Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Movie Reviews 303 – The Wild Bunch (1969)

June 16, 2017

The western was once a Hollywood staple, born in the silent era at the nascence of the film industry itself, it reigned supreme along with the romance and crime mysteries from the 40’s on through the 60’s. It competed with Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon in the form of the weekly serials used to entice kids to return for Saturday matinees. Legendary stars including John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Jimmy Stewart and even director John Ford were synonymous with the format. But somewhere along the late 60’s it began to lose it’s lustre and fell out of favour, and the genre has been only sporadically revisited since.

The popularity of westerns in it’s heyday could be attributed to one factor: the promise of some action  But while those old westerns featured gunfights, showdowns and Cowboy and Indian war battles, the inflicted wounds were moderated to keep them mostly family friendly – well as family friendly as a gunshot or piercing arrow can be – bloodless and without realistic injuries. Director Sam Peckinpah changed all that with The Wild Bunch, throwing the sugar coated oaters a dose of reality.

The story is about a band of grizzled outlaws who roam along the periphery of the Mexican border as they pull their heists. The movie begins with the gang disguised in cavalry uniforms entering a small town and staging a bank robbery. But just as they are about to make their getaway they notice guns poking along the nearby rooftops. But the lawmen, forewarned and waiting for them, have not planned well. Evident that they are about to be ambushed by the waiting posse the outlaws take advantage of a badly timed celebratory parade including women and children leading right up to the bank porch. The outlaws exit the bank with guns blazing, instantly barraged by return gunfire. What follows next is a prolonged scene of frenzied carnage that leaves casualties on both sides, but mostly with the young and innocent bystanders. This opening scene clearly establishes the realism to follow.

The ragtag group of outlaws keep one step ahead of their pursuers while at the same time try to get one last good robbery with visions of a comfortable retirement dangling before them. Their trail is hindered not only by the lawmen and bounty hunters hot on their trail but also by a former gang member who got caught and coerced into cooperating with the gangs capture. Their escape plans are further complicated by the Mexican revolution, rebels, corrupt authorities in both factions, arms dealing, gang infighting and another thwarted heist.

Amid much soul searching and questioning the meaning of life, the grim outlook is inescapable leading to both desperation and eventual resignation. The gun battles are palpable and with blood red flowing freely along with bits of body and flesh. The handguns and shotguns are reinforced with a prized machine gun with becomes the centerpiece of a bloody finale. Other brutal acts which include a slit throat and a man dragged within and inch of his life are just as authentically portrayed.

The stellar cast is led by William Holden as the gang leader, Robert Ryan as the former member leading the hunt, Ernest Borgnine, Warren Oates, Ben Johnson and even Strother Martin as one of the feckless bounty hunters.

Not for the faint of heart, the brutality in the film still stands as a benchmark today. The film also pushes the realism and ruthless boundaries in other ways such as showing kids torturing scorpions engulfed in ants and how ragged Mexican women would prostitute themselves for a few gringo coins, subject matter that would normally be hinted at and not explicitly shown on camera.

Peckinpah would once again adopt this ultra-violence format in Straw Dogs, another film that was proved to be controversial, but just as great cinematically.

Movie Reviews 301 – Cleopatra Jones (1973)

June 3, 2017

Lets just start by being clear on one thing. Tamara Dobson is no Pam Grier and Cleopatra Jones is no Coffy. That in a nutshell summarizes this mid seventies sub genre of blaxploitation flicks featuring chic but tough ghetto savvy women that kick ass and drop jaws at the same time. But just because Cleopatra Jones may not be the best entry in the genre but it is not to be dismissed either. In an odd way the imperfections are part of the charm making this one worth your while as long as expectations are kept in check.

The lavish intro zooms in on a camel caravan in the remote desert which I assume was designed to lure audiences into thinking that this Cleopatra may have more of an exotic Egyptian link than the poster would have us believe. But the illusion is shattered when a whirling helicopter enters the panorama and then lands and we get our first glimpse of our enchantress Jones (Dobson). With a assembled delegation that looks like a United Nations cast of generals, suits and arab nobility, Cleopatra oversees an order to have a military jet fly in out of the blue and before the eyes of the shocked contingent strafes and torches a field of poppies.

Her remark “That’s $30 million of shit that isn’t going into some kids veins.” sets the course of the film firmly as an anti-drug message movie which then shifts the action into Jones’s home-turf of a Los Angeles ghetto being torn from within by the scourge of drugs. Cleopatra is a special agent secured by the President of the Unites States no less – her id card says just that – working to rid the world of narcotics but especially in her home hood where the local addict recovery house is run by Reuben Masters (Bernie Casey), Cleo’s beau.

Part of Cleo’s problems are rogue cops giving Reuben a hard time but that is nothing compared to “Momma” (Shelley Winters) a local drug lord who was to receive some of the drugs that would have been made from that desert crop. This is where the movie starts to show some of it’s loose threads as Winters’ portrayal of Momma sticks out like a sore white thumb and whose every appearance in the movie shifts the otherwise gritty mood to farcical comedy with inept goons. It’s just  jarring and does gel with the tone of the rest movie at all.

Thankfully other characters ease the pain, the real standout being Antonio Fargas (“Huggy Bear” to Starsky and Hutch aficionados) as Doodlebug, one of Momma’s street distributors mounting a coup and incurring the wrath of Momma. Doodlebug is the real thing, cocky and corny and prideful of his Afro coif but ruthless at the same time.

Speeding along in her signature Corvette and wearing more fur than an entire Eskimo village’s wardrobe Cleopatra has to placate the cops, rescue the recovery house and put Momma in the doghouse and do all that looking mighty fine. A few acting debacles aside – including Dobson herself to a degree – there are enough muscle car chases and crashes and Jive Talkin to complete the blaxploitation checklist promised. One last notable missed opportunity is the unsatisfying funk score as the producers opted to mimic some of the ghetto hits of the time instead of using ‘the real thang’. Well, ya can’t have every thang, I guess.

 

Movie Reviews 295 – Death Wish (1974)

April 14, 2017

During the 1970’s cop dramas were well established cinema mainstays with such hits as The French Connection (1971), Serpico (1973) and The Seven-Ups (1973). The renegade cop concept was explored in Clint Eastwood’s Dirty Harry (1971) but it was Charles Bronson in Death Wish which exploded vigilantism in the form of citizen rebellion to the forefront.

Laying on an idyllic tropical beach, middle aged couple Paul Kersey (Bronson) and his wife Joanna (Hope Lange) are savouring the last moments of their romantic vacation.  We then cut to the stark contrast of them back in overcrowded New York city, sitting in gridlocked traffic amid incessant sirens, under the soot and smog skyline.

With Paul back at work as architect in a large firm, a trio of young punks note the home address after Joanna and their newlywed daughter leave a grocery store leaving behind an order to have their purchases delivered. Posing as the delivery boy, the thugs burst into the apartment and proceed to dole out one of the most brutal and realistic rape and beating scenes ever filmed – even eclipsing that in A Clockwork Orange.

With his wife now dead, his daughter in a catatonic shock tormented by screaming fits when touched, Paul’s life is forever changed. He takes notice of his surroundings, punctuated by violence, fear lurking in every nook and cranny, and now suspicious of every encounter. His newfound anxiety leads him to carry a coin filled sock which soon comes in handy when he is confronted by mugger. With the basic weapon he manages to repel the hood, but more importantly gains a bit of fortitude and courage.

On a business trip to Arizona his associate (Stuart Margolin) treats him to a visit to a wild west frontier amusement park where cowboy gun battles are recreated, reminding him of how old style justice was meted with a gun as much as in a courtroom. Later at a shooting range he demonstrates his crack shot marksmanship to his friend explaining his instruction by his hunter father, but also how an incident in his past has made him renounce the use of guns, going so far as to being classified as conscientious objector during the Korean war. But his associate believes otherwise gives him a surprise parting gift of a revolver just as he embarks on his way back to New York.

Conflicted but also emboldened, Paul visits Central Park late one night, baiting the muggers in the notorious fertile urban jungle. As expected he makes his first kill, and retreats back home where he vomits in shock and revulsion. But the revulsion is temporary and Paul soon adopts regular hunting forays into the night.

Piecing together crime scene evidence  the police soon figure out that they have a vigilante on their hands and lieutenant Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) leads the investigation. The news that a vigilante is running around the city makes national headline news with billboards and magazine covers marking the event and energizing the city. But the police and municipal leaders try to downplay the conspicuous guardian worrying about copycats and others taking up arms while noting that muggers themselves have taken notice with a marked decrease in crime. The question remains, is the vigilante a hero or a criminal? And what will they do with him when they do catch him?

A lot of the success of the movie was that it hit on a very real crime problem that was rampant in many large cities at the time, New York being a poster child for murders having tripled its rate in the years between 1960 and the mid 70’s. The fear exemplified by Paul was real and seeing something being done, even if only in a movie, was somehow satisfying. The philosophical questions it raises regarding the morality of vigilantism and self defense remain as relevant today as it was then.

With convincing acting and realistic, savage scenes, Death Wish still holds today as the seminal vigilante film and satisfies from the very beginning up to the memorable, final finger pointing gun and smirk on Bronson’s face. As you watch, keep you eye out for a number of future stars playing minor roles.

With three of the four sequels sitting on my DVD shelves I also watched some of them, none coming close to this film, and each stretching the concept further into mediocrity and which play out more like extended cop show episodes than feature films.

On a parting note I have just learned that Bruce Willis is set to star in a reboot directed by Eli Roth – noted for the Cabin Fever and Hostel series of horror movies -set to be released this year. Not sure what to make of that but it will still be tough to match this original.

Movie Reviews 290 – Shaft (1971)

March 12, 2017

With the highly suggestive name and title, Shaft is the movie that brought the ghetto to the big screen and along the way gave birth to the blaxploitation movie trend that continued for most of 1970’s. While the plot may be fairly light, viewers were seduced by many other factors and it’s those aspects that have made the movie and the name itself classic.

For starters, Richard Roundtree, the embodiment of John Shaft was one cool dude. Slick and trim sporting cunate sideburns and always wearing his trademark long brown leather coat, his looks cemented his ladies man status, but it was his smarts and take no guff attitude that shaped this private investigator.

The tenement buildings and their dilapidated accommodations within. The garbage strewn streets. The smoky corner bars. The rusty cars amid the Manhattan smog. All vividly portray what the Big Apple was really like in it’s darkest days. While not inviting to movie audiences in itself, it did provide realism for a new brand of action packed movie, those catering to African American audiences. But perhaps not surprisingly, those same trappings caught on with audiences across the race spectrum.

The nostalgia oozes from the moment the frames start to roll with glorious Shaft dodging full sized 70’s gas guzzlers in the streets of Harlem, all while Isaac Hayes’ theme song streams in the background. But this is no mere score. One could argue that “The theme from Shaft” is more famous than the movie itself as it pretty much delivers the same essence.

Who’s the black private dick
That’s a sex machine to all the chicks?
(Shaft!)
You’re damn right

Who is the man
That would risk his neck for his brother man?
(Shaft!)
Can ya dig it?

Who’s the cat that won’t cop out
When there’s danger all about
(Shaft!)
Right on

You see this cat Shaft is a bad mother
(Shut your mouth)
But I’m talkin’ about Shaft
(Then we can dig it)
He’s a complicated man
But no one understands him but his woman
(John Shaft)

Story wise, the pedantic plot does not stray too far from your regular cop drama. While Shaft may have his differences with NYPD Lieutenant Androzzi (Charles Cioffi), theirs is a cooperative and symbiotic relationship. But that friendship gets stressed when a bunch of mobsters start arriving from all parts of the country. Something is brewing and Androzzi wants Shaft to leverage his street savvy to get the lowdown. At just that time Shaft gets hired by a local drug kingpin to find out who kidnapped his teenage daughter. These two pieces are part of a puzzle that on the face of it appear to be a gangland turf war, but because of the particulars of those involved, can develop into citywide race war.

A few car chases, shootouts, fistfights and someone thrown out of a window, all with ample breaks for Shaft to radiate his pearly whites to the fairer sex, and you have Shaft.

Can you dig it? I can.

Movie Reviews 287 – Les Diaboliques (1955)

February 10, 2017

les-diaboliquesFrench director Henri-Georges Clouzot was probably the one director that could compete on equal footing with the great Alfred Hitchcock. And while not as prolific, Les Diaboliques “The Devils”, although it is universally distributed under the original French title – not only ranks as good as Hitch’s best, but in some ways even surpasses the master.

Right from the start we are confronted by the strange trinity between the headmaster of the Delassalle boarding school for boys, his wife and his mistress, both teachers there. Headmaster Michel (Paul Meurisse) openly both seduces and torments his mistress Nicole (Simone Signoret), while at the same time she befriends and consoles his wife Christina (Véra Clouzot). Christina, weak and ashen-faced and who actually owns the school is constantly bullied, dehumanized and degraded by Michel in front of everyone. As the school enters into a three day weekend holiday, Nicole convinces Christina to help her with a plan to murder Michel. Christina wavers, as she desperately wants to divorce Michel, yet is held back by her religious convictions. Meticulously planned and with deceptively crafted alibis in place, the women execute their scheme in which the last step is to place the body in the stagnant swimming pool at the school and then wait for someone to stumble across the remains.

They wait out for the anticipated discovery with ever increasing nerves until they all but order the emptying of the pool, only to be shocked that no body is to be found. But subtle clues and a body washed up on a nearby shore have the women scrambling. As they mount excuses and lies to cover their search for the body Christina is approached by a retired Police detective to help her find her ‘missing’ husband.  In a truly an unforgettable ending, the truth is more shocking than anything viewers can anticipate and fitting the diabolical title.

What make this film so great is the sustained tension, from beginning to end and so thick you can cut it with a knife. Christina (and sadly Véra herself in real life ) is further strained by a heart condition throughout the ordeal of the murder and the following turmoil. What we believe are just minute artistic nuances in the filming end up being perfectly fitting the character motivations that support the twist ending. Even then, with the very last scene after the big ‘reveal’, we are left with a sense that once again there is just a little be more to the story.

If that weren’t enough, the shot compositions are magnificently framed and there are plenty of subtle subtext devices throughout. I honestly want to watch it again now that I know the outcome. It is both an art film and a film that can be enjoyed by the masses. Filmmaking at it’s finest. I’m now looking forward to someday finding The Wages of Fear, another Clouzot film held in high regard.

My Criterion DVD contained excellent extra features that provided a background on both the director and the film itself which I highly recommend. The only bad news is that those features implied that Hush… Hush, Sweet Charlotte, a film I already stated I was looking forward to, is essentially retelling of the Diabolique plot.

Les Diaboliques? C’est Magnifique!

Movie Reviews 164 – Dahmer (2002)

January 29, 2014

3 Pack Killer DVD SetThis is the final installment in my series of reviews for the Killer 3 DVD Pack which features movies for three of the biggest serial killers in US history, Ed Gein, John Wayne Gacy and Jeffrey Dahmer.

Dahmer (2002)

DahmerDefinitely the weakest movie in this serial killer triple DVD pack, the people who put “Dahmer” together managed the impossible; make a movie about an infamous serial killer boring.

While the other two movies, Ed Gein and Gacy, strived to get as much information on the actual crimes committed (not necessarily re-enacting the events) so that the full scope of their villainy can be grasped, this depiction of Dahmer only scratches the surface.

While the real life Dahmer raped, killed and even cannibalized some seventeen odd young men, after watching this movie you got the sense that he was only responsible for a few killings and with the exception of one gruesome artifact (a head he kept in his room while living with his grandmother), a run of the mill killer at that. Well, as ‘run of the mill’ as you can be for a killer anyway. This is as desensitized a movie as you can make for a serial killer. The real crime here is how the movie makers decided to focus on a few inane events and relationships while completely ignoring so many aspects of Dahmer’s past and psyche you wonder how much was researched at all.

Aside from the problem of great omissions (especially the acts of cannibalism), the movie suffers from a lot of unexplained scenes. I mentioned that there was a scene in which we learn that Dahmer had kept a severed head in a box. Much fanfare is made when Dahmer’s father nearly opens the box and Jeffrey has to make up excuses quickly so that he can have a few moments to hide the head. But aside from that scene we don’t know anything about how he managed to have the head in the first place. While obviously a victim of his, we never learn anything else. This muddled message is due in part to any big problem with this movie, the use of flashbacks and jumps in time periods Dahmer’s life. Used effectively in many movies like this (the other movies in this very DVD pack being examples of how to do it right), here the use of flashbacks just provide more incomplete and ‘unfinished’ glimpses into his past. While the flashbacks emphasize one particular victim of his, a hitchhiker he picked up and brought home for a drinking binge, other flashbacks to his gay bar visits are only confusing in that they are only utilized to show how he started infusing drugs in drinks to render his victims groggy or knock them out entirely.

The biggest chunk of the movie is centered on one particular relationship he developed with a young man helping out at the cash register at a firearms store Dahmer was shopping at one day. This relationship is explored throughout most of the movie with the many visits the man makes to Dahmer’s apartment. But in the end, the guy just seems to leave around the time Dahmer finally gets busted at which point the film just ends. Another major annoyance is repeatedly seeing a dead body in one of Dahmer’s bedrooms for a period of time. He looks like someone Dahmer met and drugged at one of his gay bar visits, but we’re never really sure.

So much of Dahmer’s known life are never touched upon (e.g. childhood obsession with animal carcases, impaling dogs head, alcohol abuse as schooler, pranks, etc). If you want just an inkling of Dahmer, this movie may fit the bill, but even as such,  just barely. The definitive movie on his life and crimes has yet to be made.