Wednesday, August 27, 2008

When Good Posters Happen to Mediocre Movies

Rio Lobo, director Howard Hawks' final movie and his fifth collaboration with both actor John Wayne and screenwriter Leigh Brackett, is along with Land of the Pharaohs, the only film of his I've seen (IE what's readily accessible on DVD) that I could not grant even a meager "thumbs up". A G rated western (with an admittedly rating busting final shoot-out) seems positively quaint in 1970, two years after Sergio Leone's landmark post-modern masterpiece Once Upon a Time in the West and one year after Sam Peckinpah's ultra-violent requiem The Wild Bunch, and considering the clever temperament of Hawks' other work "quaint" counts as a dirty word. Rio Lobo suffers from a sense of redundancy, as John Wayne, clearly going through the motions here, is once again teamed with a young hot-shot(Jorge Rivero's no Montgomery Clift, Ricky Nielsen or James Caan), a snappy gal (comparing Jennifer O'Neill to Angie Dickinson is no fair to anyone) and a cagey old-timer (Jack Elam, who is the highlight of the entire cast), I guess they couldn't work in a drunk in need of redemption. The plot also recycles for the second time (the superior El Dorado being the other) the classic template created by Brackett in the screenplay of Rio Bravo.

But the it's beautiful, focusing on the film's highlight, the climactic battle, this painted work's framing recalls to mind the iconic final shot of John Ford's The Searchers and promises a raucous good time with it's hell-bringing and all. Sadly, there will be no hell giving to be found here.
Does anyone know an online reference to find poster artists? I would like to credit the person who came up with this image.

Monday, August 25, 2008

The Real Death Race

In the ten years that have passed since Gus Van Sant announced that as a follow-up to his first mainstream success (Good Will Hunting) he would film a shot-by-shot remake of Alfred Hitchcock's seminal Psycho--to which I will confess a bit of curiosity in revisiting with the intention of viewing it purely through the prism of a contextual exercise, which in fairness was Van Sant's intent--still the ultimate in the "how dare they!" camp of Hollywood regurgitation that has dominated production in the ensuing decade (seriously with Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street remakes in various stages of production, does there exist an influential horror film from the 1970's or 80's that hasn't been remade) I've moved from the anger to the acceptance stage and hardly ever find my fist vainly shaking mid-air in disgust anymore when the news of the latest retread gets announced. Still, with that said, I have little to no interest in seeing the Paul W.S. (so as not to be mistaken for the more talented director whose first and last name he shares) Anderson's remake of Death Race 2000 (1975, Paul Bartel), retitled simply Death Race for brevity and outdated time's sake, despite an interesting collection of cast members including the intermittently likable Jason Statham as well as the always sturdy Ian McShane and Joan Allen(!?). Judging from it's underwhelming performance at the box office this weekend, people seem to share my indifference (although I am sure most of the intended audience do not realize it's a remake to begin with).

It's no wonder that so many talented filmmakers, including Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme and Joe Dante to name just a fraction, emerged from Roger Corman's New World pictures factory. After insuring all his productions contained a sellable hook, exposed breasts, gratuitous violence, a drive-in accessible running time and most importantly, a meager budget, Corman would grant his filmmakers carte blanche to make whatever they saw fit within those limitations. Only under these guidelines could a film as offensively brazen as Death Race 2000 crystallize. Paul Bartel, the eccentric actor/director who appeared in films throughout Corman's oeuvre, had the keen satiric eye to bring Robert Thom and New World house writer Charles B. Griffith's satiric vision of a future where the number one sport is vehicular manslaughter (extra points for the elderly or children). Bartel and his writers deftly create a future where the American past-time is a sport that combines two indelible 70's trends: the popular and increasingly aggressive NFL with special attention to two teams with a defensive mindset and a win at all cost attitude: the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders and the anti-hero archetype that became a staple in American cinema following Easy Rider. Death Race 2000 leaves you agape with its audaciousness and could only exists as a B-movie that slipped through the cracks to become a word-of-mouth sensation.

The new Death Race seems like a missed opportunity, especially in light of the in-fighting in NASCAR that is making it a more theatrical, and henceforth, popular sport. Of course, this being a mainstream film produced by a major studio and directed by a successful but not necessarily distinctive franchise starter (three of his seven directorial efforts spawned at least one sequel), a deft satiric hand is not to be expected. Instead of garnering points for running over innocent civilians, it appears that prisoners are chasing one another, because you know, who cares if prisoners get killed, right? (If someone has seen the film and can refute my assumptions, please let me know). I'm also assuming that the young and elderly emerge unscathed. And that, strangely enough, counts as a devolution.

While the remake will probably be long forgotten by the time it premieres on HBO next June, the original with it's iconic lead performances by David Carridine and a pre-Rocky Slyvester Stallone as his arch rival, it's matte painting vistas, and the still outrageous lack of good taste on display throughout (to reiterate--that's a positive) will still be discovered by generations throughout this millennium.

Here's the trailer for Death Race 2000....accept no substitutes!

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

Pictures from The Road

So what's the over/under on the amount of movie reviews for this November's release of The Road that will be titled "No Country for Any Men"?

The first pictures of the film adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's Pultizer Prize winning novel (book #10 in my New Year's goal of reading 52 books this year!), featuring Academy Award nominated actor Viggo Mortenson as the unnamed father, hit the web a few days ago, but in case you missed them, I am posting some choice shots here.

Judging from these released stills, director John Hillcoat has admirably evoked McCarthy's prose's atmospheric vision of an America dying from an unspecified apocalyptic event (environmental? nuclear war?) leaving the few survivors to salvage for what food and supplies remain. This should come to no surprise to those that saw Hillcoat's 2005 Australian Western, The Proposition, which was similarly desolate, sparse and gritty.

I'm guessing the intense bleakness of the project will keep away many of the best seller's readers who picked up the book per Oprah's recommendation, but personally it's the small yet poignant ray of hope of McCarthy's conclusion where I am longing for Hillcoat to remain faithful. 

Michael K. Williams (Omar Little!) leads a supporting cast that includes twelve year old Kodi Smit-McPhee as the son, Charlize Theron, Guy Pearce, Robert DuVall and Garret Dillahunt, whom you may recognize from his two different roles on Deadwood and most recently from his role as Tommy Lee Jones' deputy in the last McCarthy film adaptation, No Country for Old Men.

The film opens on November 26th.

More photos can be found at USA Today's (!?!) website.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Bronson's Loose Again

Death Wish II (1982, Michael Winner)

In my review of Death Wish, I complained of director Michael Winner’s half-hearted third act attempt to suddenly position main character Paul Kersey's (Charles Bronson) actions as that of a deluded man who believes he’s living by the ethos of the Wild West after providing no earlier evidence supporting this. Death Wish II* which reunites Winner and Bronson, as well as co-star Vincent Gardenia as the detective on his trail, is a superior film for the fact that it actually utilizes the structure of a Western film and makes less attempts at being a legitimate social study, resulting in a film that is focused on the strengths of the director.

The Western archetype plot of DWII to wit: A reformed gunslinger (architect cum vigilante Paul Kersey) moves to a new town-Los Angeles (apparently having grown tired of the lack of attacks upon his loved ones in Chicago, the city he relocated to at the end of DWI), where he’s thrust back into action against his wishes for a new life when his close ones (specifically maid and daughter) are once again the victim of a brutal assault. If you would like to look at it in a more modern genre prism, you can make the claim it also conforms to the mechanics of a super-hero film; a mild mannered everyman hellbent on personal vengeance arms and disguises himself (his outfit consisting of a beanie and dark workingman clothes befitting a repairman, which in and of itself is a metaphor), to combat villains and keep the streets safe for the helpless.

In the first film, Kersey is not present when his wife and daughter are attacked (which resulted in the death of the wife and the daughter becoming catatonic) but in the sequel he is at home when his maid is raped and killed followed by his catatonia recovering daughter being kidnapped (she too will be…surprise, surprise…raped…and eventually leap to her own death in an escape attempt), so his vigilantism is focused this time around on the specific members of the (very P.C.) multi-cultural gang of hoods responsible (a post Apocalypse Now Laurence Fishburne filling the Jeff Goldblum role of the gang member that would go on to future fame). This helps to alleviate one of the more distressing issues of the original where Kersey never went after the actual gang that attacked his family, and who coincidentally were all Caucasian, instead choosing to randomly bait hoods who happened to be predominately African-American, and murdering them for the sins of the responsible. While I don’t doubt a compelling social study of the irony of Kersey’s action could be made, Michael Winner surely isn’t the director to perform such a subtle critique.

Where the first film strives for legitimacy (people as varied as Clint Eastwood, Paul Newman and even Gregory Peck were mentioned for the role of Paul Kersey) and failed, the sequel has no such allusions. Perhaps due to the change of producer from mainstream schlockmeister Dino DeLaurentiis to low budget schlockmeisters team Yoram Globus and Menaham Golan (founders of Canon, the predominate Action B-Movie distributors of the 1980’s and home to the likes of Bronson, Chuck Norris and Michael Dudikoff) or perhaps due to the repetitive nature of the plot there is very little set-up or character building and within the first fifteen minutes Kersey’s life has been (re-)shook and he's roaming the streets for vengeance, set to Jimmy Page’s score. In my review of the first film I mentioned the laughable nature of the plot-driving rape scene, laughable not because of the severity of the actions obviously, but rather Winner’s inept presentation of the severity of the actions. That very ineptness is far more disturbing here, as the camera leers on the naked flesh of the stripped female victims in the gaze of the attackers.

While his inability to achieve a modicum of gravity reaches it’s nadir here, once we get to what we came to see—namely Bronson mowing down punks—he actually becomes a tight director and dramatically improved from his work on part one. Scenes are imbued with a palpable sense of suspense that was sorely lacking, some choice real location shooting and even some mood inducing lighting and shot compositions. Again, much like the New York of the mid-70’s, Winner paints the Los Angeles (specifically downtown and Hollywood Boulevard) of the early 80’s as being rife with decaying streets of rat-infested abandoned buildings where you can be murdered for looking at the wrong person, which in comparison to what Hollywood Boulevard is today, a corporate mall rife with nightclubs and infested with frat boys, Valley girls and wannabe reality stars actually counts as an improvement. To his credit though, unlike the first film where the poor are all coded as being potential murderers, muggers, rapists, et cetera, he does provide evidence of people in financial dire straits seeking salvation in makeshift storefront churches or just scraping about trying to make a living.

At the end of DWII (spoilers to obviously follow) Kersey has succeeded in eradicating the gang responsible for the attack, however, it comes at a cost, his chance for redemption when his fiancĂ©e, who is one of them rehabilitating criminals** believing bleeding heart liberals, leaves him after discovering his little after-hours hobby. Unlike the end of the first film where he was given an ultimatum to leave New York (and after all the shit that went down, why wouldn’t he?), Kersey’s action do have a consequence and he must face what his deeds have reaped. The last scenes show Kersey once again roaming the streets of Los Angeles, rejecting his chance at a legitimate everyman life. One hopes that Michael Winner follows suit and cast aspirations of serious filmmaking aside to play to his strength, exploitation filmmaker extraordinaire. We’ll find out, the duo reunited three years later for Death Wish III.

* I know this is petty but it still gets my goat: the DVD and it's menu lists the film as written with the digit 2, when the film clearly uses the Roman Numeral II

** This film’s view of rehabilitation is as disturbingly narrow minded as the first film’s view of class. This time rehabilitation is represented by a wacky therapist with bug eyes and messy manner of dress who can’t even give directions to the restroom competently.
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