Formerly "Dave's Blog About Movies and Such"

Sunday, April 27, 2008

Fight for Your Life (1977)

dir. Robert A. Endelson

"Don't move or I'll blow your motherfucking balls off."
-Grandma Turner

Remember in my last movie review when I wrote that I would start writing about lighter movies? It turns out I was lying. Try as I might, I can't escape the pull of these violent exploitation pictures. And few movies are as violent and down and dirty as Robert A. Endelson's Fight for Your Life. Endelson has only one other movie to his credit, a soft core porno titled The Filthiest Show in Town, which I have yet to see. Perhaps the only other 70's exploitation picture to match the stomach turning tastelessness present here is Joel M. Reed's Blood Sucking Freaks. Like Endelson, Reed has few movies to his credit. This is most likely because the establishment keeps true auters like these maestros from realizing their filmmaking potential to speak the truth to the masses. Either that or Endelson and Reed decided to leave narrative cinema for the more lucrative world of snuff films and drugged-up teenage runaway basement porn.

So problematic is Fight for Your Life that it experienced heavy censorship in many countries upon its release and outright banning in Britain (then again, the stuffy Brits have banned so many pictures over the years that being banned there has lost all meaning). Whereas most exploitation pictures aim solely for cheap thrills, Endelson here tries to tackle the subject of racism. Surely, an issue as divisive and explosive as racism would require a thoughtful and nuanced approach in examining the myriad causes and effects that it plays in our society. Endelson opts, instead, to make his film with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer blow to the face. (a method that would result in Oscar wins, years later, for Paul Haggis' overblown Crash (side note: this is a cheap shot, I know, but at least Endelson didn't operate under any pretense that he was making anything other than cheap, exploitative trash.))

Fight for Your Life follows three prisoners who escape from a prison transport van and take a black family, the Turners, hostage. Over the course of a day, the gang's leader Jessie Lee Kane (William Sanderson of Blade Runner, "Newhart" and "Deadwood" fame) subjects the Turners to a slew of racial epithets and psychological torture at the end of a gun. He also forces the father, Ted Turner (Robert Judd), to speak and "scrape and shuffle" in a manner befitting Stepin Fetchit. Why would Ted allow this? For one thing, as I mentioned before, Kane has a gun trained on Ted. Secondly, Ted is a minister who believes in turning the other cheek, much to the dismay of his more militant, wheelchair bound mother, Grandma Turner (Lela Small), and his ten year old son, Floyd (Reggie Rock Bythewood, the director of Biker Boyz). They view Ted as an Uncle Tom, but not for long.

The cops, hot in pursuit of the Kane gang, race against time to locate these men before they can cause unspeakable harm. Unfortunately, before the cops make it to the Turner home, Kane's men will have raped and murdered a family friend, Karen; and bludgeoned to death Floyd's friend Joey. Surely, this wanton, senseless violence can't go unpunished. Of course, Endelson eventually gives us the cathartic revenge we have been fiending for. By the time the cops make it to the Turner home, the tables have turned. After Kane's men rape Ted's daughter Corrie (Yvonne Ross), Ted goes apeshit -- shooting one man in the crotch and forcing another to jump out of a window where he is impaled on glass.

By this point, the cops have surrounded the house and are listening in with a high powered microphone. When the white, by the book, Captain Hamilton, hears that the Turners are torturing the criminals, he decides to hold his men back so that the Turners can have a little fun. According to this movie, white cops are a black man's best friend. Indeed, aside from Kane's group, much of the race relations presented here are overly optimistic. The Turners and the white townsfolk live in complete harmony. It could be argued that this was an attempt by the filmmakers to downplay any allegations of racism, but the film's finale shows that Endelson et al. are probably just naive.

Amid a mad shuffle, Kane manages to take Mrs. Turner (Catherine Peppers) hostage, after which, we see a bizarre finale in which Ted holds a psychotherapy session with Kane at the end of a gun. Kane had mentioned earlier that he went to prison at a very early age and Ted posits that Kane's racial hatred stems from the fact that he was raped by black men in jail. Although the movie shows that this may be true, the ultimate truth is shown right before Ted offs that motherfucker. With his emotions running wild, Kane reveals to Ted, "You're just like the black man my mama ran off with." That's it -- racism explained. You're welcome.

Endelson's heart tries to be in the right place, but his conclusions are absurdly simplistic. The movie comes to the eventual conclusion that racism is bad -- congratulations. Despite all the exploitation trappings, this movie is not much different from the problem pictures of the fifties, in that it sees racism not as a systemic cultural and socio-economic problem but as the moral and psychological failings of a few bad apples. Not that one would expect more insight from a movie of this sort, it is nevertheless cringe-inducing when these movies, however earnestly, tackle such subject matter.

It almost seems as if Endelson, one day, decided to make a movie in which characters would spout out every known racial epithet and force black characters to perform every degrading stereotypical act known to man; and then worked backwards to try to figure out a way to justify all of this. Much the same could be said of the film Beware: Children at Play. Just replace racism with massive amounts of child killing. In all honesty, barely justifiable depictions of violence and depravity are the bread and butter of exploitation movies. Seen in this light, I guess, this movie is a raging success.

All that being said, this movie is not without entertainment value. The revenge scenes are pretty fucking sweet. I'm sure many viewers at the time found it quite cathartic to watch an empowered black man have his way with a racist honky. Although the movie's racial politics may be absurdly simplistic, I should note that Kane's men kill only white folks. They are never able to outsmart and kill any members of the Turner family. In a genre where black characters are so often just one dimensional plot devices and receptacles for bullets, the members of the Turner family are quite nuanced characters (at least as nuanced as characters in an exploitation movie can be) who are allowed the dignity of surviving until the film's end. Perhaps this movie is more subversive than meets the eye.

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

USA Up All Night

Because I wanted to refresh my memory on movies for a Mother's Day feature I am going to write soon (whenever Mother's day is), I decided to rewatch the Troma trash masterpiece, Mother's Day. It is every bit as sleazy and nauseating as I remembered. Although I gorged on Troma fare during my teen years I haven't watched too many of these movies since then. Rewatching this really took me back. Mostly, it reminded me of the many Friday nights I spent as a teen watching "USA Up All Night". Like many teens (at least the nerdy teens, anyways) who grew up in the nineties, I was introduced to Troma and other works of trash through this basic cable movie series. Hosted by the buxom "B" movie star, Rhonda Shear, "Up All Night' was a feast for my pubescent brain. Lured by the prospect of frustratingly teasing spank material (all the nudity was blurred out), eventually, I would keep coming back just for the movies.

Honestly, I can't remember if I first saw Mother's Day on "Up All Night", but it was certainly the kind of movie that would have been shown on this program. It is always fun to rewatch, years later, some of the movies I first saw here. I was really surprised when I saw Lifeforce unedited for the first time. That movie is a pure tits-o-rama. Night of the Comet was a movie I didn't realize I saw on "Up All Night" until I rented it a year ago and all of the memories came back (that's what I call a cinematic flashback).

Interestingly, I discovered "Up all Night" around the same time we got TCM in my house. I had already considered myself a movie buff at this early age, and I couldn't be happier with TCM. And although TCM was great for catching up on the classics, when it came to cinematic sleaze, "Up All Night" couldn't be topped. Seeing as these were my formative years, I really developed an appreciation for both trash and art (to this day I find it hard to draw a distinction between the two). This was an amazing time for a maturing movie lover and I couldn't soak up the movie knowledge fast enough.

It is rather sad that programs of this sort don't exist anymore (I could be wrong, I haven't had cable in over four years). Yes you can find all of the movies shown on "Up All Night" through Netflix but there was something charming about the "Up All Night" format. Who knows? Maybe I'm just getting old and nostalgic.

Sunday, April 13, 2008

Lady in a Cage (1964)

dir. Walter Grauman

"The world must've ended. Someone on one side or the other must've pushed the button, dropped the bomb."
-Cornelia Hilyard

Being a movie geek, I tend to think I have a good overall knowledge of every genre and era of cinema. I certainly haven't seen close to everything yet, but I have seen many of the movies worth watching. What a joy it is when I can find a gaping hole in my film knowledge and fill it. Lady in a Cage is one of those cult favorites that I somehow managed to miss all of these years. It had been on my must see list for at least a decade but, for whatever reason, I kept putting off seeing it. How stupid of me. How did I go so long without seeing this movie?

Lady in a Cage is a marvel of construction, taking place over the course of a Fourth of July afternoon, it makes the most of its small budget. Although not elaborately plotted, it is quite tightly paced, with nary an ounce of fat. Using just a few locations, Lady in a Cage tells an engaging story, never feeling stagey. Telling so much with seemingly little, it is a grand example of economical storytelling.

Lady in a Cage belongs to a small genre of hagsploitation flicks from the sixties, starting with What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?. This era saw a slew of thrillers starring past their prime leading ladies in unglamorous roles. Some might find it dispiriting that the roles available to older women are so scant that these actresses would have no choice but to act in these pictures. I would feel bad for them but they were getting work in awesome movies. In 1964 Olivia De Havilland starred in the nastiest movie of this mini genre (Ann Sothern also has a smaller role in the movie). Although part of this group of hagsploitation flicks, Lady in a Cage veered away from the campy tropes of these pictures, and helped paved the way for the more realistically brutal horror movies of the coming decade.

The movie opens with an exciting Saul Bass inspired title sequence, intercut with live action footage of people driving to their vacation destinations and ignoring horrific images: a bum passed out on the sidewalk and a dead dog in the middle of the road. Playing over the credits (and throughout the movie) is a jazz inspired score not dissimilar from the one Jerry Goldsmith would compose for The Planet of the Apes. The dissonant music punctuates the brutality of these images, images which are so often ignored in day to day life.

We are soon introduced to Malcolm Hilyard (William Swan), the son of Cornelia Hilyard (De Havilland) and the biggest momma's boy this side of Norman Bates (Code in this movie, of course, for gay). Malcolm writes his mother daily love notes and kisses her on the lips (seriously, it took me a while to realize that he was her son). After Malcolm leaves for the day, Cornelia gets stuck in an in-house elevator when her power goes out. Panic starts to creep in as she realizes that no one is coming to help. What is a lady in a cage to do?

Surely, someone will come and rescue this poor woman after hearing the distress bell that she continuously rings. Indeed, help is on the way, if by help you mean a hobo and an aging prostitute with sticky fingers. After the hobo unloads some of Cornelia's loot at a pawnshop, a gang of hoods led by Randall (James Caan in his feature film debut) gets wind of the action. Caan here is responsible for one of the most terrifyingly assured film debuts by an actor in film history. Randall is a character similar to the one played by Martin Sheen in his debut film, The Incident (It's certainly miles away from the character Robert Duvall played in his debut, To Kill a Mockingbird). This atavistic criminal relishes the opportunity to terrorize a defenseless person even more than he relishes his chance at all that free loot.

The director Walter Grauman succeeds at leaving the viewer on edge. This is one of those films in which you feel that anything can happen. It creates an unsettling experience. One of the reasons for this is that the themes hit so close to home. We are shown how flimsy our idea of civilization really is. Earlier in the morning, Cornelia was a cookie-cutter bourgeois house wife, now she is forced to defend herself from animalistic hellions while stuck in a prison of her making. Cornelia's survival is not a certainty, especially considering that Randall has threatened to kill her along with the hobo and the whore.

Enough is enough. Someone's gotta get this motherfucking lady out of this motherfucking cage.

Eventually Cornelia does get out of the cage. After Randall's group runs out back to fight the pawnbroker, who has hired goons to help him steal the loot, Cornelia makes a run for it. She is not safe for long, though. Cornelia, battered, crawls to her front yard in broad daylight and screams for help. The apathetic citizenry, however, completely ignores her. Soon after, Randall grabs her and drags her back inside.

It is not until the film's finale that any citizens are aware of Cornelia's predicament. By then, it is too late for anyone to do anything. These people are simply rubber neckers and when they see that the show is over they leave. They've had their fill of entertainment for the day. The final image of the movie is of cars driving away to their vacations, bookending the opening shot of the movie.

Grauman indicts the audience for enjoying such movies just as much as he indicts the slack jawed onlookers in this final scene. He shows disgust with the way in which movie viewers find vicarious thrills through the suffering of others. It is a rather thin tight rope he's walking on. He is essentially saying, "I'm gonna make an exciting, nail biting thriller, which you'll no doubt enjoy. Fuck you for enjoying it. Thank you for your money." It is a tenuous philosophy to hold contempt for the very audience that gives you money to make your product. Generally, I am put off by movies that do this sort of thing. It just strikes me as pompous. In this instance, however, I had no complaints. It worked so well as a thriller that I wasn't put off by the heavy handedness of the message.

All that being said, this isn't the kind of movie I could watch again and again. I put Lady in a Cage in the category of movies that make you want to take a shower afterwards. It is one of the nastiest movies ever made. Even Cornelia is not spared the scorn of the filmmakers. In a late plot reveal we see the horrible effects of her smotherly love toward Malcolm. Cornelia is culpable in a horrible act involving him. Rarely does a movie have such contempt for humanity. We are not given any real heroes to side with.

I originally thought that this movie was based on the Kitty Genovese case. This was the crime, now cited in psychology textbooks, in which a woman was brutally beaten and murdered outside of her Queens apartment building while the tenants did nothing to help. I did a little research, though, and found out that this movie was released a mere four months after the Genovese murder. Unless the filmmakers managed to write, sell, cast, produce, do post production, and distribute within a four month span, the theme of this movie is most likely a coincidence (the aforementioned The Incident, however, was no doubt inspired by this crime). It does show how prescient this movie is, though. It examines a darker side of humanity that most would rather leave buried and presaged, quite eerily, the selfish actions of actual people when confronted with a very real crime.

Man, I gotta watch a cheerier movie for my next review.

(Here is the Saul Bass inspired title sequence.)

Sunday, April 6, 2008

R.I.P. Charlton Heston

Goddamn. Three in a row. Widmark, then Dassin, and now Heston. Although I am a fan of all of their works, I grew up watching most of Heston's movies, so this one hits a little closer to home. Throughout his career he played Jews in both The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur, a Mexican in Touch of Evil, and a Spaniard in El Cid (apparently, at the time, there weren't enough Jews and Latinos in Southern California to play these parts). Heston started his career playing bigger than life heroes in lavish Hollywood epics including the aforementioned The Ten Commandments and Ben Hur. Always playing the rugged hero, Heston would eventually make a series of both disaster movies and futuristic dystopia movies including The Omega Man, Soylent Green, and Earthquake. I don't know why but it seems that every dystopic Hollywood movie that was made in the late sixties and seventies was required to star Heston.

Most modern movie goers will also remember him as the Alzheimer's victim who was bullied by Michael Moore in the gun documentary. Ok, that was an unnecessarily snide comment, but I brought it up to make a point. Most people will remember Heston more for his politics and his views on gun control rather than his body of work, which is unfortunate. Although he was not the greatest actor, the man had screen presence and he made damn entertaining movies. Try to watch a Heston movie and not get excited.

Here are a few clips to remember him by.

(One last clip. I know the whole fake trailer thing is played out and this clip is pretty old but, hey, it makes me giggle.)

Friday, April 4, 2008

Westerns That Act as Allegories for the Present

Rarely is a period picture solely about the era in which it takes place. For whatever reason, the current zeitgeist always manages to find its way into the movie. Particularly susceptible to this phenomenon is the Western. Given the pliable nature of the, many times, simple Western narrative, movies in this most American genre are less about the past and more about the mood of the current national psyche. Here are some notable examples of Westerns that live in the present. (Side note: I know that a lot of movies are missing from this list. Really, I wrote it to start a discussion. What are some other movies that belong here?)

High Noon (1952)
dir. Fred Zinnemann
This is perhaps the most famous instance of a Western symbolizing a current issue. High Noon was a direct response to the HUAC hearings of the late forties and early fifties. The film's screenwriter, Carl Foreman, was a victim of these hearings and decided to lash out at his fellow creative types who stood idly by while the Red Scare destroyed many careers. Gary Cooper plays Will Kane, a former Marshal who learns that a few criminals he put in jail years before are coming back to exact revenge. Although Kane protected the citizenry for years, these cowardly folk refuse to help him in his time of need. After he and his Quaker wife vanquish the enemy, he leaves town in disgust. So obvious was the political subtext that John Wayne labeled this movie un-American (although, honestly, it probably didn't take much for him to label something un-American). Years later he and Howard Hawks made a right wing response, Rio Bravo.

(Here is a clip of the cowardly citizens waiting for the outlaws to arrive.)

The Searchers (1956)
dir. John Ford
Made as the Civil Rights Movement was gaining momentum, The Searchers examines the issue of race relations. During this time it would have been box office suicide to deal head on with such a divisive issue, so it was dealt with here in a roundabout way, with Native Americans representing African Americans. John Wayne plays Ethan, a Civil War veteran who spends years searching for a niece kidnapped by Indians. Ethan is a man ruled by racism. Indeed, when he rescues his niece, it seems highly likely that he will kill her for being contaminated by them dirty redskins (this being a Hollywood movie, of course, he doesn't kill her). Although Ethan was intended as a complex hero, I have always viewed him as the villain in this movie. John Ford does make an effort to tackle the issue of racism but he does so from a white patriarchal point of view.

Forty Guns (1957)
dir. Sam Fuller
This postwar western deals with two issues of importance at the time: female empowerment and juvenile delinquency. Barbara Stanwyck plays Jessica Drummond, a woman who owns damn near everything in Tombstone, including 40 man whores (hence the title). Although she is a cold businesswoman, she has one soft spot: her no good teenage brother, Brock. Unfortunately, this rapscallion kills the brother of Jessica's newest boy toy, Griff, a former Marshal. Griff later kills Brock, wounding Jessica in the process. Jessica is reminiscent of Joan Crawford's titular character in Mildred Pierce. Yes she has become successful, but her affection for a blood relation threatens all that she has achieved. The moral of the story: kids are no damn good.

The Hired Hand (1971)
dir. Peter Fonda
Peter Fonda directs and stars in this long forgotten hippie western. After going on a spiritual pilgrimage for seven years with Arch (Warren motherfuckin' Oates), Harry (Fonda) decides to go back home to his wife Hannah (Verna Bloom). After reuniting with Hannah, Harry discovers to his dismay that she has had many lovers in the intervening years. She has needs too, damnit. The Hired Hand also has a revenge plot line thrown in to give it a more Western feel. Although the movie has sporadic action it is more concerned with the relationship drama and with studying the newly defined sexual politics.

The Cowboys (1972)
dir. Mark Rydell
This movie is the reason I wrote this post. The Cowboys also approaches the hippie subject, but from the opposite side. Honestly, although this movie is virulently anti hippie, it's hard to figure out where it stands on the political spectrum. The Cowboys centers around Wil Anderson (John Wayne) and a group of adolescents he has hired to help him drive cattle across the country. The group that John Wayne gathers is one of the most multicultural groups seen in a Western. It almost seems as though the makers of this movie were trying to mask some of The Cowboys' conservative politics by showing that racially, they were pretty cool. The Duke's posse eventually runs afoul of an evil hippie cowboy played magnificently by Bruce Dern (In the credits, Dern's character is listed only as long hair). After Dern shoots Anderson in the back (wow, what a bastard) it is up to the kids to exact revenge on Dern's huge posse. In its idealistic vision of a group of kids drafted into a faux military service, this movie has been seen by some as a pro-Vietnam War flick. Interestingly, Mark Rydell, the film's director, was reluctant to hire Wayne, whose conservative views he detested. Who knows what the real intentions were. There is no denying, however, that it is a product of its time.

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

R.I.P. Jules Dassin

First Richard Widmark and now Jules Dassin -- it has been a sad few days for movie lovers. A great actor and now a great director of the old school have both bitten the dust. In a weird way, it is somehow fitting that they died so close in time to each other. Back in the forties when Dassin became the target of HUAC hearings and he knew his days in Hollywood were numbered, he traveled to England to make his first movie outside of the states, Night and the City starring Richard Widmark. It was an enormous risk for Widmark to work with a potential blacklistee, but he did it anyways. One reason may be that it was a great opportunity for Widmark to work with a director of such talent. Perhaps, Widmark also wanted to show solidarity with someone who was unfairly persecuted by an unconstitutional organization. Who knows the reason, but it resulted in a thrilling picture. It could be argued that Dassin made his best work after he was blacklisted. Interestingly, it could also be argued that Elia Kazan made his best movies after his involvement in the HUAC hearings. The only difference is that Kazan was a rat.

A Director Redeems Himself (Slightly)

Paranoid Park (2008)
dir. Gus Van Sant

The other night, my girlfriend and I wanted to go to the movies and we had a choice between two flicks: The Other Boleyn Girl and Gus Van Sant's new movie Paranoid Park. I did swear off Gus Van Sant after watching Gerry (or as I like to refer to it, the movie so douchebaggingly pretentious it made me shit anger), but I didn't really feel like seeing the movie about the two sisters who fight for the chance to get boned by Henry VIII (that is, after I found out it wasn't a high concept period porn film). What a surprise it was when I discovered that Paranoid Park was actually pretty good. Granted, my expectations were set so low that I would've been satisfied by anything put on the screen but, even so, Paranoid Park was well worth watching.

Made with a cast of mostly non-professionals, Paranoid Park tells the story of a skater kid, Alex, who accidentally kills a security guard. Although no one knows of his crime, Alex decides to write a letter (which he may or may not send) to a friend, detailing the events. Largely told in a non-chronological fashion, this movie imitates the erratic way a person's mind remembers events. Van Sant's use of Resnais style editing techniques to these ends, although potentially pretentious, works to give a sense of Alex's emotional state, giving us a glance into his psyche. The murder that Alex accidentally committed is just one of many things going through his still developing teenage mind. Indeed, the murder and its aftermath are only a small portion of the events dealt with in this movie. This movie is more concerned with the minutiae of growing up, tainted as they are by this horrible event.

In a way, this movie reminded me of River's Edge, another movie dealing with the subject of a teen committing a murder. Although the murder in Paranoid Park certainly affects Alex more than the murder in River's Edge affected any of those characters, both movies speak to a similar sense of ennui. In Paranoid Park, this was largely achieved through the casting. I am generally wary of movies that use non-professional actors, but it worked surprisingly well here. The awkwardness of the actors gave this movie an air of authenticity, and it gave the characters a detached quality that worked well for the story.

This is all not to say I didn't have problems with the movie. The unnecessarily slow, long camera takes and editing techniques veered too close to pretension at times. Also, Van Sant's use of Nino Rota's Juliet of the Spirits Score bothered me at times. The use of such energetic carnival sounding music during serious moments worked to create a distance between the viewer and subject matter, thus taking one out of the film. I have never been a huge fan of this technique and I failed to see its purpose here except in showing how detached Van Sant may have been from the subject matter.

Regardless, Paranoid Park is an interesting and well made film. Maybe I don't hate Van Sant after all.