Jonathan Demme, RIP


I just saw, on twitter, that Jonathan Demme died today in New York City.  He was 73 years old.

It’s ironic that Jonathan Demme’s best known film was the dark and harsh Silence of the Lambs because Demme was actually one of the most humanistic directors out there.  Starting with his work for Roger Corman in the early 70s, Demme worked in all genres.  He did gangster movies, action films, quirky comedies, socially conscious documentaries, and serious prestige dramas.  His directorial debut, Caged Heat, features one of Barbara Steele’s best performances and is considered to be the standard by which all other women in prison films are judged.  His concert film, Stop Making Sense, is widely considered to be the best concert film ever made.  His work on Silence of the Lambs continues to influence the horror genre to this day and Philadelphia was the first studio picture to be made about AIDS.  Even his remake of The Manchurian Candidate was better than the typical remake.  No matter what genre he was working in, the thing that remained a constant was Demme’s own interest in the human condition.  His films felt alive in a way that few directors have ever been able to duplicate.  His influence is obvious in the work of everyone from Wes Anderson to Paul Thomas Anderson to Alexander Payne.

Demme may be best known for The Silence of the Lambs but my favorite of his films will always be Rachel Getting Married.

Jonathan Demme, RIP.

RIP in Blues Heaven, J. Geils


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Appropriately, I was just leaving Fenway Park in Boston with my friends when we heard the news that guitarist J. Geils had died. The J. Geils Band were legendary here in Massachusetts, a gritty, down-to-earth blues rock band who had a string of hits in the 70’s, then reemerged again in the 80’s at the height of MTV’s heyday. The band, fronted by charismatic lead singer Peter Wolf and propelled by the bluesy harmonic licks of Magic Dick, released their first album in 1970, and hit the road to tour the country incessantly. They became known as one of the hardest working (and hardest rocking) bands in America, and hit it big on FM radio with their 1972 LP “LIVE! FULL HOUSE”, featuring the single “Lookin’ for a Love”:

The first time I caught them was in ’73, touring in support of their album “BLOODSHOT”, with the hit “Give It to Me”…

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RIP, Ya Hockey Puck: Don Rickles on Film and Television


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“Mr. Warmth”, the great Don Rickles, died yesterday at age 90. He was outrageous, rude, definitely non-PC, and hysterically funny. Rickles threw his verbal brickbats at everybody regardless of race, creed, national origin, or political persuasion, and it was all in good-spirited fun. There will never be another stand-up comic quite like Don Rickles, especially in today’s “safe space” world, and it’s a pity, because if we can’t all laugh at ourselves, if we can’t take a joke, then it’s time to pack it in.

Something I didn’t know about Don Rickles is he didn’t start out to be “The Merchant of Venom”. He intended to become a serious actor, studying at the prestigious American Academy of Dramatic Arts in Manhattan. Frustrated with his lack of acting jobs, Don began doing stand-up as a way to gain exposure. When he was heckled by some audience members, he heckled ’em right back…

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Goodbye, Don Rickles, and Thank You For The Laughter


Don Rickles, as drawn by Jack Kirby

Oh man, Don Rickles.

Remember when they used to show old episodes of Saturday Night Live on Comedy Central?  I once watched an episode from 1984.  The host was Don Rickles.  His opening monologue was pure Don Rickles, which is to say that he insulted everyone in the audience.  It didn’t matter who the person was, Rickles was going to insult them.  He insulted John Madden.  He insulted Brandon Tartikoff, the president of the NBC.  He insulted the people who had just come in from off the street.  I don’t remember much about the specific insults.  The main thing that I remember is that the audience absolutely loved it.  Even before Rickles thanked them all for being good sports, the audience was eating out of his hand.

Don Rickles was the King of Insult Comedy.  His nickname was Mr. Warmth.  The nickname was not as ironic as you might think.  Off-stage, Rickles was reportedly a kind and generous man.  And, on-stage, Rickles may have insulted the audience but he did it with a twinkle in his eye and he always thanked him at the end.  His humor may have been built on insults but it was also built on self-depreciation.  The only person he made fun of more than the guy sitting in front row of the audience was himself.  Going to one of his shows might lead to you being called a “hockey puck,” but Rickles’s ultimate message was always that we’re all in this together.

As funny as Rickles was, he was also lucky enough to start his career in the 1950s.  (Reportedly, he got his big break when he saw Frank Sinatra in the audience, said, “Make yourself at home, Frank.  Hit somebody!” and insulted his work in his last movie.  Sinatra loved it.)  If Don Rickles had started his career this century, his politically incorrect humor would have gotten him banned from most clubs and Amy Schumer and Lena Dunham would have led a twitter campaign to have him incarcerated.  Don Rickles was lucky enough to by funny at a time when comedians were actually rewarded for making us laugh.

What was your favorite Don Rickles role?  He always said that his grandkids only liked him because he voiced Mr. Potato Head in the Toy Story films.  Rickles also had a rare dramatic role in Martin Scorsese’s Casino, more than holding his own against heavyweight actors like Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci.

Don Rickles died today at the age of 90.  I would say rest in peace but I don’t think Don Rickles would have appreciated the “in peace” part.  I will just say goodbye, Mr. Rickles and thank you for the laughter.

 

Rest in Peace, Tomas Milian


I have some sad news to report.  The great Tomas Milian, an actor beloved by fans of Italian cinema everywhere, has died.  He was 84.

Perhaps because of the type of films that he made, Milian was never the household name that he deserved to be.  In the United States, his death is not even trending on twitter.  #ThickThighTwitter, which is essentially a bunch of people bodyshaming anyone who happens to be slim, is trending.  Tomas Milian is not.

And it’s a shame because Tomas Milian was one of the best.  He may have been beloved by fans of Italian cinema but Milian was truly an international actor.  He was born in Cuba, the son of a general who committed suicide after being jailed.  Milian left Cuba after his father’s death.  He moved to New York City, was a member of the Actor’s Studio, and became naturalized citizen in 1969.

Milian’s acting career took off when he started making movies in Italy.  He appeared in everything from spy movies to spaghetti westerns to horror films to 1970s police dramas.  Whenever I see one of the many films that Milian made in the 60s and 70s, I’m struck by his intensity.  Milian was one of those power actors who often seems like he might leap off the screen at any moment.  He played driven and often haunted men.  Along with an undeniable charisma, Milian radiated danger.

Of the many Westerns he made, The Big Gundown may be his best known.  Here’s Milian with co-star Lee Van Cleef:

My personal favorite of his spaghetti westerns?  The surreal Django Kill:

For me, Tomas Milian was at his most menacing in Lucio Fulci’s underrated (and not for the faint-of-heart) Four Of The Apocalypse:

Four of the Apocalypse was not the only film on which Milian would work with Fulci.  He also played the hero in Fucli’s classic giallo, Don’t Torture a Duckling:

In the 70s, Tomas Milian appeared in several Poliziotteschi, Italian cop films that were largely designed to rip off the success of gritty cop films like The French Connection and Serpico.  Milian was always the ideal rebel cop, though he could play a dangerous criminal just as easily.  Check him out in The Cop In Blue Jeans, perhaps parodying Al Pacino in Serpico:

The films weren’t always good but Milian always commanded the screen.  It’s hard to think of any other actor who was always so much consistently better than the material he had to work with.

With the decline of the Italian film industry, Thomas Milian relocated his career to the United States.  In his later years, he was a character actor who frequently appeared as corrupt military men and politicians.  His best known performance from this time may be his quietly sinister turn in Steven Soderbergh’s Oscar-winning Traffic:

Earlier today, Tomas Milian died of a stoke in Miami.  Rest in peace.

 

 

Hail! Hail! Rock’n’Roll: RIP Chuck Berry


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“Johnny B. Goode”. “Roll Over, Beethoven”. “Sweet Little Sixteen”. “Rock and Roll Music”. The most iconic songs of the Golden Age of Rock’N’Roll belonged to one man, Chuck Berry. When I got home this evening and heard the news he passed away at the age of 90, I knew I’d have to preempt my regularly scheduled post and pay tribute. Because without Chuck Berry, there’s no Beatles, no Rolling Stones, no Beach Boys, no rock and roll as we know it. He was that influential on 20th century music, and the uncrowned King of Rock and Roll.

Sure, Elvis was bigger, but it was Chuck Berry who wrote the soundtrack for a generation of kids listening to their radios searching for relief from the blandness of 50’s commercial pop. He spoke their language, the language of teenage lust, hot rods, high schools hops, all set to a rocking back beat. Berry was…

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