Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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!