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The Five Best Revenge Movies

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Revenge, or retaliation is as old an impulse as the reptile brain. “Django Unchained,” Quentin Tarantino’s slavery revenge fantasy, opened on Christmas, following the spring release of “The Avengers.” The theme of revenge, it seems, and the business of avenging was strong in this year passed. Lately, however, it seems as if Tarantino (“Kill Bill,” “Inglorious Basterds”) has taken proprietorship of the whole revenge fantasy film genre. But he is not alone, of course. “The Dark Knight Rising” is in its entirety from start to finish a paean to revenge, from Bane’s revenge against The Bat to The Bat’s revenge against Bane.

Quentin may be on to something. Revenge, when done well, is as immensely satisfying a cinematic experience as it is a dark psychological pleasure that arose in dark antiquity. The feeling of satisfaction from a revenge fantasy movie is not entirely unlike how at the end of TV’s “Law and Order” the bad guys – generally – get their comeuppance. The viewer feels as if all is well and good in the world (even though, of course, it often is not) after a hard day of work in a universe where fortune appears to favor the most aggressive and ethically neutral among us. And who among us wouldn’t prefer to watch Spielberg’s “Munich” than, say, Angelina Jolie’s massive downer of a film, “A Mighty Heart”? Would you rather pay admission to “A Mighty Heart” over “Munich”?

In the spirit of revenge, in all its dark glory, here are my five favorite films from that genre:


5. “Leon: The Professional” (1994)

Icy-precise hitman Leon Montana led a pretty nihilistic, efficient life until he took the contract of little Mathilda. Mathilde, played by Natalie Portman, seeks the avenging of the death of her family by the sleazy-precise corrupt DEA agent Stansfield in an apartment complex. The death of her innocent four year old brother and the powerlessness of a twelve year old girl against such forces of governmental corruption strike a universal chord. And the redemption of Leon, one of the most loveable cold-blooded killers of all time, makes this film truly a superlative example of revenge fantasy. Rest in pieces, brother.


4. “Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan” (1982)

“Revenge,” hisses Khan Noonien Singh, “is a dish best served cold.” This, Khan tells us, is an old Klingon proverb, but many actual civilizations have lived by that same idea. Fifteen years earlier, Captain James Kirk stranded Khan in the remains of the USS Botany Bay to live out the rest of his days in the cold embrace of outer freaking space. How cool is that? Sheer geekiness notwithstanding, Star Trek II is an instance of a sequel outdoing the original. The slowly played out space cat and mouse game is masterful, a cosmic dance. “The Wrath of Khan” is timeless, transcending the limited appeal of mere science fiction.


3. “The Unforgiven” (1960)

Before Clint Eastwood made an ass of himself chatting with an empty chair in public, he was one of the greatest American badasses of all time. “The Unforgiven,” widely seen at the time as “the last Western” is also about Redemption, one of the thematic pillars of any great revenge story. There is nothing conventionally good about any of the characters, outlaws all. Eastwood, as aging outlaw William Munny, is no saint – and neither are his gunfighter sidekicks or the prostitutes who post a $1,000 bounty on the heads of the animals that disfigured one of their own.  And yet our primal, reptile brains cannot help but anticipate with dark joy the bloody comeuppance sure to come. Delicious.


2. “Gladiator” (2000)

“Gladiator,” on its surface, is formulaic. The noble Maximus is wronged by Power. He struggles, against all odds, and gets his revenge. And the film won Best Picture. Still, this is not Rocky II. The execution is so brilliant, the story so perfect, the acting so convincing, that Gladiator of the only movies that I have ever seen where the audience at the theater broke into applause several times during the film as well as at the end. Gladiator can only be properly construed as cathartic. We cheer at the sanguinary death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus because he didn’t deserve the throne; we cheer at the death of the whiny “Emperor” Commodus every time power, unearned, holds its boots to our collective necks. Rest in peace, Maximus; semper fi.


1. “The Godfather” (1974)

Not only is “The Godfather” one of the greatest films in the history of cinema, it is the greatest revenge fantasy in the history of cinema. Vito Corleone, granted, is not as noble as the Roman soldier Maximus, but he, after his own fashion, is not without an ancient moral code guiding his behavior.

Three of the film’s most effective scenes involve intricate depictions of the psychology of revenge in an almost classic tragic form. In the first, Vito Corleone movingly forgoes revenge for the death of Sonny, withdrawing his objections to the Tattaglia’s in the meeting with the Five Families for the sake of peace. In the second hugely effective rendering of the psychology of revenge, Michael Corleone, the next generation of Don, bides his time and brutally exacts his revenge, consolidating his power. And in the final, and most effective scene involving the psychology of revenge, Michael – the son of his father — blatantly lies to his wife, Kay, about the bloody-tragic actions he set in motion.

Retaliation, or revenge, is as old as the reptile brain, but it is that most civilized of human art –motion pictures – that has fully expressed that impulse in all its dark, glorious beauty.


What is your favorite revenge movie? Tell us in the comments below or on Facebook and Twitter.

Fred Armisen and Bill Hader as Blue Jean Committee

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Watch Blue Jean Committee Talk About Their Old Pals Hall and Oates

Fred Armisen and Bill Hader made a smooth video for Hall & Oates.

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Kings of the “Yacht Rock” genre Daryl Hall and John Oates are kicking off a slew of tour dates this summer in an effort to raise the nation’s median concertgoer age by at least 30 years. And to announce their soon-to-be onslaught of blue-eyed soul jams, Hall & Oates have enlisted fellow “Mavens of Mellow” the Blue Jean Committee from IFC’s Documentary Now!. Reprising their laid back musical personas, Bill Hader and Fred Armisen reflected on the history between the two groups in a new video announcing the tour.

“What do you think of when you think of the Seventies? When you think of beautiful harmonies, you think of a duo who sing together to make hit songs. You think of the Blue Jean Committee and that’s who we are,” Armisen remarks. Hader continues, “Who you think of fifth, or maybe eighth, is Daryl Hall and John Oates. You know who used to open for us? Who we used to kick around? Daryl Hall and John Oates!” Strong words. Strong, smooth words.

Be sure to catch Hall & Oates on tour and check back for updates on Documentary Now! season two coming later this year.  For more Bill and Fred, check out the complete Documentary Now! archive, listen to music from the show, and watch full episodes right now on IFC.com and the IFC app.

Ten Sacred Cows Destroyed By Doug Stanhope

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Last year, on Louis C.K.’s breakout hit series “Louie,” Doug Stanhope played Eddie, an old friend and peer of Louie’s who hadn’t found any success in comedy, nor any happiness in life. Sharing Louie’s low tolerance for bullshit, Eddie confided in him that he was just passing through town on his way to Boston, where he would do his final show before killing himself. Every argument Louie tries to muster to convince him otherwise is quickly and brutally shot down, and eventually, he has to just acquiesce to Eddie’s intentions and bid him farewell. With a strong performance from both men, they destroyed the common wisdom that suicide should never be a viable option.

The more viscerally affecting part of that episode is that Eddie doesn’t seem all that far removed from Stanhope himself, aside from the quality of his comedy. Stanhope’s stage persona is a nihilistic man who has to blind himself on alcohol and drugs to enjoy any small part of the bleak, unending hellscape of existence, but as he often says, he’s funnier when he’s drunk, which means he’s not blinding himself at all. His methodology is to attack and deconstruct with brutal efficiency not just the garden variety bullshit of pop culture that most comedians mock, but also the much more deeply held bullshit beliefs that we don’t often remember to question – and it’s never without controversy. Here are ten sacred cows that Doug Stanhope has verbally destroyed.


1. Royalty

We’ll start with an easy one that still comes with an edge. Most folks in America realize how ridiculous the obsession with England’s royal family is, but few people will actually go overseas and tell the Queen’s subjects that they’re backwoods simpletons and “bootlicking fucking supplicants” for allowing the whole outdated institution of “leeches” to continue to exist. “Do you have wizards and fairies, too?”


2. Hard work is a virtue

That’s something you tend to believe instinctively – success is achieved through hard work and the discipline to keep working hard. Stanhope begs to differ, citing his own career path was carved out through drinking, smoking and drugs. Let him explain how even his Alcoholics Anonymous friends have had to give up and admit that drinking serves him well.


3. Dying young is a tragedy

Touching on the concept of his turn on “Louie,” Stanhope tells us exactly why the early deaths of artists like Kurt Cobain, Jimi Hendrix and Lenny Bruce might’ve been for the best, and how he may be approaching that point himself.


4. Children

Continuing the “death is good” theme, Stanhope takes the genuine desire to better the state of the world through environmentalism and dismisses it as ineffectual in dealing with the real problem – the fact that you want to have children in a world that’s desperately overpopulated and can’t handle any more people. Thus, abortion is green.


5. Sex

Yes, even this, the core drive of many people’s existences, the instinctive all-consuming desire to copulate with others, is torn apart as pretty pathetic and shameful. “It’s not bad. It’s free fun for poor people,” he admits, before explaining it’s such a monumental anticlimax and so ridiculously overblown that it completely stunts our potential as a species.

The Tragedy of Arnold Schwarzenegger

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If I could ask Arnold Schwarzenegger one question it would be: How does it feel to know that you will never be elected President? I would ask this because throughout his recently published autobiography there is an overwhelming – and there is no other way to describe it — musk redolent of unending ambition mixed in with the stench of desiccated beef liver supplements. From the mean streets of Thal, Austria to Venice Beach to the Hollywood A-List to the Governor’s mansion in Sacramento, Arnold’s relentless drive, his monstrous ambition, has always veered upwards, against the wind, towards the direction of the highest job in the greatest power on the planet. Arnold, quite frankly, was born to run for President. Since inaugurating the phenomenon now known as celebrity politics, it was widely suspected that Arnold would make a run for the White House.

In the best of all possible action film influenced worlds, Arnold Schwarzenegger would either be President, or he’d be in the final throes of articulating a full blown rationale for 2016. In reality, however, Arnold’s political career is essentially over. Why is this thus? What is the meaning of this thusness?

The relationship and lovechild with his maid (so terribly cliché) notwithstanding, Arnold’s political career was terminated – again, no other way to describe it — by his inability to solve California’s deficit. Arnold ran as a moderate, a centrist, a problem solver; he was going to be our daddy. California, let’s face it, needed a steady hand and a stern talking to, instead Arnold was the indulgent father. Had Schwarzenegger solved California’s biggest problem, he would have had a cakewalk to the nomination in 2012. He would have been greeted at the convention hall with flowers and chocolates. And life said “ha.” Instead of being greeted as the conquering hero in Washington, ass dragging, Arnold is headed back to Hollywood, to an industry he formally left, this time cast as the aging action hero.

But as much as I want to dislike Arnold, the raw honesty and simplicity expressed in his autobiography makes him hard to hate. He is, after all, a man’s man. Bodybuilding, real estate, action movies – Arnold is not a man of complicated emotions, he is not a Hamlet. There is something oddly refreshing about that, his lack of introspection, his lack of shame, his simplistic drive to achieve, his – once again, no other way to describe it — will to power. In order to fully appreciate the psychological richness of a Stanley Kubrick or a Prince, there has to be an Arnold Schwarzenegger. The universe makes them in all shapes and sizes.

One of my favorite lines in Total Recall, and one that is most telling about the man, involved an economics professor Arnold had when he arrived in America. Arnold, all drive, took – what else? – Business courses at community college. There is only so far that one can go as a professional bodybuilder. In true Arnold fashion, he noticed that his economics professor drove a half-assed car. Even in the description one could whiff the future governator’s disapproval. Schwarzenegger slyly noted that he drove a better car than his professor, and, further, that a professor of economics should be driving a Mercedes caliber vehicle, anything else would cast aspersions on the grasp of the subject matter to which he professes!  In that one acid anecdote lies the whole of Arnold – the practicality, the simple wisdom and the projection of power in a dangerous world.

Lawrence Leamer in The Daily Beast observers, “Schwarzenegger is a man of monumental ambition who sometimes plans his crucial moves years in advance.” I don’t doubt that at for a minute. Everything in his autobiography is honest, upbeat and wholly free of shame. His trajectory – from Austria to the governor’s mansion in Sacramento – is upward in trajectory. That is why the tragedy of Arnold Schwarzenegger is so poignant. Arnold will never be president of the United States and for a personality like his that has got to smart (and what prompted me to ask my introductory question). But should his fallback be an inglorious to return to the world of film, a cosmos that he so thoroughly has already conquered? It just seems like such a letdown.

What would Rainier Wolfcastle do?

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