Friday, December 15, 2017

#2,477. Vigilante (1982)

Directed By: William Lustig

Starring: Robert Forster, Fred Williamson, Richard Bright

Tag line: "There's Only One Way to Stop Them..."

Trivia: The film is dedicated to Peter Savage who died shortly after filming

Released two years after his controversial horror film Maniac, director William Lustig’s Vigilante is a tense crime thriller shot on the streets of New York that features one hell of an all-star cast. 

Factory worker Eddie Marino (Robert Forster) has his entire world taken away from him when his wife Vickie (Rutanya Alda), who tried to stop a gang from beating up an old man, is attacked by that same gang, a showdown that claims the life of the couple’s young son Scott (Dante Joseph). The gang leader, Rico (Willie Colón), is eventually arrested and put on trial for murder, but his sentence is suspended by the judge (Vincent Beck), and that very afternoon he’s back on the streets. When Eddie protests the verdict, he is charged with contempt of court and sentenced to 30 days in prison. 

With the help of longtime inmate Rake (Woody Strode), Eddie survives his incarceration, and soon after his release he teams up with co-worker Nick (Fred Williamson), who, along with buddies Burke (Richard Bright) and Ramon (Joseph Carberry), has taken the law into his own hands, beating up rapists and hunting down the goons that sell drugs in their community. With Nick’s assistance, Eddie sets out to take his revenge on the gang that destroyed his family, but will the grieving father stop there, or will his thirst for justice turn him into a full-time vigilante? 

As he did with Maniac, William Lustig shot Vigilante on location in New York City, traveling to some of the area’s less hospitable neighborhoods in order to give the movie a down-and-dirty, grindhouse feel (at one point, Nick chases a drug dealer through the graffiti-decorated remains of a community pool, a scene that’s among the film’s best). This, along with a story that borrows heavily from the 1974 box-office hit Death Wish, makes Vigilante a sure-fire crown pleaser, with citizens taking the fight directly to the criminals (during the movie’s first half, Nick and his cohorts extract information from a series of low-level dealers and pimps, all in an attempt to learn the identity of the city’s drug kingpin). 

Yet it’s the fine work turned in by the cast of Vigilante that brings it all together, taking what might have otherwise been a routine thriller (citizens hitting back when the system fails them) and transforming it into something much more substantial. Robert Forster is convincing as the angry family man who tries the legal route first, only to have it blow up in his face. But it’s Fred Williamson as the leader of the vigilantes who really stands out. In the opening scene, Williamson’s Nick delivers a passionate speech to his neighbors, saying they have to look out for themselves; and he regularly ignores the warnings of local policeman Gibbons (Steve James), who tells Nick that he’s pushing back too hard, and may end up in jail himself. 

In addition to the two leads, Maniac’s Joe Spinell has a small role as a scumbag public defender; and Woody Strode is strong as the inmate who watches over Eddie during his 30-day prison stint. 

Vigilante was one of only three movies that Lustig directed between the years 1980 and 1988 (it was sandwiched between Maniac and Maniac Cop). And while his output during this period may have been sparse, the films he managed to make are all high-quality, each with a grittiness that, even today, resonates in every scene.

Thursday, December 14, 2017

#2,476. The Sister in Law (1974)

Directed By: Joseph Ruben

Starring: John Savage, Will MacMillan, Anne Saxon

Tag line: "She Kept It All In The Family!"

Trivia: John Savage who starred as the principle lead in this film also provided much of the music. He wrote and performed three original songs for the film

Throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, Crown International (an independent studio that had been around since 1959) released an array of exploitation films, from teen comedies (Malibu Beach, Weekend Pass) to horror flicks (The Crater Lake Monster, The Hearse) and a few that straddled the line between the two (1989’s My Mom’s a Werewolf). 

At first glance, writer / director Joseph Ruben’s 1974 movie The Sister in Law has all the makings of a typical Crown International picture; there’s plenty of nudity, as well as a handful of spicy sex scenes. But unlike many of the company’s other offerings, The Sister in Law is a searing drama, relating the often intriguing tale of a family that’s coming apart at the seams. 

After spending a year or so hitchhiking across America, Robert Strong (John Savage) returns home to discover that his sister in law Joanna (Anne Saxon), the wife of his older brother Edward (Will MacMillan), has moved in with his parents (Jack Cooper and Jan DeCarlo). According to Joanna, Edward shacked up with a younger woman and intends to file for a divorce. Yet as unusual as Joanna’s current living arrangements are, things take an even stranger turn when she and Robert hop into bed together! 

Robert does manage to hide their affair from the rest of the family, including Edward, whose writing career has hit a snag. In fact, Edward needs money so badly that he’s even agreed to become a bag man for a local gangster. Unfortunately, the mob wants Edward to make a pick-up in Canada the very weekend that he’s flying to California, where he hopes to land a job as a screenwriter. So, Robert agrees to take his brother’s place, and accompanied by Edward’s new girlfriend Deborah (Meredith Baer), he makes his way north to the pick-up location, not realizing until it’s too late that the contents of the package he’s transporting could change his and Edward’s lives forever. 

John Savage (in one of his earlier roles) and Will MacMillan are both excellent as the brothers with differing ideals; Robert is a free spirit who doesn’t have many worldly possessions (he took very little along with him on his tour of the U.S.A.), while his brother, who until recently was a successful author, wants nothing more than to maintain the luxurious lifestyle he’s grown accustomed to, so much so that its forced him to work for some very shady characters. 

In addition, a fierce sibling rivalry between the two brothers occasionally rears its ugly head (a friendly game of basketball in the pool eventually turns violent), especially when it comes to the women in Edward’s life. Even though he plans to divorce Joanna, Edward would be none too happy to learn that Robert is now sleeping with her (their sex scenes are easily the film’s steamiest moments), and it’s obvious early on that Joanna (played so well by Anne Saxon) only seduced Robert to get back at Edward. During their trip to Canada, Robert even has a fling with Deborah! Clearly, the brothers have their issues, and we see just how poisonous their relationship has become when Edward sends the unsuspecting Robert to Canada, never telling him what it is he’s supposed to pick up. 

The Sister In Law does have its share of exploitative scenes (at one point, Joanna and Deborah get into a catfight, during which they both fall into the pool), but with its folksy soundtrack (with music performed by Savage himself) and an ending that will shock the hell out of you, The Sister In Law proves to be much more than a trashy skin flick, and odds are you’ll be thinking about it for days afterwards.

Friday, December 8, 2017

#2,475. Days of Heaven (1978)

Directed By: Terrence Malick

Starring: Richard Gere, Brooke Adams, Sam Shepard

Tag line: "Your Eyes...Your Ears...Your Senses...Will Be Overwhelmed"

Trivia: Shortly after filming began, director Terrence Malick tossed out the script, relying instead on the improvisation of the actors

As I mentioned in my write-up of Medium Cool, I had taken several mass media courses in college, all geared towards video production (which, at that point in the early ‘90s, was where the jobs were). Yet, despite its focus, the instructor dedicated three consecutive classes to the art of film. The first week we watched and discussed Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and in the second we got a chance to analyze Hitchcock’s Psycho

Being a movie fan, I had seen both of these before, but the third week’s film, Terence Malick’s Days of Heaven, was new to me. 

A period piece that whisks us back to the early days of the 20th century, Days of Heaven is one of the most striking motion pictures I’ve ever seen, and it continues to rank among my favorites of all-time, a position its held since that first viewing all those years ago. 

The year is 1916. Following a violent confrontation with his boss, Chicago steel mill worker Bill (Richard Gere) hops the next train out of town, taking with him his girlfriend Abby (Brooke Adams) and his adolescent sister Linda (Linda Manz). The train carries the trio all the way to the Texas panhandle, where Bill and Abby get jobs (alongside hundreds of immigrants) harvesting the fields of a rich farmer (played by Sam Shepard). 

To avoid any controversy, Bill and Abby pretend to be brother and sister, a lie that works to their advantage when the Farmer, who Bill learns is dying of an unknown illness, falls in love with Abby. Hoping to get his hands on the farmer’s wealth when he passes away, Bill convinces Abby to marry the farmer, thus setting herself up to be his sole heir. 

But as the months drag on, the farmer’s health seems to improve, and Bill finds himself on the outside looking in when Abby begins to develop feelings for her new husband. 

Most movies, especially those as visually stunning as Days of Heaven, have no need of a narrator; the images speak for themselves. Yet the narration provided by young star Linda Manz is one of thIS film’s best features. Along with sharing a few of her thoughts on its various characters, Manz’s Linda is often as observant as Malick’s camera, commenting on things that don’t necessarily forward the plot, but add to the film’s reflective tone (“Nobody’s perfect”, Linda says at one point in her thick New York accent. “There was never a perfect person around. You just have half-angel and half-devil in you”). 

Yet what truly makes Days of Heaven such a noteworthy motion picture is its gorgeous cinematography (handled by both Nestor Almendros and an uncredited Haskell Wexler) as well as Malick’s keen sense of what makes a particular image so interesting (in one of the documentaries presented on the Blu-Ray, we’re told that Malick didn’t really follow a shot plan, choosing instead to film whatever caught his eye). 

Days of Heaven does offer a few memorable moments, such as the locust infestation that threatens to ruin the farmer’s crop; and the fire that spreads out of control when he and the workers try to drive these pesky insects away. But the movie is at its best when, as with the narration, the visuals don’t serve the story (some of the long shots of the workers toiling in the fields are positively breathtaking). 

With its emphasis on imagery over dialogue and story, Days of Heaven may seem overly pretentious to some viewers. For me, though, its visuals were more than enough to hold my attention; you could lift just about any frame from this film and hang it on your wall. Days of Heaven is arthouse cinema at its most engaging.

Thursday, December 7, 2017

#2,474. The Devil's Candy (2015)

Directed By: Sean Byrne

Starring: Ethan Embry, Shiri Appleby, Pruitt Taylor Vince

Tag line: "He Will Slither into your Soul"

Trivia: Came in 3rd place for Best Feature at the 2016 Sheffield Horror Film Festival

I first saw director Sean Byrne’s The Devil’s Candy earlier this year, and was beyond impressed. It was a deeply troubling horror film that delved into some dark areas, all the while centering on a very likable young family. I knew then that the movie was special, and when I finally picked up the Blu-Ray a few months later I couldn’t wait to sit down and watch it again. 

But something quite unexpected happened during that subsequent viewing. Even though I knew exactly what was coming, The Devil’s Candy still managed to disturb me more the second time than it did initially. In fact, there was a moment when I had to stop the movie and collect my thoughts, which I didn’t even consider doing the first time I watched it. 

It was a unique experience for me; I’ve been frightened by films before, but I can’t remember another one that scared me more the second time around, and the fact that The Devil’s Candy did so is a tribute to both its director and his excellent cast. 

Despite their money troubles, the Hellman family: struggling artist Jesse (Ethan Embry); his wife Astrid (Shari Appleby); and their teenage daughter Zooey (Kiara Glasco), just moved into their dream house, a beautiful Texas residence that’s well off the beaten path. There’s even an old barn out back, which Jesse transforms into an art studio. And while Zooey is somewhat apprehensive about attending a brand new school, the Hellmans are confident they’ll be happy in their home for many years to come. 

But the house has a dark history; Ray Smilie (Pruitt Taylor Vince), a mentally backward man whose family once owned the dwelling, used to say he heard voices coming from behind his bedroom wall, and one night those voices told him to murder his parents. Because their deaths were ruled an accident, Ray Smilie is still a free man, and catches the Hellmans off-guard when he shows up on their front porch one evening, asking is he can move back into his old room. Though he feels sorry for Ray, Jesse refuses to let him inside. 

And it’s a good thing, too, because the voices continue to haunt Ray Smilie, telling him to do terrible things to children, and convincing him that he should now set his sights on young Zooey! 

As for Jesse, he, too, has started hearing the voices, which speak to him through his artwork. In a trance one afternoon, Jesse even paints a picture that suggests Zooey is in great danger. 

Can Jesse protect his daughter from Ray Smilie, or has Zooey’s fate already been determined by a force greater than all of them? 

So why did The Devil’s Candy upset me more the second time than the first? The answer is simple: I cared about the Hellman clan, so much so that I didn’t want to see them go through what I knew was coming. From the beginning, it’s obvious the Hellmans are a tight-knit family, and that Jesse and Zooey in particular share a special bond with one another. Ethan Embry was the perfect choice to play Jesse, the well-meaning father who passed his passion for heavy metal music on to his daughter, and Kiara Glasco is equally good as Zooey, who, thanks to her upbringing, is a thoughtful, intelligent young woman. Shari Appleby is also convincing as Astrid, who, though she doesn’t share the same interests as Jesse and Zooey, is a loving mother, but it’s the relationship between father and daughter that pulls us in and makes us fear the evil we know is coming for them. 

Yet despite the horrific things he does throughout the movie (including one very traumatic sequence involving the abduction of a young boy), we realize early on that Pruitt Taylor Vince’s Ray Smilie is as much a victim as any other character in this film. We meet Ray in the first scene, a flashback to the night he murdered his parents. To drown out the voices that are filling his head with terrible thoughts, Ray stands in his darkened bedroom, playing his Flying V electric guitar as loudly as he can. Ray wants the voices to go away, and has no desire to carry out their orders (he even says as much to his potential victims), but his simplistic nature has made it impossible for him to fight the demon controlling his mind. Vince has always been an underrated actor, and in The Devil’s Candy he manages to make us feel sorry for a character that more than once transforms into a monster before our very eyes. 

With The Devil’s Candy, writer / director Sean Byrne has crafter a singular motion picture, and thanks to his steady hand and the excellent performances turned in by his cast the movie loses none of its effectiveness from one viewing to the next. There are instances when familiarity does, indeed, breed contempt, but in the case of The Devil’s Candy it only manages to stir up dread.

Sunday, December 3, 2017

#2,473. House of Flying Daggers (2004)

Directed By: Yimou Zhang

Starring: Ziyi Zhang, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Andy Lau

Line from the film: "We belong to two opposing sides. If we meet again... one of us will have to die"

Trivia:  Yimou Zhang chose world famous opera diva Kathleen Battle to sing the theme song for this film

As a follow-up to his 2002 film Hero, director Zhang Yimou once again delved into the martial arts genre with House of Flying Daggers, a motion picture every bit as exciting – and just as beautiful – as its predecessor. 

In 9th century China, towards the end of the Teng Dynasty, a rebel organization known as the Flying Daggers is attempting to overthrow the corrupt provincial government. Jin (Takeshi Kaneshiro, Chungking Express), a member of the local police force, is ordered by his Captain (Andy Lau, Infernal Affairs) to go undercover and win the trust of Mei (Zhang Ziyi, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon), a blind dancing girl recently taken into custody. Both Jin and the Captain are convinced Mei is, in fact, the daughter of the recently-deceased leader of the Flying Daggers, and it’s their hope that she will lead them straight to the group’s secret headquarters. 

After “helping” Mei escape, Jin (who tells her his name is “The Wind”) follows her deep into the wilderness, doing his best to steer clear of the government troops that are trailing close behind. But during their adventure, Jin and Mei develop feelings for one another, causing Jin to question his loyalties; should he continue with his mission, or protect the woman he now loves? 

In my write-up of Hero, I called it “an all-out attack on the senses” and “an amazing barrage of sights and sounds that never seems to end”. The same can be said for House of Flying Daggers. This movie is incredible; a visual smorgasbord that features one stunning scene after another. Early on, we’re treated to the “Echo Game”, a colorful, wonderfully choreographed sequence in which the Police Captain challenges Mei to a very unusual contest. Equally as good is a later scene set in a bamboo forest, where Jin and Mei battle the government troops attacking them from high atop the trees. 

These are but two of the many extraordinary sequences to be found in House of Flying Daggers, and thanks to the combined efforts of director Zhang Yimou, cinematographer Xiaoding Zhao, and the movie’s excellent special effects crew, the action-oriented scenes are both thrilling and visually awe-inspiring. 

While the story itself (which centers on the love affair that develops between its two leads) may not be as grand in scope as the one told in Hero, director Yimou and his writers throw a few unexpected plot twists into the mix to keep things interesting. This, along with its mind-blowing imagery and exceptional fight scenes, makes House of Flying Daggers, like Hero before it, an astounding cinematic achievement that is not to be missed.

Friday, December 1, 2017

#2,472. Fantastic Mr. Fox (2009)

Directed By: Wes Anderson

Starring: George Clooney, Meryl Streep, Bill Murray

Tag line: "His life is fantastic... his wife is fantastic... his neighbors, not so fantastic"

Trivia: Altogether, 535 puppets were made for the film (Mr. Fox had 17 different styles alone)

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a delightful rarity; a kid-friendly animated adventure that is unlike any movie director Wes Anderson ever made before, yet still bears the unmistakable markings of a Wes Anderson film. 

After learning that his beloved wife (voiced by Meryl Streep) is pregnant, Mr. Fox (George Clooney), a notorious chicken thief, vows to find a new line of work. 

Several years pass. Mr. Fox is now a well-respected (if somewhat obscure) newspaper columnist, and his young son Ash (Jason Schwartzman) is proving to be a handful (Ash is not only a bit odd, but he seldom does what he’s told). When informed that his nephew Kristofferson (Eric Chase Anderson) will be coming to stay with them for a while, Mr. Fox decides to move his family into a bigger, above-ground home, one that overlooks three prestigious poultry farms owned and operated by Boggis (Robin Hurlstone), Bunce (Hugo Guinness), and Bean (Michael Gambon). 

Itching to return to his life of crime, Mr. Fox teams up with his new handyman Kylie the Possum (Wallace Wolodarsky) and raids the trio of farms adjacent to his property. But Boggis, Bunce, and especially Bean are not to be trifled with, and the three join forces in an attempt to rid themselves of a very pesky Fox. 

Will Mr. Fox win out in the end, or are his thieving days behind him for good? 

Based on a children’s book by Roald Dahl, Fantastic Mr. Fox is a movie that the entire family can enjoy, with a colorful lead character (handled wonderfully by the always-reliable George Clooney) whose various adventures will have you laughing from the edge of your seat. Along with being both funny and exciting, Fantastic Mr. Fox is also touching in its own way (the relationship between Mr. Fox and his son Ash offers a few heartwarming moments). In addition to its thematic elements, the stop-motion animation is superb, and there are scenes within the film that are truly unforgettable (the best of which features an underground feast that’s interrupted by a river of apple cider). 

Yet as good a piece of family entertainment as this movie is, what struck me while I was watching Fantastic Mr. Fox was how Wes Anderson’s signature style shined through in just about every scene. We see it in an early flashback, when the Foxes break into a Squab farm moments before Mrs. Fox announces that she’s pregnant. Following the two as they sneak around the farm, the scene has a familiar energy to it, fueled in part by Anderson’s choice of music ("Heroes & Villains" by the Beach Boys, which plays during the entire sequence). We’ve seen stylized moments like this before in Bottle Rocket, Rushmore, and The Royal Tenenbaums, and because of this we recognize the “Anderson touch” almost immediately. 

In addition, many of the director’s regulars lend their voices to the movie, including Jason Schwartzman, Bill Murray (as Badger, Mr. Fox’s accountant), Willem Dafoe (as a rat hired to guard Bean’s valuable supply of apple cider), and Michael Gambon. We’re even treated to one of Anderson’s patented montage sequences (narrated by Bill Murray) in which we’re introduced to the film’s three evil farmers. 

Fantastic Mr. Fox is a unique entry in Anderson’s filmography, but there’s no mistaking that it is, indeed, a Wes Anderson picture.

Thursday, November 30, 2017

#2,471. Salon Kitty (1976)

Directed By: Tinto Brass

Starring: Helmut Berger, Ingrid Thulin, Teresa Ann Savoy

Tag line: "Nazi Germany, 1939. Depraved. Decadent. Damned"

Trivia: Richard Crenna was originally cast as Cliff but left during the filming and was replaced by John Ireland

Directed by Tinto Brass (who a few years later would helm the extremely controversial Caligula), Salon Kitty is a cross between an erotic exploitation flick and an historical drama, relating the tale of an actual WWII-era brothel and filling it with enough nudity and sex to keep the grindhouse crowd entertained. 

Though she runs the most prestigious whorehouse in all of Germany, Madame Kitty (Ingrid Thulin) is informed by Nazi S.S. officer Helmut Wallenberg (Helmut Berger) that her entire operation is being moved to a new location. What’s more, she’s been ordered to dismiss her current prostitutes and replace them with women loyal to the Socialist Party. Wallenberg tells Kitty that her new and improved “Salon” will cater to the most important men in Germany, but in reality the S.S. is using the brothel to gather information on so-called “loyal” Nazis; the girls have all been trained in espionage, and there are microphones and recording devices planted throughout the building. 

Kitty, who has no idea what Wallenberg and his associates are up to, does her best to turn this new brothel into a lucrative business, only to discover the truth when Margherita (Teresa Ann Savoy), one of Wallenberg’s hand-selected prostitutes, falls in love with German pilot Hans Reiter (Bekim Fehmiu). Reiter, who also has feelings for Margherita, tells her that he’s fed up with the war and the Nazis, and he intends to defect to the other side as soon as possible. When Margherita learns a short while later that the S.S. had her beloved Hans executed as a traitor, she and Madame Kitty concoct a scheme that, if successful, will take down Wallenberg and his entire covert operation. 

When initially released in the U.S., Salon Kitty was saddled with an ‘X’ by the MPAA, and it’s a rating the movie certainly deserves; though it shies away from depicting hardcore sex acts, the film Is jam-packed with graphic nudity (both male and female) and features moments involving group sex, forced lesbianism (Wallenberg, who also has his eye on Margherita, orders her at one point to cozy up to his wife Herta, played by Tina Aumont), masturbation, and other acts of perversion (in what is easily one of the film’s most bizarre scenes, a Nazi officer tells a prostitute to put a penis-shaped loaf of bread between her legs, and then he performs fellatio on it). In addition to all the debauchery, Salon Kitty also has a sequence set inside a real-life slaughterhouse that’s tough to watch (in it, a pig has its throat cut before it’s butchered on-screen). 

But thanks to the fine work turned in by its cast, not to mention some well-realized sets and costumes, Salon Kitty proves to be more than just another sex-fueled exploitation film. Helmut Berger is perfect as the shifty Wallenberg, an ambitious officer who intends to use the information gathered at Kitty’s to advance his own career; and Ingrid Thulin (who appeared in a number of Ingmar Bergman classics, including Wild Strawberries and Cries and Whispers) is equally strong as Kitty, the Madame who wants only to bring some joy to those who need it most. The performances, coupled with a well-realized romantic subplot (Savoy and Fehmiu are convincing as the naïve lovers), help Salon Kitty rise above the usual erotic fare. 

The only issue I had with Salon Kitty was its running time; the movie (in its original, uncut version) is about 133 minutes, and even with its plethora of exploitative elements it was, at times, a chore to sit through it. But with Tinto Brass and company going to great lengths to recreate the period in stunning detail, even the slower scenes are visually interesting; and if you feel you can tolerate an historical piece that’s chock full of adult content, then Salon Kitty may just be the film for you.