finally see the real motivation for his brother’s revenge spree, the movie rises above genre. Like The Limey, both involve avengers who eventually decide what they really want, and what they thought they wanted, are two different things. The films have two wildly different endings, but the realization is what matters. Avengers have a lot of guilt to live with, and the audience-pleasing catharsis that comes with dispatching their enemies isn’t enough to soothe the life-long agony that drives them to do it.

No clean kills

Dead Man’s Shoes was dismissed as a slasher flick by the New York Times, and many other reviewers. Personally I found it much better than another recent, lauded revenge flick- Neil Jordan’s The Brave One, with Jodie Foster. I like Jodie Foster quite a bit, and Neil Jordan, but despite the film’s attempt at an intellectual look at vengeance in civilized society, it is entirely wish fulfillment, fantasy, and liberal feel-good fantasy at that. The movie has a bit of split-personality, which I can relate to; I consider myself politically liberal in social matters, but I am also a Lifetime Member of the NRA. The movie should be tailored for me to enjoy, but it just didn’t ring true.

Jodie’s got a gun

The Brave One rides on performances; with Ms. Foster in the Bronson Death Wish role, we can recall how good the first movie of that nose-diving series was. Bronson’s character vomits the first time he dispatches a mugger, shivering as he aims the pistol at him, only empowered much later, after the sickness passes. Jodie’s tale felt more like it was about the lure of the firearm’s power; at the gun shop she seems like a fat kid in a pastry shop. In Death Wish, Bronson’s wife is murdered but he never finds the killers; instead he metes out random justice and strikes fear into criminals who never know if a watching bystander might pull out a nickel-plated revolver and kill them.

In The Brave One, we are given a sculpted hate crime as the impetus that drives Foster’s revenge spree. She and her fiancé (Naveen Andrews, Sayid from “Lost”) are attacked by three tattooed thugs in Central Park, in a chilling and masterful filmed sequence. The helplessness and horror of an attack on your loved one is shoved in your face, and this feels quite real. Foster plays a radio celebrity, which gives her a unique forum to talk about crime in the city, justice, and vigilantism. To me, it felt like a story written for the NPR crowd. I felt like I was being pandered to; I already believe that if tested, trained citizens were allowed to carry firearms (like in a dozen other states) we would see a reduction in predatory crimes, so it felt too neat to me. How can you deny someone gun rights, when we’re shown that even an enlightened liberal talk show host could avenge a hate crime by neo-Nazi trash if only given the chance?

The original

People who are strangers to guns imbue them with a quality not unlike the One Ring from Tolkien. They seduce you, they lure you, their power leads you to do things civilized people just don’t do. Personally I the seduction is in the eye of the beholder; forbidden fruit is always seductive. I was raised with guns in the house, and was taught to respect, not fear them. Rather like a chainsaw, or other tool you wouldn’t play with unless you have limbs to spare. The film portrays Foster’s seduction deftly, but then goes awry by making her vengeance all too easy, both physically and morally. It gives her no guilt, no hard choices to make; leaving it a compelling thriller, but not much else. I found it fun, but empty. We want her to succeed, but she pays nothing for it. Vengeance almost always comes at a price.

Vengeance is not a pretty thing

In Dead Man’s Shoes, Richard is paying for it from frame one. He is filled with deep regret for not protecting his brother, for being ashamed of him in childhood, and perhaps he joined the Army to get away from that shame. Is he punishing the thugs, or flagellating himself? His vengeful strikes aren’t as clean and easy as sneaking up and shooting his foes, either. The first involves a hammer. His deep rage would not be sated by a distant shooting. It escalates into unthinkable madness before he is through, and the foes are not mere cookie-cutter targets painted as easy-to-hate stereotypes. Sure they are dumb backwater thugs, drug users and dealers, but we spend more time with them than the supposed hero; we feel their terror, and their own regrets over games gone too far. This movie speaks volumes about the true roots of vengeance, its costs, and its brutality. It does not take the easy route like The Brave One.

The one difficulty with the film is the DVD release, which lacks English subtitles. The strong accents are hard to decipher sometimes, and I had no problem with Trainspotting. It is definitely worth your time and a rental; Paddy Considine’s intensity is hard to match. If you liked The Brave One, you might want to revisit its forebear, Death Wish. Charles Bronson’s Paul Benjamin may not be as nuanced as Jodie Foster, and he may have turned into an action-hero cartoon, but he also doesn’t get retribution served to him on a sparkling clean moral platter.