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Death Wish (1974)
The Father of all Revenge Films
Though the theme had been tackled many times before, it can be argued that Death Wish is the father of all revenge films. Countless knockoffs, both good and bad, have been made since its release in 1974. Yet to characterize it solely as a revenge movie would be a disservice. It is a culturally significant movie which raises issues about the role of vigilantism in our society. Charles Bronson, who'd enjoyed previous success in feature films prior to Death Wish, became an anti-hero of sorts in a couple dozen movies throughout the next fifteen years after its release.
Bronson plays Paul Kersey, an architect who lives in a New York City apartment. His world is shattered when his wife is beaten to death and his daughter is savagely raped by thugs posing as grocery deliverymen. After an unspecified mourning period and for cathartic effect, he is sent on a land developing assignment in New Mexico, where he meets client Ames Jainchill (Stuart Margolin). In contrast to Kersey's conscientious objector war status, Jainchill embraces responsible gun use and winces at the "toilet" New York has become. He piques Kersey's interest at a gun range and a Wild West re-enactment show. Following completion of the project, Jainchill sees off Kersey at the airport and puts a gift in his luggage: a shiny new revolver.
Kersey is accosted one night by a mugger and shoots him dead, after which he returns to his apartment and becomes physically sick. Ruminating on the death of his wife and his now-catatonic daughter, he sets himself up as a target for a variety of street scum throughout the city, killing them at various intervals and earning himself the tag of "vigilante killer" by the Press. Police Detective Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) is tasked with the dilemma of upholding the law in identifying the killer while facing the reality that his superiors and many New Yorkers are not all that upset at the city unconventionally being relieved of its criminals.
Death Wish was extremely popular during a dreary period in the city's history when crime was rampant and presents the obvious ambiguity of vigilantism in a civilized society. The assault on Kersey's wife and daughter are brutally depicted, even by today's standards of viewing. It allows us to justify Kersey's actions towards a variety of unsavory characters. Disturbing to some, however, is the controversial way Kersey sets himself up as a target to draw out the criminals, a sense of entrapment if you will, in going from hunted to hunter.
Not surprisingly, the financial success of Death Wish spawned several sequels, none of which were memorable. But the original packs a punch and tests our own beliefs about street justice. A very good film from the 70s which still holds relevance today. Highly recommended movie.
Another Great Film from the 70's
I'm always amused by those who wax nostalgic for 1970's New York. Truth be told, it was a chaotic, dreary period in the city's history as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. Corruption and street crime were rampant. It was far from paradise.
This grittiness, however, inspired some fine movie-making which perfectly captured the atmosphere and culture in the Big City. With its frantic pace and frenzied intensity, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three represents such an effort. It boasts a fine cast and is well-directed. It features an outstanding score by composer David Shire. And it proves that action-thrillers can indeed be effective without massive budgets and an over-reliance on special effects.
Four criminals code named Mr. Blue, Mr. Green, Mr. Brown and Mr. Grey mastermind the hijacking of an NYC subway train. Detaching a single car holding seventeen people, they demand one million dollars from the city, threatening to shoot one hostage for each minute the money is late. NY Transit Lieutenant Zachary Garber (Walter Matthau) is tasked with handling the crisis and communicating directly with their leader, the ruthless Mr. Blue (Robert Shaw). Garber is the quintessential New Yorker; cynical yet quick on his feet. With the help of Police Captain Rico Petrone (Jerry Stiller), he matches wits with the criminals in an effort to deliver the money, save the hostages and identify and apprehend the hijackers.
The movie never drags and keeps us guessing. Despite its serious theme, Pelham has comedic elements- most notably Garber's early dealings with a visiting Japanese transportation delegation and his interplay with a Head Dispatcher (Dick O'Neill) more concerned with keeping his trains running on time than he is with a hostage crisis. Also funny are scenes with the neurotic Mayor of New York trying to gather the ransom by the deadline. It mirrors the buffoonery of many real life politicians unable to effectively handle a crisis and accurately reflects the very real money woes NYC had at the time.
Matthau, Shaw, Stiller & O'Neill all perform their roles well, as do Martin Balsam and Hector Elizondo- two members of the heist crew. And The Taking of Pelham also has maybe the best ending I've ever seen in a film. A super movie. Highly recommended.
No Winners Here
We've seen this movie- or a variation thereof- dozens of times before: Guy meets girl, guy falls in love with girl, guy loses girl, guy spares no effort to get girl back. Throw in a violent plot twist involving adultery and betrayal, and you have "Revenge", a movie with entertaining elements that nonetheless falls a bit short.
Recently retired US Navy Pilot Jay Cochran (Kevin Costner) visits old friend and crime lord Tibey Mendez (Anthony Quinn) at his palatial estate in Mexico. Here, he meets Tibey's wife Miryea (Madeline Stowe), a reserved, stunning brunette 30 years his junior. Almost immediately, an attraction is felt between Cochran and Miryea, made more so by Tibey's attention to business and the age gap between him and his wife. Cochran and Miryea sleep together and are caught- with devastating consequences for all involved.
"Revenge" is hurt by several factors. The wild implausibility of a decorated Navy pilot having a Mexican Drug Lord as a close friend strains credibility with the viewer from the start. And though we are supposed to sympathize with Cochran for being beaten to within an inch of his life by Mendez' henchmen, Costner plays the character with an arrogance that makes it tough to do so. Throw in Quinn's visible heartbreak at having his wife stolen, and the Costner character comes across as almost totally unsympathetic. Only our concern for Miryea and the violence showered upon her allow us to care about Costner's frenzied search for her.
This is no feel good movie, as all the principal characters suffer dearly: Cochran is nearly killed, Tibey loses his wife and a dear friend, and Miryea is subjected to unspeakable acts of brutality because of her betrayal. Even Cochran's dog is killed. Disney it ain't.
"Revenge" has its moments and benefits from some good acting. Quinn is in his element here and gives a solid portrayal of a crime lord whose charming veneer belies his brutal nature. Stowe is gorgeous, and plays her role with a waif-like innocence. As such, her character's fate strongly resonates with the viewer. Miguel Ferrer and John Leguizamo do good work as troubleshooters helping Costner find his love. And the always enjoyable James Gammon has a great bit role as a down-on-his-luck Texan. Costner is probably the weakest link here, and since it's his movie, that's a problem.
Worth a look, but no new ground broken here.
Watching some of Andy Sidaris' cheesy flicks of the late 70's and early 80's, you'd never know the man was a visionary in the sports television medium and a 7-time Emmy winner who directed the Olympics, Wide World of Sports and some of the early NFL telecasts. That said, "Seven" represents one of his better contributions to the B-movie genre. It boasts great scenery and the obligatory bevy of scantily-clad women that characterize a Sidaris film. And it's a treat for fans of William Smith, one of the most accomplished character actors of all time, who receives top billing and features him in the unfamiliar but welcome role of good guy.
Freelance mercenary Drew Savano (Smith) is called in by a government agent to wipe out mobsters bent on taking over the state of Hawaii. For a fee of $7 million dollars, Savano assembles seven specialists (hence the title), each with a different talent, to take on the mission. Though it takes a bit long for us to be introduced to each character and assigned their individual targets, it's worth the wait to watch just how these specialists- The Dragster, The Professor, The Indian, The Playmate, The Cowboy, The Comic, The Black Belt- will take out their quarry.
This movie won't remind anyone of Hamlet. Laughable dialog and various unconvincing characters (looking at Ed Parker with his bad hair and pot belly you'd never know the guy was a martial arts legend) make this more tongue-in-cheek than anything else, but it's just this approach- it's a "B" movie after all- that makes "Seven" an enjoyable watch. Lenny Montana, Art Medrano and Reggie Nalder are among the notable character actors lending their talents to "Seven". There's gorgeous former Playmate Susan Kiger and actress Barbara Leigh in bikinis for most of the movie. And Kwan Hi Lim, who seemingly appeared in every Hawaiian/Polynesian/Asian themed show covering two decades, skillfully portrays his usual oily villain.
Fun stuff from Andy Sidaris. Seven stars for "Seven"!
Boogie Nights (1997)
Great Film Making
Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights is a bold and accurate representation of the adult film scene in Los Angeles during the late 70's and early 80's. While it primarily chronicles one man's rise and fall within the industry, the story is so much more than that, juxtaposing the similar fates of several principal characters during a six year time period. Anderson's fascinating and brutally honest character studies allows the viewer to overcome reservations toward watching a movie about pornography. The result is a truly outstanding film on every level.
Seventeen year old Eddie Adams (Mark Wahlberg) has a chance meeting in a nightclub with porn film maker Jack Horner (Burt Reynolds). Disenchanted with his life and spurred by a violent argument with his abusive and alcoholic mother, Adams moves into Horner's home and joins his stable of adult film actors which include veteran porn queen Maggie/a.k.a. Amber Waves (Julianne Moore) Horner's daughter and aspiring starlet Rollergirl (Heather Graham) and fellow actor Reed Rothschild (John C. Reilly). As a well-endowed new face in the industry, he achieves quick stardom. However, Adams (now "Dirk Diggler"), eventually falls victim to the temptations of fame and becomes addicted to cocaine. As newer actors emerge and the medium changes from film to videotape, he becomes a bitter, drug-addled liability. After a heated confrontation with Horner, Diggler gets kicked off the compound and spirals out of control. Unable to "perform" due to his drug use, he is reduced to turning tricks to support his habit. After a brush with death during a botched robbery of local drug dealer Rahad Jackson (Alfred Molina), Diggler tearfully reconciles with Horner and cleans up his act but clearly faces an uphill battle in reaching the heights he once climbed within the industry.
Anderson clearly shows us the devastating consequences many of these "actors" suffer as a result of their career choice without beating us over the head with a morality play. This is a sad story about sad people: Diggler bottoms out. Jack Horner, who fancies himself a film maker is reduced to churning out low-quality garbage on video. Amber's career choice and prior drug arrest prevent her from gaining custody of her child and must substitute true motherhood with playing the "mother" role to Rollergirl, Dirk and others at the compound. Porn star Buck (Don Cheadle) cannot secure a business loan due to his affiliation with adult films. A film director (William H. Macy), humiliated by his wife's public infidelities, kills her, her lover and himself at a New Year's Eve party. And Financier The Colonel James (Robert Ridgely), who fronts the money for Horner's productions is jailed on a child pornography charge. What was once hedonistic bliss is now an unmitigated disaster. There is no happy ending.
The styles, fashion and music create a mood that successfully transforms the viewer into a 1970's time warp. And excellent characterization of the drug dependent and open-sex lifestyle popularized by many in the entertainment industry lend the movie authenticity. There are so many subtleties and great scenes- the (purposely) bad performances in the "Brock Landers" feature films, the cheesy interviews, the awful recording sessions by Diggler and Rothschild, the delusions and self-deceptions by the many characters who are not very smart, totally insecure, largely uneducated yet fancy themselves as much more than they really are.
The acting is first rate. Burt Reynolds, whose career stagnated for years after a decade of box office stardom in the 70's, returns to greatness as film producer Jack Horner. Mark Wahlberg, under-appreciated by many who remember the "Marky Mark" nonsense is totally believable in the title role. Julianne Moore, as good an actress as there is, doesn't disappoint as a popular yet tormented porn queen. John C. Reilly, the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (as a shy, gay crew member), Heather Graham and the wonderful Phillip Baker Hall all shine in support roles. And Robert Ridgely does a great job in a bit role as The Colonel- a film producer with an affinity for young women and a perversion for underage photos.
One of the best movies of the 1990's and in my personal top ten films.
The Dead Zone (1983)
Memorable Walken Film
The Dead Zone is a fine adaptation of the Stephen King novel and while now 30 years old, it still packs a punch. It is the story of Johnny Smith (Christopher Walken), an average down-to-earth schoolteacher living in a small town in Maine. One night he is involved in a terrible car accident and spends five years in a coma. He wakes up to find himself weak and hobbled, his job gone and the girl he loved married to another man. He also finds he has the ability to read into a person's past and future upon touching them. He successfully warns a nurse of a house fire and correctly sees his doctor's mother, long thought to be dead in war-torn Germany, to be very much alive.
Johnny finds his "gift" is very much a curse, as each episode drains him physically and he is regarded as a "freak". Despite initial resistance, he agrees to help the town sheriff solve a series of serial murders in town known as the Castle Rock killings. He successfully reveals the sheriff's deputy to be the culprit and is shot by the deputy's mother during his attempted apprehension. Scarred from the event, he moves to a neighboring town.
While here, he sees Senator Greg Stillson (Martin Sheen)at a campaign rally. Upon shaking his hand, Johnny sees Stillson as a fanatical politician aiming to win the presidency and start global warfare. Knowing from past episodes that he not only can predict the future but also PREVENT it, Johnny realizes it falls upon him to try and stop Stillson.
The Dead Zone is an effective, yet terribly sad movie. Christopher Walken is excellent, portraying Johnny as a lonely, shattered man terribly hurt by the past. He is a good person whose world has fallen apart due to tragic circumstances. Watching him see his old girlfriend- a pretty young woman he was prepared to marry- now married to another man, is heartbreaking, as is his solitary existence. Fine character work is turned in by Martin Sheen as the ruthless Stillson, and Herbert Lom and Brooke Adams as Johnny's doctor and love interest respectively. One of the better Stephen King adaptations and a recommended watch.
Any Given Sunday (1999)
A Train Wreck
I both played and coached football and have been around the game for 30 years. On an entertainment level, Any Given Sunday is somewhat effective, but the comments from people lauding this movie's "realism" are laughable. Any Given Sunday is anything but realistic and is instead marred by questionable casting, over the top performances and an uneven script. AGS doesn't quite know what it wants to be: it touches on some relevant areas of the game including risking health for money, the business side of football and the importance of the team concept, but ultimately the movie isn't effective because the viewer fails to take a personal interest in many of these guys. They are instead merely cardboard characters used to advance the plot. What results is a disjointed, uneven film with more misses than hits.
The plot is simple enough. Veteran coach Tony D'Amato (Al Pacino) has been successful for most of his 30 year run. However, his team falls on hard times and questions arise about his ability to lead. When his veteran QB gets hurt, untested backup Willie Beamen (Jamie Foxx) steps into the breach and starts to win. He lets success go to his head, however, and quickly alienates his teammates with a selfish, me-first attitude. Eventually, he realizes he must lead by example and not just through physical play. Beamen redeems himself and saves his season.
Despite a host of name actors involved with Any Given Sunday, it is not well cast. I absolutely love Al Pacino- a truly great actor with scores of awards (including an Oscar) for validation, but he does NOT make a convincing football coach. Compare his role for instance with that of James Gammon as manager Lou Brown in the lightweight comedy Major League. Gammon looks, acts and speaks like a grizzled managerial veteran- a GREAT job of casting. Only Pacino's tremendous skills as an actor prevent this from being a disaster. Ironically, the unquestioned best scene in the movie is Pacino's locker room speech, an inspiring, passionate speech touching on the virtues of self-reflection and togetherness- it elicits both a tear from the eye and a fire from within. Unfortunately, this is the exception.
Cameron Diaz, despite being a qualified actress, is not convincing as the owner of a professional sports franchise and strains credibility. It's revealed that she inherited the team from her football-minded father, but it plays flat. Many of the football stars are caricatures; when ex-Giant great Lawrence Taylor looks like Sir Laurence Olivier compared to some of these clowns, you know there's a problem. And perhaps the worst performance of all belongs to John C. McGinley who hams it up and evokes images of a crazed Jim Rome as a slimy sports talk show host.
Oliver Stone is completely out of his element with Any Given Sunday. And any movie with Al Pacino, Charlton Heston, James Woods, Matthew Modine, Jim Brown, Cameron Diaz, James Karen and a host of other A-list performers should've been a helluva lot better.
The One That Started it All
"Duel" is phenomenal. It is taut, well directed and well conceived. It taps into an experience many of us have had at one time- being on the road with a lunatic- and magnifies it tenfold. And it marks legendary director Steven Spielberg's first real feature length movie. "Duel" was first filmed as a TV movie, and its success allowed for a later feature release in the theaters with expanded footage added.
Dennis Weaver (in an outstanding performance) plays David Mann, a mild mannered salesman who while traveling a desolate, desert highway en route to work passes a tanker truck driving slowly and belching smoke. The truck driver later roars past him, blares its horn and proceeds to harass, terrorize and completely unnerve him for the duration of his journey. That a simple plot with virtually no character development can entertain us for 90 minutes is a tribute to Spielberg's genius. The viewer suspends disbelief that someone on a road with virtually no traffic couldn't shake an 18 wheel truck, and becomes totally engrossed in this man's hellish experience. This film should be mandatory viewing for anyone who thinks big budget special effects and grand set designs are essential to great movie making. Sometimes, less is indeed more.
Throughout the movie we cannot view the truck driver, seen only in several close ups of his arms and hands. His motives for terrorizing Mann are as mysterious as his appearance; Is he a crazed killer? Has he done this before? Is he living out some sort of twisted revenge fantasy? These questions are never answered. Carey Loftin- regarded by many as the greatest stuntman in the history of Hollywood- is the malevolent driver of the truck, and one would be hard pressed to find anyone who has ever made such a dramatic impact on a movie despite being all but invisible. The truck itself- a rusted, '55 Peterbilt tanker- is also an inspired, effective choice.
"Duel" boasts small but memorable appearances by Jacqueline Scott as Mann's wife and Lucille Benson as the owner of a roadside "snakerama". Billy Goldenberg's suspenseful, moody score perfectly compliments the action. Awesome movie- highly recommended.
...and justice for all. (1979)
Another Pacino Classic
"And Justice For All" is both an entertaining and meaningful film. It shows us the errors in our system of jurisprudence that is the best we have yet is still flawed and many times unfair in its implementation. "And Justice For All" depicts these flaws through a satirical look at this system and its principal characters.
When Judge Henry T. Fleming is accused of rape, he hires defense attorney Arthur Kirkland (Al Pacino) to represent him. Kirkland is a fiery, idealistic lawyer who cares for people- and who detests Fleming, a man with whom he's battled in the courtroom and regards as both uncaring and arrogant. Furthermore, Fleming is holding up the release of a Kirkland client falsely accused of murder. This is of no consequence to Fleming, who instead sees an opportunity to make his innocence more apparent by having an adversary defend him. Kirkland wants no part of this charade, until Fleming threatens to blackmail him with long buried information on a breach of attorney-client privilege. Reluctantly, Kirkland takes the case.
Several events rattle Kirkland as he prepares his defense; a near-fatal helicopter ride with a presumably suicidal judge (Jack Warden) and the public nervous breakdown of his law partner (Jeffrey Tambor). Things turn tragic when two of Kirkland's clients die in separate incidents. A harmless, transgender man hangs himself when he is mistakenly sent back to jail in Kirkland's absence, and McCullough- the man Fleming prevented from being released- is shot in a hostage situation, as Kirkland attempts to diffuse it. Enraged and disillusioned at such an unthinkable turn of events, Kirkland sits on a bench outside the courtroom and ponders his role in a system he perceives as terribly indifferent and cruel.
Shortly thereafter, Kirkland receives photos from another client that show Judge Fleming engaged in S&M acts with a prostitute. When shown the pictures, Fleming smirks and admits his guilt in the rape for which he is accused. A disgusted Kirkland leaves the room as a haughty Fleming reminds him that "he'll see him in court". The trial begins, and after the prosecution's opening statement, it is Kirkland's turn. After what appears to be a legitimate attempt to discredit the prosecution for their "lack of a case", he stuns everyone by declaring Fleming's guilt and proclaims "he should go right to f*ckin' jail". As the judge objects and the crowd erupts into chaos amidst this blatant breach of etiquette, Kirkland is dragged from the courtroom. He screams at Fleming- who looks on with a mixture of both disbelief and disgust- for disgracing the law and the people he represents.
Pacino is outstanding. His courtroom scene is one of those moments in film that is stamped indelibly on one's memory. He perfectly conveys the disenchantment of a man hopelessly swimming against the tide despite his best efforts. In the end he all but sacrifices a career to ensure that a thoroughly detestable man, a person who is "supposed to protect people" is ruined professionally. Fine character work is turned in by both John Forsythe as Fleming and Jack Warden as an eccentric judge who keeps a rifle in his chambers and eats his lunch on the ledge of a 4th floor balcony.
A highly recommended movie and a must for Pacino fans.
Bowling for Columbine (2002)
The Praise is Undeserving
When one seeks to expose inconvenient truths about our society through honest dialog and fact-finding, they are to be commended; when one seeks to prove their point through shoddy journalism, half-truths and deceit, it's shameful. Michael Moore does mostly the latter in 2002's Bowling For Columbine, a documentary which is at times interesting and thought-provoking but ultimately completely disingenuous and misleading. Most alarming about BFC is that it illustrates just how powerful the media really are and how the public generally are willing to accept things at face value rather than research the issues. One can say ANYTHING in a film, and at least half the people will believe it, no matter how ridiculous or slanted it may be. Moore takes full advantage of this, presents a picture loaded with half-truths and inconsistencies and won himself an Oscar. That the left-leaning Hollywood Academy would reward such an effort should come as no surprise.
Bowling For Columbine is not without merit. It deals with the terrible shooting tragedy at Columbine High School and its after effects throughout the United States. In trying to explain how something like this occurred, Moore delves into America's sometimes unsavory history; slavery, alliances with foreign dictators, war involvement etc, and examines society's seemingly insatiable love for guns. Government inadequacies, especially as related to health care and poverty are discussed, and parallels are drawn between these issues and disaffected individuals in our society. Unfortunately, amidst these very real issues, Moore plays fast and loose with the facts; the Columbine killers were NEVER in bowling class that day, Charlton Heston NEVER uttered the "from my cold dead hands" proclamation in Denver, the NRA convention was booked years before the Columbine tragedy and was prevented by law from being entirely cancelled, and on and on. Moore misrepresents numerous happenings- including the whole North County Bank gun for CD program- by cleverly splicing footage and conveniently leaving out important facts contrary to his position. Numerous legitimate journalists, most notably Dave Kopel, have written lucid, extensive pieces exposing Moore's often disingenuous approach to BFC. Trying to pigeon-hole Dick Clark and sandbagging Charlton Heston under false pretenses- as if these guys were responsible for the nation's tragedies- were particularly shameful and pandered to the liberal viewer anxious to see a conservative celebrity squirm.
Bowling For Columbine presents very real issues for which much dialog and action is needed, but ultimately any meaningful message that Moore hoped to send is undone by his self-serving and fictitious "facts". In lambasting the government for creating and perpetuating this "culture of fear", with an over abundance of negative reporting, the hypocritical Moore does the exact same thing- for profit no less- in a feature documentary. So much for objectivity.