Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

Movie Reviews 331 – Saturday Night Fever (1977)

February 16, 2018

This is as much a confessional as it is a movie review. Why? Because until this week I had never seen Saturday Night Fever before. Most of my readers would think “So what?”, correctly assuming that the majority of films I review here are new to me. So why is the fact I have never seen this particular film in the 40 years since it’s release such a big deal?

The answer lies in part based on my ‘hood’, high school and heritage. The disco mania of the era was a global phenomenon to be sure, but nowhere was it embraced as energetically as within adolescent Italian circles.Growing up Italian – well half Italian to be precise – in a predominantly Italian neighborhood and attending a Catholic high school where about 95 percent of the students were Italians, it was a given that I had seen this film. In this sphere it was considered sacrilegious not to and I suspect a shock to some of my friends from that era who may be reading this now and discovering I had fallen in this regard. That is not to say there was not a staunch rocker, anti-disco clique as well, but they were certainly in the minority. How Italian was John F. Kennedy Comprehensive High School in Montreal in the late 70’s? This was a milieu where you couldn’t throw a rock and not hit a Tony or Maria. (For the record, there were twenty guys named Tony and twenty girls named Maria in my graduating year alone. Trust me, I counted them all in my yearbook.) And being what it was, the vast majority of those students lived and breathed the disco lifestyle – and quite honestly, many of them still do. These kids went to see this movie over and over at the theater, some perhaps a dozen times. My brother was a DJ and his copy of the vinyl LP soundtrack to this film had to be replaced more than once due to the sheer number of ‘spins’ these tracks got. The clothing, hairstyles,  the Italian horn and ‘cornuto’ gold pendants and even those ‘pointer’ shoes all the guys wore reflected that mirror-balled, vainglorious lifestyle.

I’ll be honest that in stating I’m not even sure why I drew the line watching this movie when surrounded by so many devotees. Given what little I knew of the movie one of the reasons I avoid it was that I assumed it would have little or no substance. But I have to admit I was wrong in that particular regard.

Ostensibly the story is about Tony Manero (John Travolta), a young man living under the shadow of his pious priest brother while working a menial job at a hardware store by day. When not begging for salary advances at work he gets hounded at home by his parents for his lack of ambition. His salvation presents itself at night on the dance floor of his local discotheque where his lithe feet and his good looks reward him with women swooning over his every step. Vain and self centered at first, Tony begins to question his friends, values and future. While a lot of this is fluff delivered in a Brooklynese accent as thick as my mother’s spaghetti sauce – and with the exception of the lead, some fairly cringe worthy acting skills – there is more going on here under the surface. The story is buttressed with episodes of unrequited love, parental expectations, responsibilities of adulthood, unplanned parenthood, turf wars and just a smattering of religion.

But the true charm of watching this movie today is the nostalgic time-trip it delivers. Amidst the retro Farrah Fawcett and Rocky posters is a fun look back at what I can only describe as an ‘interesting’ time period for which some attitudes and priorities still perplex me. The music, obviously a large part of this feature and primarily delivered by the Bee Gees, is memorable and even still catchy (at times) after all these years and despite not being my choice of genres.

A few last observations about this movie worth noting. First, you may want to look for a brief appearance of Fran “The Nanny” Drescher in some of the scenes. And lastly, I have to ask: Why was there a strip bar within the discotheque? Because that’s not how I remember them at all. Had I known, perhaps I would not have waited forty years to watch the damn movie.

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Movie Reviews 328 – The Tenant (1976)

January 12, 2018

Trelkovsky (Roman Polanski) is a young Polish man seeking an apartment in Paris when he stumbles upon a vacant unit and immediately tries to secure it for himself. He learns what while it is empty, Simone, the current leaseholder, hasn’t technically relinquished it but in fact attempted suicide by jumping out on the windows and is now in the hospital. As he makes arrangements to rent it out his concerns that the former tenant may return are rebuffed by the lethargic concierge (Shelley Winters) and the landlord (Melvyn Douglas) whose only concern seems to be the reputation of his establishment.

Posing as a friend he visits Simone in the hospital in order to determine her true health prospects and finds her in traction, bandaged like a mummy and with evident serious injuries. He also meets Simone’s friend Stella (Isabelle Adjani), a vivacious and ravishing woman who is also visiting. In the next few weeks the two strike up a flirtatious relationship while Trelkovsky maintains the pretense of having known Simone.

But all’s not well in his new apartment. The other tenants constantly complain about every bit of noise that Trelkovsky makes. And the one shared bathroom common for all the tenants is actually across the courtyard and every time Trelkovsky looks out his window he can see the other tenants just standing, mesmerized in there. But strangest of all is how Trelkovsky’s life begins mimicking that of Simone who has now passed away. Every time he asks the shopkeeper downstairs for his brand of cigarettes he is told they have run out and is offered another brand, that which Simone used to smoke. The coffee shop insists that he try out a breakfast and snacks formerly favored by her. Drawn into her life, Trelkovsky wavers between trying to stem the influences and drowning ever deeper into Simone’s shadow.

The Tenant is one of those films in which the viewer has to decide what is real and what may just be in our protagonist’s mind. A world of blurred realities or a descent into madness? And in typical Polanski style, other topics such as xenophobia, sexual perversion and paranoia are touched upon in this dark and atmospheric thriller. Previously a title that I never heard off, it was a delightful viewing although perhaps not as rich as the other two Polanski films of this supposed ‘apartment’ trilogy, Repulsion and Rosemary’s Baby.

Movie Reviews 325 – The Elia Kazan Collection

December 22, 2017

Invoke the name Elia Kazan within film circles and you’ll get two distinct first impressions. It will either be the plaudit of “Great director” or the condemnation as “The man who named names.”

The history of the US House of Representatives “House Un-American Activities Committee” (HUAC) trials that razed Hollywood (and later similarly tinged Kefauver hearings on the comic industry) has always fascinated me. Senator Eugene McCarthy ushered in the “McCarthy Era” post World War II red scare targeting Hollywood elite to rat out on any anyone in the industry that were either sympathizers or card carrying members of the communist party. While most of those called to testify defied the committee, including Kazan himself when he first appeared, others did comply. But when called a second time Kazan did the unthinkable. He gave names. And to make matters worse and what probably cemented this act was him taking out a full page ad in the New York times the following day to rationalize his actions. His infamous testimony was an act that haunted him for the rest of his life.

I’ve associated Kazan with HUAC nearly as long as I have known of his directorial career. But as one who found myself condemning his actions, I’ve learned over the years that as all things in life and politics, the situation was not as simple as some make it out to be. For one thing he was not the only one to name names, but certainly one of the few to have faced the brunt of retribution. Even Tinseltown nobility the likes of Edward G. Robinson seemed to thrive unscathed despite doing the very same thing. The stigma remained for the rest of his life including when he finally received a lifetime achievement award at the 1999 Academy Awards when a number of those in attendance silently sat through the ceremony while others stood and clapped.

But let’s get back to his directorial efforts. Unlike Kazan’s name eliciting different reactions from a sociopolitical point of view, any discussion of his cinematic achievements are unanimously complimentary. His films have garnered a slew Oscar wins and nominations that few other creators can claim. Moments like Marlon Brando’s tortured soul crying at the top of his lungs “Stella! Stelllaaah!” in A Streetcar Named Desire or Brando lamenting his missed opportunities in life in On the Waterfront are some of the most recognized moments in cinema history.

Kazan’s films are, with few exceptions, emotion filled stories of human angst and turmoil. Whether it be love, justice, or politics the character centric stories are gut wrenching with few respites if any at all. Not surprisingly given that Kazan also has the distinction of being one of the creators of the New York’s Famed Actors Studio and it was he that actually brought in Lee Strasberg, the name usually associated with the group and who I’ve always assumed was responsible for its creation.

The Elia Kazan Collection reviewed here is a magnificent box set representing the very best of Kazan’s illustrious career. Released in 2010 by Fox Studios it presents fifteen great films on eighteen discs as they were released chronologically.

 

A Tree Grows in Brooklyn (1945)

The first film in the set which immediately became one of my favorites without having seen the others. A great portent of things to come. An early turn of the century story of how the matriarch of a family endures every hardship thrown at her. Also a tale that draws upon the pros and cons of those living the artistic carefree lifestyle opposed to those in constant worry and full of responsibility.

 

Boomerang (1947)

A delightful murder case courtroom drama with political influence undertones. Now a staple plot in many movies, this was one of the innovators on that theme and a decent one at that. Apparently most of the story is based on an actual case. This is one of the least enjoyable films in the set for my personal tastes but that is only because the other films were so strong in comparison.

 

Gentleman’s Agreement (1947)

This must have been considered a very daring movie on release, tackling anti-semitism head on and not merely using analogy to present the issue. And having Gregory Peck as the jew certainly helped Kazan getting his first Best Director and Best Picture Oscars and seven nominations in total.

 

Pinky (1949)

Another movie that broke taboos and barriers, this time the story of a lighter toned African American woman (Jeanne Crain) who can ‘pass’ for white. The film deftly address the different attitudes by having the woman return to her southern home after living up north while earning a degree in nursing and falling in love with a white man. The usual bigotry by the townsfolk is not however the central story as the woman, at the behest of her mother, is asked to tend to the elderly white neighbor (Ethel Barrymore).

 

Panic in the Streets (1950)

When an outbreak of a pulmonary plague breaks out in the rat infested shipyards of New Orleans, an officer of the US Health department (Richard Widmark) works alongside local detectives to trace the origin and infectious carrier. But the rats aren’t limited to the four legged vermin, and the wharf has just as many shady characters to fit the profile. One of the few Kazan movies that does not focus on human emotions and works just as well as a pure action flick. Another Oscar winner, but this time for the writing. Ironically actor and comic Zero Mostel who plays one of the hapless gangsters would himself be blacklisted by HUAC two years after this film. But no, Kazan was not the one the named hiw to the committee

 

A Streetcar Named Desire (1951)

One of Kazan’s classics and where he first makes use of the talents of both Marlon Brando and Karl Malden, calibre actors that he would return to often and for whom they would give some of the best performances of their lives. Vivien Leigh plays southern belle Blanche DuBois who having fallen on hard times visits her sister (Kim Hunter) and brother in-law (Brando) who are just scraping by while she maintains the pretense of wealth. Known for the aforementioned wailing “Stella! Stelllaaah!” segment, the film has so much more. This is the movie that made Brando and swept the Oscars but ironically both Kazan and Brando did not win in their respective categories.

 

Viva Zapata! (1952)

Another film starring Brando, this time as the real life Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata who along with Pancho Villa fought for reform and justice. The film explores Zapata’s disillusionment when after the rebellion he finds that not much has changed and having to endure seeing his own brother (Anthony Quinn) complicit with the continued corruption.

 

Man on a Tightrope (1953)

Another film based largely on actual events in post war Czechoslovakia. Fredric March stars as Cernik, the current operator of a travelling circus that was created and owned by his family but that was then nationalized by the communist government. Aside from corrupt officials constantly harassing him, spousal infidelity and an uncontrollable daughter, Cernik has to deal with a spy within his troupe. This all intertwines, culminating in a mad dash to escape the Iron Curtain. Another great surprise for myself as I’d never even heard of this gem before.

 

On the Waterfront (1954)

A Hollywood classic known for Brando’s backseat diatribe to his brother (Rod Steiger) exclaiming “I coulda had class. I coulda been a contender. I coulda been somebody, instead of a bum, which is what I am.” Brando as Malloy, a once promising boxer but now an enforcer for a mob boss (Lee J. Cobb). He is unintentionally involved in the murder of a man about to snitch on the mobster and then falls for the murdered man’s sister (Eva Marie Saint) looking for answers. As dock workers are threatened and exploited they reluctantly turn to the local priest (Karl Malden) who is as hard pressed for answers are is Malloy. Simply a fantastic film with stellar acting by everyone that swept the Oscars with eleven nominations and eight wins.

 

East of Eden (1954)

Not being much of fan of James Dean no matter how big an icon he is supposed to be, it took me while to warm up to this tale of a lost young man trying to satisfy his devout father (Raymond Massey), establish a relationship with his wayward mother (Joan Van Fleet) all in the face of sibling rivalry. I was more impressed by the cinematography than the story, but it does have its moments. No sign of Brando here but one can see that Dean was groomed for the same type of tragic character.

 

Baby Doll (1956)

Archie (Karl Malden), an older, lecherous and failed cotton gin owner marries the barely legal “Baby Doll” (Carroll Baker) and then anxiously and perversely awaits the approach of her twentieth birthday, the day until which he promised the girl’s father he would abstain from consummating the marriage. As the households furniture is repossessed, and with Baby Doll threatening to leave, Archie compounds his troubles by setting fire to the gin of his main competitor, the business savvy Italian Vacarro (Eli Wallach). But when Vacarro pokes around  Archie’s premises looking for proof of the vandalism he finds his opportunity for revenge lies with  Baby Doll in more ways than one.

 

A Face in the Crowd (1957)

If the only perception you have of Andy Griffith is his role as the soft spoken sheriff in Mayberry you’ll have a complete revelation here are he portrays a boisterous, womanizing southern con who uses his guitar and preach worthy voice and lyrics to entrance the nation as well as the reporter who discovers him (Patricia Neal). Behind the simple minded entertainer lurks a demon with more than simple fame within his sights. A rare film with Walter Matthau in a minor role, this one was another appreciated surprise for me.

 

Wild River (1960)

The monumental Tennessee Valley Authority that was created manage the multi state land and water reforms after the great depression and the mass flooding of Tennessee river meant there would be a significant impact for anyone within the affected areas . The burden of dealing with the handcuffed landowners results in one particular manager throwing in the towel and giving opportunity to an eager replacement (Montgomery Clift). Coming in with nothing but the best intentions he is sent in to convince the last holdout of a farm that will be sunk by the rising ( waters. But the stubborn matriarch (Jo Van Fleet) cannot be persuaded even as her own daughter (Lee Remick) falls for bureaucrat.

 

Splendor in the Grass (1961)

If you believed as I did that Natalie Wood was an overrated actress this one will change your mind. On the other hand it also reinforced my contention that laconic Warren Beatty can be a dullard at times.. But it’s a solid story about following one’s dreams and not caving into parental plans.

 

America America (1963)

His most personal film, a semi-biographical depicting his family history as immigrants from Turkey via Greece, adapted from Kazan’s own book. Casting mostly unknown actors including that of the lead, it takes a bit of getting used to, but at the same time does have its charms.

 

The DVD box set also includes a disc with Martin Scorsese’s American Masters tribute A Letter to Elia (2010) which made for a nice retrospective of Kazan’s career from the very evident adoration and personal admiration of Scorsese, a great director in his own right and the man chosen to give Kazan that last Oscar.

I do have to mention a few other things about this particular box set for those that are considering buying it. The set contains two books, the first being a landscape 100 page hardcover on Kazan and his movies and the second a book containing the DVDs along with a short synopsis of each film.  Even before I bought mine (fairly cheaply I might add) I’d heard that some other owners had issues with some of the discs operating correctly. The individual DVDs are placed in ‘pockets’ on thick cardboard pages within the DVD book. Some have speculated that the discs may have gotten scratched when inserting or removing the discs. I had no such issues and my set was a used one so I assume the discs were all used at least once before I got the set. But it is something you may want to check out if getting the set second hand.

If you’re looking for a poignant story with great characters you really can’t go wrong with any of these, whether the be the blockbusters everyone is familiar with or any of the lesser known titles. It time to move on from the controversy and recognize without hesitation this true master film maker.

Movie Reviews 323 – The Crying Game (1992)

December 8, 2017

Many movies have defining moments, ones that change the direction or perspective of the story. Other movies have memorable scenes where either great acting or dialogue have become quintessential moments of cinematic history. But I can only think of one movie, The Crying Game, where one particular scene not only changes perspectives, but defines what the movie is really all about. The jolt not only changes the entire plot but also the very nature of the film. And in this film, what a scene it is!

I will begin by making it clear that I will not divulge that surprise for those that have not seen the film and have managed to not having it spoiled by the media or other means. But the scene in question is so dynamic that any discussion of the film pretty much begins with that one scene. In a way those people who still don’t know about it are to be envied the shock that awaits them.

Set sometime in the 1980’s during North Ireland’s “Troubles” the film begins as a typical political thriller with the IRA capturing and holding Jody (Forest Whitaker), an off duty British soldier. Fergus (Stephen Rea), one of the more reluctant abductors, befriends his captive much to the chagrin of his more militant IRA peers (Miranda Richardson and Adrian Dunbar). The narrative settles on that friendship and the threat of Jody’s death lest the demands of the abductors not be met. Indeed the growing bond between the two could have been the entire plot and it would have been satisfying enough. But the circumstances on how the kidnapping ends has Fergus seeking Jody’s former girlfriend Dil (Jaye Davidson) without telling her of his former connection to Jody.

Whether the initial interest was simply guilt laden or some other unknown reason, once Fergus injects himself into Dil’s world the attraction between the two grows despite each having reservations at first. Fergus’ reluctance is understood given the real connection to Dil but she too is hesitant just when commitment seems evident. What Dil eventually reveals stuns both Fergus and the audience. To say that it changes everything is an understatement. Dealing with that revelation elicits soul searching and uncertainty between the characters, and I suspect the audience just as much. As confusing as it is for Fergus he is them confronted by the return of some of his old IRA peers who have perilous plans for him.

The movie makes constant use and references to the fable of The Scorpion and the Frog which ponders the nature of man and whether one can change that nature, perfectly capturing the essence of this film.

For a real 1990’s throwback enjoy Boy George (remember him?) singing the title theme song which had actually been around long before the movie. The song selection in the score contains a few other choice tunes reflective of the plot and all I’ll say is that this is all apropos once you see this movie.

Movie Reviews 320 – PTU (2003)

November 11, 2017

Rather than arbitrarily selecting movies to review as I used to do when I started this blog, I’ve been trying to emphasize those that I do consider worthy of viewing, whether it be those that are outstanding or those that are quirky enough to have some redeeming entertainment value. Most of those I watch for review purposes are either ones I am already familiar with having seen them long ago or those that I have heard of through word of mouth in a positive manner. But every now and then I look at my library and pick a random title that I am unfamiliar with but bought based on decent ratings such as IMDB (which was probably a factor in my getting the title for my collection in the first place).

I say all this to explain how I ended up with Hong Kong director Johnnie To‘s police drama PTU here which has a bafflingly generous 6.9 IMDB rating and 80% Rotten Tomatoes audience score, both grades usually associated with the ‘crème de la crème’ of films. While I wouldn’t be so harsh as to assess PTU with it’s own title sans the “T” (That would be Pee-Yew, you know), I would hardly call it a classic either.

The plot about a police detective losing his issue revolver and then having to track it down seems somewhat a staple in asian movies being the main elements in earlier films like The Missing Gun (2002) and Kurosawa’s Stray Dog, (1949).  Sargent Lo Sa (Lam Suet) loses his gun after being ambushed by a triad gang after pestering them at a local restaurant. When the Police Tactical Unit arrives, (hence the PTU title which stumped me for a while) their leader Mike (Simon Yam) a friend of Lo’s agrees give him until morning to find the gun before reporting the fact which would irreparably harm his career.  But even Mike’s PTU squad members have reservations and to make matters worse both Lo and Mike have to dodge a suspicious Inspector (Ruby Wong).

The entire sequence takes place over one night from the jarring start at the restaurant which leaves one triad member dead to the comic twist of the final solution to the gun puzzle as dawn approaches. But the tale itself plays out like a Tarantino plot with more and more characters drawn into the ever increasing complex story. While I enjoyed some of the twists other elements like stretched out scenes were straining. One example was an endless flashlight drawn search in a stairway. Forgivable if there was any actual tension, but it in my eyes interminable especially given that the whole movie is only 88 minutes long.

The characters are interesting and when the scenes do work this movie is fun especially the first half. But when it drags it kills the atmosphere that has been built up to that point and you basically have to wait for the next interesting event. I think this is a hit or miss depending on your tolerance level and patience. For those that do enjoy it the good news is that this was popular enough to have spawned a whole series of Tactical Unit sequels, although I am in no hurry to seek them out myself.

Movie Reviews 315 – Blue Velvet (1986)

September 22, 2017

David Lynch‘s unique and often disturbing storytelling style was already well established when he wrote and directed Blue Velvet. After his debut Eraserhead had patrons scratching their heads he briefly turned to mainstream cinema with the highly successful Elephant Man and then followed that with the disastrous Dune adaptation. Blue Velvet was his triumphant return to his personal twisted turf, garnering accolades as much as controversy.

The tale of how a small town local returns when his father suffers a heart attack, Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) stumbles upon a bloody human ear in a field. The local police detective effectively turns him away from the investigation, but the detective’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern) proves to be much more insightful and leads him to spying on a woman (Isabella Rossellini) in a nearby apartment building. Breaking into her apartment one night Jeffrey discovers that Dorothy is being tormented by someone, but the reasons are unclear, and only later does he learn that she is being abused and debased by a Frank (Dennis Hopper), a crazed drug lord holding her family hostage.

Dorothy is a nightclub singer whose signature song is Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet with Frank being regular patron for her performances, always clutching and salivating over a piece of blue velvet fabric that he has cut from her housecoat. When Frank encounters Jeffery he strong-arms him into joining him and his motley crew of thugs who are nearly as insane as Frank into a night of audacious whorehouse and bar visits. All during this time Jeffrey is vying for Sandy while being seduced by a masochistic Dorothy who is never fully hinged.

Lynch’s suburbia noir, rumoured to be a partial biopic, is equally repelling and viscerally fascinating. A movie that begins with sunny white picket fences transitioning to Dorothy’s dark dingy crimson apartment, and then back again. Hopper’s portrayal of Frank is equally bipolar, one minute a sleazy screaming brute who regresses into a babbling baby when seducing Dorothy, only to snap back if she so much as looks at him directly. Dorothy’s torment goes beyond mere abuse and at her lowest point dazedly walks the evening streets fully unclothed, one of many scenes eliciting scorn from critics for having Rossellini put through such an ordeal. The fine line between art or exhibitionism is razor thin.

Marking the triumphant return of Dennis Hopper to Hollywood after a stint in rehab, Blue Velvet really must to be seen to be appreciated. Full of nuggets and subtleties like the organ music score playing as Sandy explains her dreams of robins to Jeff with street view of a church as a backdrop. The film never explains how and why Dorothy’s family got into the predicament with Frank in the first place, but this ambiguity and other non-traditional indiscretions to film storytelling ‘rules’ enhances the mystery of the film and part of what make them ‘Lynchian’.

No review of Blue Velvet is complete without mentioning Angelo Badalamenti fabulous score which aside from Vinton’s song equally effectively uses Roy Orbison’s “In dreams” hauntingly being lip synched by Dean Stockwell.

My MGM Special Edition DVD contained a documentary made a number of years after the movie that I found to be almost as mesmerizing as the movie itself and further mystifying the enigmatic director. He reportedly found the brutal rape scene uncontrollably funny and laughed throughout the filming. Another surprise addition was the wildly divergent review by Gene Siskel and Robert Ebert from one of their old “At the Movies” episodes, which really completed my time machine viewing experience.

Movie Reviews 311 – Django (1966)

August 29, 2017

When people hear the term Spaghetti Western they immediately think of Clint Eastwood in any one of Sergio Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) which created the genre. But most audiences have no idea of how big that mania was in Italy itself and the hundreds of those westerns that were made between the mid 60’s and 70’s before it sputtered along with the fall of traditional Hollywood westerns. Moreover, the Man with No Name himself was but one of many heroic characters that spawned entire series of films. Those other series included Sabata, and Trinity, and Sartana, the latter being featured in more than a dozen movies alone while the subgenre made stars of Gian Maria Volontè,Tomas Milian, Lee Van Cleef, and for comic relief Terence Hill and Bud Spencer.

But without a doubt the next best thing to those Sergio Leone movies was created by another Sergio and close friend of Leone himself. Sergio Corbucci’s Django character, played by Franco Nero began with the self titled Django is by far the heir to the throne behind the Man with No Name.  Recently re-imagined by Quentin Tarantino in Django Unchained., the new movie has little to do with the original but Tarantino was wise enough to reuse the famous title track by academy award winner Luis Bacalov and sung with a powerful Elvis flair by Rocky Roberts.

Dragging a coffin which is always at his side, Django is a drifter but one with revenge on his mind. He rescues a prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) who is about to be flogged by a group of outlaws on the outskirts of a ghost town consisting of not much more than a saloon and hotel. In town he learns that the town’s barren status is accountable to two warring factions. On the one hand there is confederate Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) who was responsible for sending his red bandana clad men to kill Maria. They are at odds with an equally vicious Mexican revolutionary named General Hugo Rodríguez (José Bódalo) an old acquaintance of Django.

Django already had a deep grudge against Jackson and now after a deadly confrontation with his men in town he convinces the Rodriguez to help him steal Jackson’s horde of gold being guarded by the Mexican army in a fort. In a daring heist Django successfully empties Jackson’s gold coffers, but then finds Rodriguez hesitant to give him his share. When Django is forced to kill one of Rodriguez’s men pinning for Maria he makes a brazen escape but this time he gets stopped at a crossing bridge where an argument with Maria has the gold fall into a quicksand pit just as Jackson arrives to enact revenge in a final battle.

The battles are all monumental with both theatrics and clever ruses. As is the case delineating spaghetti versus Hollywood westerns, the blood flows freely especially when Django unleashes his favorite weapon. I mentioned that Jackson’s men sported red bandanas in the opening sequence but that red is pervasive for all of Jackson’s henchmen and by that I do mean that some (most!) actually wear red henchmen hoods – eye slits and all. I could not figure out why they would do so – the civil war being between the blue and the grey after all – but it sure made distinguishing his men from others easily.

While the dialog is mostly stilted and flat, there are a few good lip synched one liners, like Django telling Jackson to come back with the rest of his men after their first encounter and Jackson responding with “I will. With all forty-six of them” which is exactly what he does.

Whether it be the Man with No Name, Django or any other of the myriad of spaghetti westerns, the parallels are obvious in that they are often blatant copies of one another. The lone traveler is reserved and low voiced but a crack shot. He is a man onto himself at the beginning and remains so at the end. He will save a woman or two in his journey, but never ends up with one at the end. He has vengeance in his blood, and just a touch of greed himself. Most are already familiar with the Man with No Name, but other spaghetti westerns never got the respect of the Leone movies, which is a shame particularly in the case of Django and a few other spaghetti westerns that deserve better recognition.

But when it comes to spaghetti westerns there is one warning that needs to be heeded. The producers of these films were notorious for cashing in on fads which was why Django and his facsimile brethren were created in the first place. But that does not mean that all scripts were created with those characters in mind. Of the many “Django” titled movies that followed, many were just generic western scripts which miraculously became Django titles overnight – whether there was a Django in it or not. So not all Django’s are – well, Django. Also keep an eye out for the many cross over titles pitting Django, Sartana, and Sabata together.

As for myself, Mama mia, I’m hungry for more.

 

Movie Reviews 310 – With a Friend Like Harry (2000)

August 21, 2017

European films have a distinct esthetic to them that I can’t quite put my finger on but notably always adds another layer to whatever genre, be it horror, drama or mystery being presented. The middle class lifestyle is similar to our North American experience but with subtle differences that make it just that more interesting cinematically. In the case of With a Friend Like Harry that layer is present in a story about one man’s infatuation with another man’s writing. A fascination that has deadly consequences.

While driving his family in a sweltering heat to visit his parents, everyman Michel (Laurent Lucas) makes a roadside pit stop to fill mouths and quiet the kids. In the washroom another man looks at him closely and points out that they went to school together many years ago. Harry (Sergi López) is thrilled to reminisce while Michel confesses that he does not remember Harry at all. But clearly Harry can cite many past events convincing Michel and soon having him and his family join Harry and his girlfriend Plum (Sophie Guillemin) for lunch at the rest stop restaurant. After the pleasant meal Harry, seeing that Michel has no air conditioning in the family car, he offers to have the small children and wife ride with him in his luxurious automobile back to Michel’s house despite it being a relatively long drive.

Michel and his wife Claire (Mathilde Seigner) make ends meet but are trying to fix up their very old and crumbling mountain house. In contrast Harry is living the fine life, boasting how he was a reckless brat growing up but got lucky when his wealthy father passed away. During the evening Harry dominates the conversation reminiscing about old times, having an uncanny memory of Michel’s past. He then and asks Michel whether he is still writing. Stunned, Michel at first doesn’t even know what Harry is talking about until he is reminded that he once wrote stories and poetry for the old high school ‘paper’. Michel laughs it off, but once again Harry surprises him by quoting extended passages of his long forgotten works.

Harry and Plum stay for the night, and the next day when Clair’s car breaks down in town Harry shockingly insists on buying the family a new SUV which both Claire and Michel insist they cannot accept. But all of Harry’s encouragement has an effect on Michel and he starts pondering his old writing and much to Harry’s pleasure, he secretly takes up writing again. But Harry notices that family distractions; wife, kids, parents, and brother all work against Michel and his writing. Distractions that Harry cannot tolerate.

From the moment we first encounter López and his portrayal of Harry, his mannerisms and facial expressions alone spell out trouble. As the central character Harry has many eccentricities which at first only hint of his destructive nature. While Harry obsession of Michel’s pedantic writing is strange enough, observing Harry maneuvering Michel and trying to eliminate the obstacles in his way has Harry getting deeper involved with every step until he crosses the ultimate line. Trying to hide the truth from Michel is sometimes too easy, but there are many close calls and suspicions begin to rise.

It’s a extremely tense film as the audience squirms with Harry’s every move. We’re never quite sure if the first encounter was planned all along and if the meeting with Michel just lit some maniacal nerve in Harry. With everything at his feet already, why is Harry so fixated on Michel and his writing? And Michel himself is a mystery taking up the writing to either get away from his arduous life problems or rekindling a real hidden passion. Either way it comes to an explosive conclusion within thrilling layers of entanglement.

Movie Reviews 306 – The China Syndrome (1979)

July 14, 2017

We can all laugh now after watching those old 1950’s instructional videos of school kids being told to ‘Duck and Cover’ in the event of a nuclear war.- like hiding under a school desk was going to offer any protection for a 50 megaton hydrogen bomb dropping out of the sky. Growing up in the Cold War 70’s we were still living with the threat of a thermonuclear war breaking out any second but we still managed to add another nuclear wrinkle to our worries; home grown nuclear accidents from the growing number of local nuclear power plants. Hollywood films sensationalized the threat of nuclear war in numerous films – Dr. Strangelove, Fail Safe, and War Games to name just a few – but it wasn’t until The China Syndrome that the fear of a nuclear meltdown was tackled head on.

Languishing as a budding TV news reporter relegated to providing the daily upbeat local event stories, Kimberly Wells (Jane Fonda) sees an opportunity to advance her career while working on a story about the inner workings at the local nuclear plant. The visit is purely an instructional promo piece for the hosting power plant authorities until an incident is surreptitiously captured on camera by her spirited and rebellious cameraman friend Richard (Michael Douglas). The soundless images capture control room personnel trying to address what begins as a routine alarm and then growing increasingly nervous as supervisor Jack Godell (Jack Lemmon) fixates his eye on one particular ominous sensor reading. After an interminable few minutes of concerned gazing the event ends with shouts of relief, smiles and claps of approval. But exactly what happened in those few minutes?

While Kimberly and Richard are not sure of the exact nature of what transpired, they know they have something and don’t believe the official press releases downplaying the event with jargon. When attempts to air the footage are scuttled by station management Richard steals the footage, intent on having experts examine the evidence while Kimberly prods Jack who initially tries to allay fears claiming that ‘the system worked’. But Jack himself has other doubts having sensed minor tremors within the plant leading up to the incident. Digging into the technical specifications, architecture drawings and component testing results he uncovers a darker truth that has him scared.One that the plant operators will go to extremes to bury and enough to push Jack over the edge.

Part techno thriller, part dystopian warning, the movie addressed a palpable horror that the world glimpse a mere 12 days after this movie’s release with the first recorded nuclear facility at Three Mile Island and which we’ve sadly gotten closer to with Chernobyl and again in Fukushima.

I have to admit that for myself the inclusion of Jack Lemmon in the cast is enough of a reason to watch this movie (he did earn an Oscar nomination for his role as did Fonda) but this movie has a lot more bite than just good performances. Some of the plot is overly dramatic in a few places but in general the film has stood the test of time. And the warning remains as relevant as ever.

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.