Death Wish (1974)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The time has come to start talking about The Man. Who’s the Man? Charles Bronson is the mother fuckin’ Man. In a nutshell the career of Charles Bronson represents every ounce of masculinity, testosterone and male camaraderie that the silver screen has ever had to offer. A true man’s man. Along with Lee Marvin he ushered in the first era of action movie stars with a string of high octane revenge thrillers and westerns in the 60s and 70s. What sets Bronson aside from Marvin and for me what makes him my personal favorite is that Charlie “Babe” Buchinski was born into poverty, spoke little-to-no English and yet launched himself from the coal mines of Pennsylvania and the aerial battlefields of WWII into a successful career ranging from character actor to leading man.

One of 15 children born to a family of Lithuanian immigrants, his family was so poor that legend has it he was once sent to elementary school one day wearing a dress because the family had no other clean clothes. Despite his cult status as being an ogre of a man and a true badass, Bronson had a keen interest in Art and studied it in college. So what makes Charles Bronson such a badass is that he’s just so nice. As you can see in the many number of on-screen pairings with his real life wife Jill Ireland, the man was a ladies’ man. Romantic, charming, suave, gentle, innocent. It is for this reason alone that when his characters in his films have a true injustice done onto them (usually the brutal rape and torture and murder of a loved one) we immediately sympathize with the violence and carnage that ultimately ensue. His characters are always tough but never cruel. Bronson never takes down a man that doesn’t deserve it and he never abuses women and children. To my knowledge he’s never played a villain. Bronson’s characters are men of peace and vigilance. You’re either on his side or at the end of his gun.

Bronson’s most memorable role came to him when he was over 50 with Michael Winner’s Death Wish. One of the highest grossing movies of 1974 and spawning four sequels over a 20 year period, Death Wish is the film that became synonymous with Charles Bronson and vigilante films. Architect Paul Kersey has his life torn from him when a vicious gang (including Jeff Goldblum in his screen debut) rapes his wife and daughter in their New York City apartment, leaving the wife dead and the daughter in a catatonic state. When the over-worked police department fails to find the culprits and the violence of today’s youth continues to run rampant on the city streets, Kersey takes matters into his own hands. Armed first with a hard hitting sock stuffed with quarters and later a .32 colt revolver he begins to pick off muggers and thieves one by one.

The film was attacked by critics upon release for its advocating vigilantism and unlawful punishment. Yet Death Wish is far from it. Following Kersey’s first altercation with a mugger we see Kersey at home, nauseated by his acts of violence and physically sick. The next altercation is against three men all robbing a defenseless old man. We see that Kersey does not wish to kill again but has no other choice but to save this man’s life. After that the killing of criminals has become an addiction for Kersey and we find him slowly slipping into the desperation and depravity of the criminals he takes down. We see Kersey walk a fine line between vigilante and criminal himself.  The film would be exploitive of vigilantism if it didn’t show the repercussions of Paul Kersey’s acts.  If we watched this film just for the sake of Bronson killing people (like we do with its stripped-down sequels) then it would be a different matter. What critics didn’t consider is that there is a real character study going on beneath the rough and tough action. Paul Kersey shows that anybody can be a killer.

The film climaxes with an NYPD Lieutenant (played by Vincent Gardenia) running Paul Kersey out of town. In the film’s subsequent sequels Kersey’s vigilantism continues in increasing exploitative ways. By Death Wish 3 Bronson’s rockin a rocket launcher. The sequels are entertaining in the most outrageous of ways but this first film still stands as one of the great crime dramas of the 1970s.

– John

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Long Weekend (1978)

In my prior post on Day of the Animals, I mentioned how “man vs. nature” films are often hard to take seriously; it can be due to the lack of budget or the poorly veiled eco-themed warnings, but sadly, this seems to be the case more often than not. For every classic in the genre, such as Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds, there is a train wreck likeNight of the Lepus. When a truly sensational entry in this genre comes along, it should be celebrated, and up until now the Ozploitation entry Long Weekend has gone largely unnoticed, even in its own county.

Initially, Australia was a wasteland in terms of film production. In an effort to correct this, starting in the 1970s large tax cuts were made available from the government for those who decided to put their money into Australian-produced films. While this program led to a handful of high profile art films, most of the productions would come to be classified as genre films. With most of the wealthy backers pumping money into the lower budget films, this wave of genre filmmaking would continue well into the 1980s. The second factor that would help create what came to be know as “Ozploitation” (this term was coined by director Mark Hartley who shortened director Quentin Tarantino’s moniker of Aussieploitation) was the introduction of the R rating. Most of these films were created to cash in on the novelty of the new designation, and even helped to bring the Sexploitation genre to Australia. The main requirement of this group of films doesn’t have anything to do with a specific style; instead, it exploits Australian stereotypes and their way of life, hoping to reach audiences not only in its home country but overseas as well. This period in their film history came to be referred to as “The Golden Age of Australian Cinema” – they had succeeded in creating their own New Wave.

I hadn’t heard of this genre until several years ago when the wonderfully entraining Ozploitation documentary Not Quite Hollywood came out. One of the films lucky enough to be highlighted was Colin Eggleston’s Long Weekend. Amazing enough, the next day I lucked out and found a used copy of the essential special edition release Synapse put out in the States. SCORE!

The plot revolves around an (for the most part) unsympathetic couple who decide to take a trip into the Australian outback to try to save their failing marriage. During their weekend of isolation, they manage to disrespect nature in a variety of ways, including, but not limited to, the following faux pas:

  1. Running over animals
  2. Littering at every possible moment
  3. Liberal use of insecticide
  4. Starting a brush fire
  5. Neglecting to help a dying whale
  6. Using a rifle and axe to prove manliness
  7. General unpleasantness, resulting in yelling and screaming at each other during most of their waking hours, throwing off the harmonious balance of the nature surrounding them

Nature quickly becomes fed up with the selfish and oblivious nature of the couple’s actions and decides to fight back against their assailants, leading to one of the more disturbing endings in the “man vs. nature” cannon. Long Weekend manages to set itself apart from the other films in this category in several ways. First, it stays straight faced for its 95 minute running time. There are no cheesy moments here, allowing the dread to build as the audience picks up on the warning signs from the outback that the couple miss. Second, the environmental message isn’t preachy, the director and writer assume that their audience is smart enough to pick up on this point without having to be transparent. Recent genre entries, The Happening and The Last Winter, could have learned a thing or two from how the creative team behind theLong Weekend decided to impart their message. Finally, the filmmakers decide to let the couple be horrific, they aren’t interested in generating too much sympathy. At some level, the audience is supposed to enjoy the couple’s comeuppance, which is tricky when you consider that the creative team had to find a happy-medium, allowing the viewer to root for nature but also remain horrified at the consequences that the couple ultimately faces.

Long Weekend is a sustained exercise in tension and dread, a fact that is helped by the beautiful and claustrophobic – an amazing accomplishment given the beautiful nature of its outdoor setting — cinematography of Vincent Monton who would shoot other Ozploitation classics Road Games and Thirst; the complexity in the performances of lead actors John Hargreaves and Briony Behets who allow their protagonists to be self-absorbed and arrogant, yet somehow manage to gain portions of sympathy from the viewer; and Eggleston’s decision to not let the audience off easy, making a film that keeps its audience off kilter until its conclusion. Long Weekend is truly a film deserving of a larger audience, a true lost classic.

-David

Semi-Pro (2008)

Saturday Night Live’s Will Ferrell, Kristen Wiig, Jason Sudeikis and Tim Meadows.Arrested Development’s Will Arnett. Eastbound & Down’s Andrew Daly. Conan O’Brien co-host Andy Richter. Upright Citizen Brigade’s Matt Walsh and Ian Roberts. The Daily Show’s Ed Helms and Rob Corddry. Academy Award nominees Woody Harrelson and Jackie Earle Haley. Grammy winners Patti LaBelle and Outkast’s Andre 3000. I’d be hard pressed to find a comedy that utilizes its stellar ensemble cast as well as this criminally underrated Will Ferrell vehicle. Scourned by audiences due to a end of winter release and the reluctance to watch yet another Will Ferrell “sports” comedy, Semi-Pro is the no-holds barred satire directed by Upright Citizens Brigade director Kent Alterman and written by Old School and Elf writer Scott Armstrong. Next to The Goods and Hot Rod, it may be the best comedy of the last ten years you never really gave a chance. Spumoni!

-John

Day of the Animals (1977)

In the wake of the gargantuan success that was Jaws, studios and production companies decided it was only fair that they try to make their millions on cash-grab film efforts aiming to reproduce the results of the box office phenomenon. Generally described as the “nature runs amok” films, most of them were big business at the drive-ins across America during the seventies. Even big time directors got in on the action, director Irwin Allen, best know for his disaster films (Towering InfernoThe Poseidon Adventure, etc.), directed the 1978 Michael Caine vehicle The Swarm, in which killer African bees descend on American cities. Director William Girdler, while a much lesser known name then as he is now, was no different even though his aim was much lower than Allen’s: the B movie exploitation circuit.

Prior to directing Day of the Animals, Girdler had made his name directing low budget features, usually containing action and horror themes. His first major hit came in 1974 with Abby, a blaxploitation film that was heavily indebted to The Exorcist.Despite being a major hit for the director — it racked up $9 million in its two week run — Warner Brothers found it too derivative and pulled it from theaters quickly. His next picture, Sheba Baby, stayed close to his exploitation roots. Starring Pam Grier, it hoped to capitalize on her success starring in Foxy Brown and Coffy. While its legacy is that of a sub-par Grier film, it was nonetheless a success for its director and backers.

One year after the release of Jaws, Girdler would direct what would become his biggest hit, Grizzly. Hoping to recapture the magic they experienced during their first viewing of Jaws, audiences flocked to the film, helping it to gross $39 million worldwide.  It would appear that Girdler was onto something, so he returned to the genre that yielded him such profitable results in 1977; thus, the fan favorite Day of the Animals was born.

The plot of Day of the Animals goes something like this: A group of hikers are on an excursion into the mountains, and miss the fact that the depletion of the ozone layer is causing animals to become overly aggressive, supposedly due to toxins from the sun’s radiation. The higher up one goes, the worse the radiation, and the more severe the animal attacks. Snakes, wolves, bears, hawks, and even tiny, normally less aggressive cute animals such as chipmunks get involved in the onslaught. With no options of communication and no way to defend themselves, our hiker friends are at a rather sizeable disadvantage, which leads to understandable stress and division within the group on how to handle their situation. Soon, one member of the group played by Leslie Neilson, starts to become just as infuriated as the animals that are attacking them, resulting in him murdering and raping members of the group. His actions lead up to a shirtless showdown in the pouring rain with a giant Grizzly bear, a scene that earns the film its cult status among film buffs.

Despite the obvious goofy nature of the film (nature runs amok films had a way of playing the man vs nature theme for laughs, intentionally or not. I will explore the best exception to this rule in my next post), the filmmakers seem to have an interest in imparting an environmental message to its audience in between the animal attacks. While the message is heavy handed and the execution muffed, at least the filmmakers made an effort to educate while they entertain. And since our environmental situation has only gotten worse since 1977, the message is still a timely one.

Upon its release, Day of the Animals was not the success that the filmmakers had hoped for. Girdler would go on to film his follow-up film The Manitou*, a major hit in 1978. Sadly, this would be Girdler’s last film as he would be killed later in the year, the result of a helicopter crash while scouting for locations during preproduction of his tenth film. Despite passing at such a young age (Girdler was 30 at the time of his death), he was able to leave a rather substantial filmography, nine films directed in seven years, many of which would serve to endear him to future film fans with a love for the odd and obscure.

-David

*Much to my dismay, I have never gotten a chance to view this one. I have heard that its unintentional hilarity is mind blowing.

Sleepy Hollow (1999)

I absolutley love Tim Burton. Not in the way that socially outcasted, Hot Topic adoring, High School Goth girls love Tim Burton but pretty freakin close. What I love about Mr. Burton is that he makes two different kinds of movies and often intentionally sets up 2 or 3 projects simultaneously. You can say what you will about Alice in Wonderland, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Planet of the Apes, but these are audience movies. Made purely for the summer movie crowd, kids and parents of all ages and meant to be light-hearted popcorn fare. These movies, despite their negative reviews, always make loads of money and become one of the highest grossing releases of the year. This is how Tim Burton makes his money. However these are the projects that Tim Burton could really care a less about in terms of artistic integrity. He saves his true ambitions and emotions for projects more close to the heart. Films like Corpse Bride, Ed Wood, Big Fish, Sweeney Todd and this classic horror gem from 1999, Sleepy Hollow.

Burton is at his best when gets his “dark and gritty” on with a hard R rating. The R rating alone allows Burton to seperate his audience; the men from the boys. Leave the kids at home because Jack Skellington has an all new nightmare. A twisted take on Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”, one of the few true American fairy tales, Burton’s imagination runs rampant with a loving homage to Christopher Lee and the Hammer horror films of the 60s and 70s.

In Sleepy Hollow heads are not just lopped off. A brutal slash to the throat sends heads spinning off like a top and we witness the lifeless body that remains collapse to the ground. Midway through the film a small boy witnesses, from beneath the wooden floorboards of their home, his mother and father butchered at the hands of the Headless Horseman . Just as the Horseman is about to exit and we believe the kid is free from harm, he comes back. The next shot is the Horseman exiting the family’s cottage…he is stuffing the boy’s head into a large burlap sack. The former Disney animator is playing by his own rules here and its bloody brilliant.

With Sleepy Hollow, Burton collaborates with Depp for his third time (following Edward Scissorhands and Ed Wood) as well as an eclectic cast of British talent. Depp brings an eccentric, humorous, almost Hunter S. Thompson like quality to the impish Ichabod Crane. After a series of brave, authorative lectures to the townspeople of Sleepy Hollow, we see Crane tremble at the first sighting of the Headless Horseman and cower behind a small boy when a spider runs across the floor. Screenwriter Andrew Kevin Walker (coming off the acclaim of 1995’s Se7en and 1997’s The Game) keeps Crane as vulnerable and sympathetic as the classic character we’ve come to know. An autopsy scene and later the chopping of a living, breathing tree causes large amounts of blood to fly up onto Crane and directly in his mouth. It’s a great display of humor and gross-out horror. Yet in keeping with the tone of Se7en, Walker writes Crane as the first true detective. He flaunts a series of steampunk gadgets and devices to prove that the true killer is a man (or woman) of flesh and blood.

Supporting the film is a stelllar ensemble of talent. From powerhouse players Ian McDiarmid, Jeffrey Jones, Richard Griffiths, Miranda Richardson, Martin Landau and the late, great Michael Gough as the socialites of Sleepy Hollow to the never-been-gnarlier Christopher Walken as the appalling apparition, the Headless Horseman. The only thing Walken does in this film is spread his long, sharpened teeth and scream “Aaargh!” several times and it really freakin’ works.

And of course, all of Burton’s usual creative team is here on full display. Danny Elfman’s score is a haunting twist on Colonial era ballads, Colleen Atwood’s costume design is the most engaging of any period piece Ive seen and editor Chris Lebenzon keeps the shocks and chills coming. The highlight for me is Burton’s first (and so far only) employement of the great Emmanuel Lubezki. Lubezki is one of the greatest cinematographers, from Alfonso Cuaron’s Solo Con Tu Pareja and Children of Men, to The Coen Brother’s Burn After Reading. His use of wide angles, lenses and framing is unmatched by his contemporaries and here his camera work gives Burton’s landscapes an epic scale that his films had never had before.

Sleepy Hollow is the kind of bloody, brutal, atmospheric horror that Burton grew up loving and the kind of film I hope Burton unleashes this summer with the long gestating adaptation of Dark Shadows.

-John

Carrie (1976)

I would imagine, given both mine and John’s love for Brian De Palma, his films will become something of a mainstay on this blog. Taking this into account, I figured I would strike first, avoiding the risk of relegating my thoughts on Carrie to a second opinion post.

To my mind, horror is the genre that is the hardest to pull off in terms of creating a film that can reach a wide audience. How much one can tolerate violence is certainly one of the main issues, but I think the number one point of contention is that horror, as a genre, frequently has no characters for the audience to care about; they function only as ciphers and clichés– waiting to be hacked, slashed, hung, run over, electrocuted or impaled to move the film along to the final fracas (let it be said that I don’t have a problem with this if it is done well. Or not so well for that matter; you are reading a post from someone who loves the Friday the 13th series after all).

This is what sets Carrie apart from most all of the horror cannon. You sympathize with the main character of this film SO MUCH. This leads to the viewer to be able to relate, and anyone who has been through the social meat grinder that is high school should have no problem feeling compassion for Carrie White. The first point leads right into the second great thing about Carrie: every viewer can watch the film and recognize a character that perfectly defines your high school existence. This was a time when you were, for whatever reason, bullied, the bullier, the person who tried to help, or the person who did nothing. Each of these characterizations are well represented here and vividly brought to life by a cast that was little known at the time, a fact that would certainly change after the film’s release.

For the most part, horror is a genre that most women seem to stay away from, butCarrie is a film that would prove to be the exception to that rule. Instead of having an unstoppable serial killer, boogeyman, or monster trying to equally distribute their own brand of havoc on everyone, here you have a sympathetic human being whose last desire in the world is to hurt anybody. And while the viewer may want to see Carrie exact her revenge (guilty as charged), you don’t want it to end as badly as it does. It’s unusual when the members of an audience in a horror film find themselves routing for the character that has all the destructive power, yet wanting more than anything for her to not utilize it.

-David

The 84th Academy Award Nominations

Yesterday the 84th annual Academy Award nominations were announced. For me the only award show that truly matters is the Cannes Film Festival as it represents the finest in film selected from around the world. Still, you can’t deny the Academy Awards hold a much more prestige for any actor or film. No one remembers who won the Palme ‘d or in any year but 1994 yet can usually name past Best Picture winners. Winning the Oscar puts you in an elite status which can either make or break your career. The Oscars are kind of a big deal.

My thoughts on this years nominations? There’s plenty I expected: War Horse, Hugo, The Help, The Artist, The Descendants. Acting noms for Clooney, Pitt, Streep, Plummer. I’m extremely impressed by the inclusion of Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life and Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris in the best picture slot. First off I thought the split-down-the-middle audience and critical reaction to Tree of Life would rule out the Oscars taking a chance on Malick and at most I figured Woody Allen’s superb Midnight in Paris would get a screenplay nomination. They both also recieved Directing nominations which is perfect because they’ve both displayed one of the most fresh and innovative films of their long careers.

The surprises I’m most grateful for are Jonah Hill’s Supporting Actor nom for Moneyball and Melissa McCarthy’s Best Supporting Actress nom for Bridesmaids. Hill really showed he could hold his own against the biggest of stars (Brad Pitt of all people) in Moneyball and I’ve been a fan of McCarthy since she played Sookie St. James on Gilmore Girls. They have zero chance of actually winning but, like seeing Jesse Eisenberg getting nominated for Social Network, it just makes me proud.

Now the bad news. Nothing for Michael Fassbender (Shame, Jane Eyre, A Dangerous Method, X-Men First Class) or Ryan Gosling (Drive, Ides of March, Crazy Stupid Love). No The Adventures of Tintin for Best Animated Feature (What Spielberg’s mo-cap not good enough for you Oscars? ). No Albert Brooks for Drive (which I was certain was a lock since September). In fact hardly any mention of Drive at all minus a pathetic sound editing nomination. I’m glad Rooney Mara and cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth received noms for their work in The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. The critical backlash of that movie I will never understand. The man creates an atmospheric, faithful adaptation of a beloved book and critics give him hell for not taking more liberties?

The best part of this year’s nominations for me has to be Kristen Wiig & Annie Mumolo’s Best Original Screenplay nomination for the miracle comedy Bridesmaids. I intend to get into this movie more in depth as I get closer to my best of the year list but I will say this is a comedy I’ve waited for for a good five years. The first time I saw Knocked Up in 2007 and witnessed Leslie Mann and Kristen Wiig in action I thought “these women are funnier than 2/3rds of the male comedy acts out there.”

For your amusement I’ve posted the notorious “dress-fitting scene” from Bridesmaids in which Melissa McCarthy craps in a sink and onto stardom in what is now offically an Oscar nominated performance.

-John