Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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!