Archive for the ‘Drama’ Category

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 as 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.

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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.

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.