First, a little about James Brown dying on Christmas.
God damn, JB. That one took me by surprise. I gotta figure he’s one of the great geniuses of our time. Nobody could ever deny him as a performer, a singer, a dancer, a songwriter. But to me it’s the music that gets me high – all those tight as hell, stop-in-the-exact-center-of-a-dime bands he had over the years. One time in 1969, James had a sold out show in Georgia, but most of his band quit. So Bobby Byrd took a Lear jet to Cincinatti, picked up a young band he’d seen called the Pacemakers from an empty bar gig they were getting paid $15 for. They flew directly to Georgia, came out onto stage with their hero who they’d never met, and still were the baddest band ever. That’s how 17 year old Bootsy Collins got in James Brown’s band.
Giving James credit as the producer of all that music, obviously you gotta keep in mind he’s not playing those instruments (although I saw him do a smokin organ solo one time) and he’s got hundreds of amazing musicians playing with him over the years that need to share that credit. But if it didn’t take genius to put all those people together and make that type of funk then how come nobody else did it? And if you ask me nobody to this day has matched the JBs. You wanna be blown away, pick up Pass the Peas: The Best of the JBs. I have had it in my head for years that if Skander Halim ever makes that Vern Tells It Like It Is movie the opening credits have to use “Hot Pants Road,” because I want that to be my theme music. I guess you can’t go wrong having theme music from the same people who did Black Caesar and Slaughter’s Big Ripoff.
I know it’s a cliche but you can’t get around the fact that if you took away the existence of James Brown, you’d have no hip hop. Or at least, half the songs would have no beats. Public Enemy wouldn’t have that blaring horn on “Night of the Living Baseheads.” They wouldn’t even have their first song, “Public Enemy #1,” because that’s all “Blow Your Head,” James going nuts on that weird synthesizer. Think about the “Funky Drummer” beat, man. Or the “Papa Don’t Take No Mess” beat. And they were sampled from James and then resampled from other samples and then other people added different samples but used the same rhythm from the Funky Drummer. Those beats have more children than Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.
“Papa Don’t Take No Mess” kind of sums up my complicated feelings about James Brown. The whole song is kind of a glorification of papas spanking their kids. James proudly sings “when we did wrong, papa beat the hell out of us” and I don’t think he’s exaggerating. The idea is the whole “spare the rod and spoil the child” theory but of course, you can’t help but notice that when James grew up he was beating wives right and left. He was not exactly a nice man. If papa not taking no mess was a good thing then shouldn’t James have grown up a little better? Shouldn’t he have learned not to give no mess? Shouldn’t that beating have prevented James from pulling a steak knife on that repairman he called to his property to fix the power? “You see this suit, that means I’m a government agent and I can lock you up, you son-of-a-bitch white trash, for trespassing and sneaking around on my property.” So the song kind of makes me sad.
And yet, it’s one of the funkiest damn songs of all time. Laid back funk, it’s kind of slow, it knows it doesn’t have to impress you with speed. Just… pling – pling – bup – bup ba bup… pling – pling – bup – bup ba bup… They used that song real good in the movie GET ON THE BUS. And that’s kind of what that beat is like: sit back and take a long ride on this beat. Don’t worry, we’ll get there.
It’s not just hip hop of course, James had a seismic impact on soul and funk, he’s the Godfather to half the music I listen to. If somebody besides JB invented funk it must’ve been some Tesla type betrayed by history, because I never heard of the motherfucker. Hell, most of the other funk geniuses idolized JB too, all the way from George Clinton to Prince. He taught the theory of the One to Bootsy, Fred and Maceo and they brought it to P-Funk. Who knows what would’ve happened if it wasn’t for his theories? That spaceship never would’ve flown straight.
I saw James live a couple times, the older James, I guess probaly in his last decade or decade and a half. Last time I saw him I remember staring at him up close and just thinking holy shit, this guy looks like an alien. Giant head, impossible hairdo, bizarre proportions. Is he wearing his pants wrong or is his waist really right there? How old is he now? And HOW is he still dancing? It was very clear he was not one of us, he came from somewhere else with advanced funk technology, most of it invented and developed by him. His people I’m sure will be happy to have him back.
To be honest I thought he was older than 73, but it also never occurred to me that he’d die any time soon. He seemed like a flame you couldn’t snuff out. Remember in the ’90s when he got busted he led the cops on a chase through multiple states, and he still kept driving with all his tires blown out. Doesn’t matter what happens, he’s gonna keep going. So it’s no surprise that he kept performing all the way ’til the end. I have no doubt if he made it to 110 he’d still be up there on stage, poor Bobby Byrd bringing him his cape. Hell, part of me thinks he’ll still be up there even now that he’s dead. That’s all you got to stop the Godfather, death? You’re gonna have to do better than that.
Well, you know what they say about all good things etc. etc. I don’t know if I’d say this if I had to be around the guy, but it’s sad to see him go. Wish he could’ve stayed around longer. Pass the peas. And free James Brown!
(p.s. I can’t believe they locked his non-legal wife off the property. Hasn’t she been through enough? Jesus you people. Give her something.)
THE FILMS OF CINEMA 2006
So, here’s the end of 2006, time for a little wrap up. A couple people asked if I was gonna do a top ten list or something like that. Well, I don’t usually do that on account of being an outlaw, marching to my own drummer, lone wolf etc. In fact, I not only don’t usually do top ten lists, I do something that no critic, reviewer or Writer on the films of Cinema ever does: I don’t even usually point out that I don’t do top ten lists.
Hell, I don’t even write grocery lists. That’s how fuckin better than all other people I am. I’m listless.
Nah, just kidding. Unlike many non-listers, I don’t got a problem with lists. I like reading them, comparing notes, grumbling, etc. I’m not gonna be that guy who has to make a point of noting that everybody is doing top ten lists but I’m not because I think that’s self indulgent and it belittles the art of the cinema to put it into a ranking system and really if you study numerology there’s no such thing as the number ten anyway there’s only one through nine. And I’m definitely not one of these guys on an all out crusade against top ten lists (check out this lovable gentleman who explores many variations on the metaphor of top ten lists being a circle jerk. Extending the metaphor, I like to picture him as a puritanical slasher running around in a nun’s habit and ski mask chopping people’s dicks off to punish them for masturbating).
If I tried to do a list this year I’d be even less qualified than usual. I mean, there’s a whole bunch of movies still in theaters I still want to see – ROCKY BALBOA, APOCALYPTO, THE GOOD GERMAN, CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER – plus I gotta see PAN’S LABYRINTH when that comes here in a week. And I saw CHILDREN OF MEN just the other day so it would be kind of stupid to put it on the top of the list, even though it probaly deserves it. But how can I know, I’ve only had 3 days to process it. There’s also a load of movies people recommend to me all the time that I still haven’t caught up with, THE PROPOSITION and DEAD MAN’S SHOES being the most requested.
So instead I’ll do this, I’ll do some informal best of the year type choices, just for the hell of it. Fuck it. Let your hair down. Etc. These are not the Outlaw Awards. This is something less prestigious, like the Blockbuster Consumer’s Choice Awards or something. But better.
I would point out that this whole thing is self indulgent, but unfortunately pointing out that you are about to do something self indulgent does not cancel out the self indulgence. In fact, not even pointing out that pointing out something is self indulgent changes the fact that the original thing is self indulgent, in my opinion. For that reason I will not mention it at all (personal note – delete this paragraph later thanks)
okay let’s get started gang, further ado etc.
(here imagine there is a hilarious monologue by the host, probaly Rudy Ray Moore or somebody. There is no wacky movie parody clips where they put him in acclaimed 2006 movies, like “PETEY WHEATSTRAW’S LABYRINTH” or “DOLEMITED 93” or something ’cause Rudy don’t play that shit. Then they quit fuckin around and start giving out the awards. I think the oscars starts out with a big one like best supporting actress or something so I’m goin straight to horror movies)
Ladies and gentlemen, I’m gonna be obvious and go with THE DESCENT. I liked the seriousness, the claustrophobia, the darkness, the Weird Underground Fuckers, and the fact that an ordinary woman was reduced to screaming like a mad sasquatch after crawling out of a pond of blood and guts to beat a Wuf to death with a bone. These are the sorts of scenarios we want to see in movies. That’s the magic of cinema. You will believe a woman can beat a mutant cavedweller to death with a bone.
Runner up is WOLF CREEK. Great villain, great atmosphere, thrilling chases, gets your heart beating as they try to escape. When it’s working it’s really working. I am tempted to choose this as number 1, but the ending is so anti-climactic and THE DESCENT doesn’t have anything as stupid as the gratuitous explanation scene where one of the victims finds videotapes and photos to explain the killer’s methods. So ultimately THE DESCENT is a more satisfying movie.
Also I want to give an honorable “whatup” to the flawed but respectable HILLS HAVE EYES remake. I have a religious outrage at remakes alot of the time so I gotta give credit where credit is due. This one stays true to the serious themes of the original while escalating the crazy mutant cannibal fun. I would hold it in much higher esteem if they just cut out that bullshit where the guy in the wheelchair explicitly states some of the themes of the movie (it sounds so stupid when you say it out loud), but oh well, that’s life. This one is good enough that I am starting to get excited for the sequel. Even though the sequel to the original sucks. (note: that didn’t stop me from watching it more than once, though.)
BEST MUSICAL OR COMEDY
Are you kidding? I haven’t watched DREAMGIRLS. The winner is definitely BORAT: CULTURAL LEARNINGS ETCETERA ETCETERA. I never wrote about this one because I didn’t feel like I had anything new to add, and actually I was sick of fuckin hearing about it before the movie even came out. But it doesn’t matter, that is the most I ever laughed at any movie ever. I was in tears more times than I could keep track of. At times my stomach hurt, I felt like I’d been doing a bunch of situps. In fact, every once in a while there would be a scene without big laughs (like when Azamat has abandoned him and stolen his bear and he is crying on camera like it’s BLAIR WITCH or something) and it’s kind of a relief to not be laughing hard, you need that to get through it. Plus, it was a packed theater and the gal sitting next to me never laughed once, which made it more uncomfortable and more funny. I think Mr. Baron Cohen should get an Oscar for that shit, he conveys so many emotions, apparently not breaking character in front of actual individuals, and somehow makes an ignorant bigot seem strangely lovable.
Second place would go to TALLADEGA NIGHTS and, coincidentally, Baron Cohen was my favorite part of that one too. But BORAT is by far the more revolutionary and painful of the two. And also there is no second place allowed in this category, there is only one winner. Sorry, losers.
I would have to say SILENT HILL based on the hostile audience I saw it with, who literally were holding torches and pitchforks throughout the screening, and then they stormed the projection booth, pulled the print off and lynched it during the end credits. If I remember right. Then they started chanting “USA! USA!” and beating the empty film canisters with a shoe. I tried, but it turned out it wasn’t the appropriate forum for me to argue its merits.
Even I had a hard time with the stiff dialogue (though I am positive it was a deliberate stylistic choice) and the giant lump of exposition at the end, but I consider this one of them flawed masterpieces, like a really smart kid born with a big lump on his forehead and one leg four or five inches shorter than the other one. But he’s still a good kid. I mean, try as you might, you cannot deny the raw cinematic power of this motherfucker – the foreboding atmosphere, the bizarre imagery (Pyramid Head, man!) and the relentless lack of human logic. Plus some types of gruesomeness not seen on multiplex screens since HELLRAISER 2. This is an actual nightmare captured digitally and uploaded to celluloid. Good job frenchman and Tarantino associate.
Also there is a very worthy runner up and that is MIAMI VICE. This one is real divisive, I hear it’s been making all the ten best lists as well as all the ten worst lists. Somebody told me Michael Mann had “boiled everything down to pure macho energy” and I said “Exactly!” but it turned out he meant that was why it sucked. Although I was not fond of the Bacardi product placement or the horrible cover song on the end credits, I thought this was a great achievement of atmosphere, minimalism, realism, and attitude. I guess if you wanted the TV show I can understand being disappointed but I think what we got instead is much more interesting. People who hate it seem to talk about it like the way the movie is was an accident. Like Michael Mann had meant to give the traditional character backstories and villainous schemes and running jokes and shit that people expect in an action movie, but he forgot. I’m not saying this is deep in any way – remember, I think Michael Mann is a pretentious jackass. But this, I think, is an exceptional movie. Good job. (I’m going by the theatrical cut, by the way, I haven’t seen the new DVD.)
MOVIE NOBODY BELIEVES ME IS GOOD
WASSUP ROCKERS. Not to be confused with SORRY HATERS. Okay, so you gotta get past the usual pervy Larry Clark closeups and what not, but then this is a fun movie. It’s hard not to love these Hispanic skateboard punks from South Central having their rebellious teenage adventures in Beverly Hills. It’s a fish out of water movie except there’s like 7 or 8 fish that are out of the water, and they are basically real people playing themselves put into cartoony situations. Larry Clark has always been good at finding strange people and getting them to act crazy on camera, but this is the first time where he made a movie about people who are really likable. Also, Janice Dickinson gets electrocuted in a hot tub.
MOST SURPRISINGLY ENJOYABLE
FAST AND THE FURIOUS TOKYO DRIFT. At first I thought maybe I was crazy, but I know a whole bunch of people who saw this after me and agreed it was fun. Completely dumb, but somehow setting grown up Lucas Black and Regular Sized Bow Wow loose in Tokyo to do fancy car tricks is a good time at the movies. Plus, Sonny Chiba is in there.
Also I gotta give a nod to WWE Films’ SEE NO EVIL just because when I first saw the trailer I was convinced it would literally be the worst horror movie ever made. And I read a plot summary that made it sound like it was written by one of those kids you see on the bus with the giant pants and the evil clown makeup. It is even dumber than TOKYO DRIFT (by about ten miles, actually) but also a good time at the movies, highly recommended for all audiences and creeds.
BEST SEAGAL PICTURE OF 2006
This is gonna be controversial, but I’m gonna go with ATTACK FORCE. Most people seem to think it’s alot worse than the other two competitors, MERCENARY FOR JUSTICE and SHADOW MAN, but I enjoyed the weird alien powers of the bad guys and the strange minimalism of the ending (after most of the characters die in battle, Seagal and his last surviving attack force mate just leave, saying nothing and not resolving the poisoned water supply plot).
BEST PICTURE, DTV
There is not a standout winner, but I lean toward ROAD HOUSE 2. It’s no ROAD HOUSE 1, but does a surprisingly good job of re-capturing the goofy seriousness of the original. However, if ABOMINABLE is eligible I would definitely go for that. I actually saw it in a theater, but it was one of I think two or three screens in the world that played it and it was crappy digital projection, it would’ve looked better at home. Anyway, that’s a good solid ’80s style horror movie with some enjoyable Yeti-Sasquatch type mayhem.
BEST DVD EXTRA
David “The Demon” DeFalco’s tour of the L.A. coroner’s office on CHAOS. But mainly because it got me challenged to a wrestling match. Only the very best bonus features get you challenged like that.
This is a tough one and could definitely change if I saw those movies I mentioned.
Kind of slim pickings actually, but from what I’ve seen I think it’s between (in alphabetical order) CASINO ROYALE, THE DEPARTED, FEARLESS, and MIAMI VICE. MIAMI VICE definitely has alot of badass attitude, I think it was actually shot with a digital camera powered by rechargeable attitude batteries. There are shootouts and chases , but not a whole lot of fighting. But that’s good because these guys still seem badass by sitting at a table having a tense verbal confrontation with some drug dealers and shit like that. Badass sitting down – that’s true badass. THE DEPARTED is completely different but it has an equal or greater amount of badass attitude. Plus people getting thrown off roofs and shit. And Mark Wahlberg assassinating somebody while wearing booties.
Then you got FEARLESS which is the best all around story about fighting, or not fighting. The fight scenes are good but the thing that kept me hooked was the story about this guy learning that beating everybody up all the time is for assholes. A nice take on the ol’ badass with the heart of gold routine.
But I think I may have to give it to CASINO ROYALE for this reason: 75% of the success of this movie is based on Daniel Craig’s excellent Badass Performance. The other 25% is of course the actual movie, the stripping down of James Bond, the tweaking of the old formula and the better than usual love story. That gets the ball rolling but Daniel Craig pushes it to the top of the mountain. You guys knew he was a standout in LAYER CAKE, I thought he pretty much stole MUNICH, now here he is re-inventing an icon for a mass audience that doesn’t even know his name. To them he’s just James Bond, and by the way James Bond is now a bad motherfucker. Count me as one of the many people who for the first time are excited for the next James Bond movie.
But maybe THE DEPARTED though.
BEST INDIVIDUAL FIGHT SCENE
The 4+ minute uninterrupted tracking shot fight in THE PROTECTOR/TOM YUM GOONG. The movie had its story problems but I still think the fights are incredible, especially that one. I want to see more martial arts filmatists trying to take it to the next level like that. Trying to show you something you haven’t seen before.
BEST OVERALL MOVIE
TIE: UNITED 93 and BENCHWARMERS
The two best films of 2006 could not be more different. One is a comedy with an all star cast, the other a documentary style historical drama full of faces you aren’t supposed to recognize, except as a reflection of the everyday people we meet throughout our lives. Paul Greengrass (director of United 93) is British, while Benchwarmers’s Dennis Dugan is American. But a common cultural thread bonds these two exquis–
Nah, just jerkin your chain. I noticed that that nutbag Armond White put NACHO LIBRE at #5 on his top ten list, and I wanted to one-up him. Actually I never saw either of those movies, so scratch that.
This is probaly a weird choice but I think my favorite movie this year was DAVE CHAPPELLE’S BLOCK PARTY. It works as a slice-of-life documentary, as a concert movie, as a comedy, as an examination of Dave Chappelle trying to figure out how to feel good about being rich and famous. It’s got interesting characters (the director of the marching band, the old hippie couple in the converted crackhouse), great music, funny shit and unexpected insight (like when Chappelle plays “Round Midnight” on a thrift store piano and encourages comedians to study Thelonious Monk’s timing). These are all good things but what has made this movie really stick with me is the straight up positivity of the whole thing. Chappelle wanting to use his money to do something nice, bringing together all kinds of people for a free concert, bringing together all these artists for the music and the friendship, not just being rock stars, people of all different ages and backgrounds enjoying it together. If you think about it, all this is done with the backdrop of the Iraq war and Chappelle’s impending breakdown, but the power of the music overcomes that. I love this movie because it makes me feel good about the world and about humanity.
Hell, I sound like Michael Medved. I wonder if that asshole has this on his list? I don’t think he has a list yet, he’s probaly busy still looking for hidden gay people in that penguin cartoon.
[Note: I just checked some web sight collecting top tens. Didn’t see Medved on there but it turns out that both Mike Del Angelo (big time critic who bought one of my t-shirts years ago) and Bilge Ebiri (cool guy who quotes me all the time on his ‘blog’ web sight) have BLOCK PARTY at number 1. Good job fellas. We did it. We showed ’em.]
NEW YEAR’S RESOLUTION 2007
So now it’s time for my New Year’s resolution. As you know, two years ago I did A Commitment To Excellence, which was pretty successful, so this year I did Striving For Excellence. Well, at this point I think I’m ready to take the plunge, I’m ready to settle down with excellence. I feel that I should strive for excellence always and not just in yearly installments. Therefore, I am taking a permanent Vow of Excellence which I hope to live by indefinitely.
So my resolution will be a little more concrete here. I’m gonna finish Seagalogy, come hell or high water or 2008. Here’s the update on that. I got all the chapters written but they’re not all top shelf material, I am rewriting and rewatching and continually updating. Meanwhile, the dude puts out a new movie every three or four months. It’s like trying to eat a carrot that’s still growing. But I got a couple ideas for where I can cut it off, that shouldn’t be a problem. (I can always do a second edition or book two down the road if he keeps making em at this rate.)
BUT THAT’S NOT ALL. I gotta challenge myself so I will attempt to have ANOTHER book also finished by the end of the year. I don’t know what book, but some book that is not about Steven Seagal. Can I do it? We shall see. We shall see.
anyway thanks everybody for reading this year and sending me nice emails and crap, Happy New Year, I hope you drove safely, and everything else like that
2007: May the Democratic Congress not blow it
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.