Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Wrong Is Right (1982)

Let’s discuss the idea of shaky cam, and let’s start with a definition (or at least my definition).  Shaky cam is the technique of filming with a handheld device in such a way as to make any action (and even inaction) onscreen completely incoherent or just to induce nausea in the viewer.  This is accomplished by shaking the camera (or i-device or whatever) violently during a take, whether it is warranted in the scene or not.  Now, if we go back in time, the practice of employing handheld cameras goes back quite a ways, but it is most associated in history with documentaries or on-site news reportage.  In those situations, though, unless there is some type of sudden violence which both attracts attention and also causes the cameraman to beat a hasty retreat, you’ll notice that the shots caught on film and video were remarkably steady.  That’s because being a cameraman was something of an art form, requiring attention and discipline.  I defy you to watch something like, say, Harlan County, USA and tell me you don’t understand everything you see onscreen at all times. 
Since this isn’t a treatise (yet), let’s skip ahead to today.  There are still filmmakers who understand and know how to utilize handheld cinematography in their films (aided greatly by the invention of the steadicam in the mid-1970s), but there has also been a massive rise in a style of filmmaking which (from my own ignorant perspective) feels wholly concerned with expediency over purpose and a mistaken notion that the more the camera moves, the more immediate a film will feel.  To be fair, it can work to a degree and can even be artfully done, but what these folks don’t seem to realize is that the truly talented among them are lumping themselves in with those simply interested in grinding product out (and there’s a whole conversation to be had there, the answers to which I’m sure would prove most elusive) and defeating the purpose (in my eyes) of making an action film.  Compare, if you will, a film like The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter with something like A Quantum Of Solace (a film that I like, but we’re not here for that argument, either).  The latter may be flashier than the former, benefiting as it does from nearly a quarter of a century of sophistication in stuntwork techniques and special effects, but the former is simply a better depiction of cinematic action.  Don’t believe me?  Go ahead and watch the two back to back and get back to me.  I’ll be around here, somewhere.  

Patrick Hale (Sean Connery) is a globetrotting reporter who meets with fellow journalist Sally Blake (Katharine Ross) while doing a story about his friend King Awad (Ron Moody) in some Middle Eastern country.  Chancing upon terroristic arms dealer Helmut Unger (Hardy Krüger), who is delivering two suitcase nukes to Awad, Hale soon finds himself embroiled in a scenario as frightening as it is credible, with ties to everyone from loony Presidential hopeful Mallory (Leslie Nielsen) to loony Arab terrorist Rafeeq ( the chillingly humorous Henry Silva) to loony current President/health nut Lockwood (George Grizzard) .  And it’s kind of funny, too.

Wrong Is Right (aka The Man With The Deadly Lens) is Richard Brooks’ (who hails from my home state and has turned out some great films, including The Professionals and Blackboard Jungle) adaptation of the novel The Better Angels by Charles McCarry.  The film is a satire of the time in which it was made, when it felt like everything was topsy-turvy (hence the title), and it was entirely within the realm of possibility that a large portion of seemingly insanely-run factions would want to possess and/or detonate a nuclear device.  What’s really compelling about the film and its characters is that this could almost have been produced yesterday.  There are still deranged religious zealots who want to annihilate their enemies in order to gain power for themselves.  There are still self-involved morons at the very highest levels of power making decisions without thought of the people they swore to serve.  There are still violent programs inundating people in this country via the church of the cathode ray (apologies and thanks to Mr. Cronenberg).  In fact, there are probably even more now, since television is now a twenty-four-hour-a-day business festooned with hundreds of channels that still insist on running epic marathons of a single program for days on end (surely, not out of laziness?).  Its prescience notwithstanding, the film’s satire is far more subtle than it could have been, and for my money, that’s not only more difficult to achieve but also more malleable as an entertainment.  Not being saddled with hamfisted, pass-or-fail jokes a ten-year-old would likely scrawl in a lavatory stall, the quality of the humor is dependent on the viewer to get it and encourages a slightly more engaged viewing experience.  That’s not to say there aren’t more undisguised jokes going on (which also work by and large and are seemingly centered on Robert Conrad’s character of General Wombat [get it?]), but for the most part, the writing herein doesn’t “mug” for the camera, and I for one appreciate that sort of style.   

As long as we’re on the subject of writing, though, we do need to discuss the film’s biggest problem, and it is rooted in the script’s structure.  Adapting a novel is a difficult task for even the most straightforward story, I’m sure.  When you add in a lengthy cast of characters and a plot which spans multiple continents over a short time period, things can get a little muddy, and such is the case here.  One of the “commandments” of screenwriting has long been “get into a scene late and get out early,” and the screenwriter here (Brooks) obeys this tenant religiously.  Unfortunately, he also seems to be trying to follow the structure of the novel (I cannot be sure of this, not having read the source material), and consequently, the film feels like it is hopscotching (if you don’t know what hopscotch is, there’s probably an app that will play it for you) around, breaking the story up and making a complicated plot into a labyrinthine one.  It is also disconcerting, because many of the same characters appear in multiple scenes back-to-back in settings which either they shouldn’t have been able to get to so swiftly or which doesn’t account for the short time frame in which the plot takes place.  It’s no deal breaker, but it is demerit-worthy.

What most intrigues me in the film, however, is its view on violence in society.  In the opening of the film, Hale reports on a company (dubbed “The Happy Farm,” and not to be confused with the “funny” variety, surely) where people can simulate murdering the people in their lives who irritate them.  Interestingly, a very young Jennifer Jason Leigh sums up the facility with which violence has become a solution stating that she doesn’t hate her parents; “they’re just useless.”  I am by no means the sort of person who feels that media are solely to blame for the actions of mentally unbalanced folks, but I do accept that said media has sensationalized violence to nigh-pornographic levels and de-sensitized many of us to its very real impact.  But that’s entertainment, for better or worse.  At some point, we, as individuals, have to take the responsibility for how our families process that violence and draw the lines of demarcation.  It’s not a perfect answer (if it’s an answer at all), and I don’t mean to go off on a screed here (I think we can all agree I did enough of that in my introduction), but violent media are not going anywhere anytime soon.  If society is to regain that essence which allows it to be called “civilized,” let’s face it, it begins with us.  You can write my name in on the next election ballot, thanks.

MVT:  Without the level of writing at work in this film, it truly would fall apart.  Granted, it does indeed threaten to at multiple points, but it never totally does.  And the lead is never buried in the minutiae or sacrificed for the sake of a laugh, and that takes a deal of integrity rarely seen these days.

Make Or Break:  The opening with “The Happy Farm” draws you into the film handily.  It’s also effectively creepy and verisimilitudinous at the same time, and it’s this scene and its significance which remains with you after all the nuclear shenanigans have been sorted, and Connery’s toupee has flipped (yeah, a fellow bald guy went for the bald joke).

Score:  6.5/10

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Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Episode #220: The Tin Drum

Welcome to another episode of the GGtMC!!!

This week we have our sponsored epiosde and we are reviewing the Criterion's Blu Ray edition of The Tin Drum (1979) directed by Volker Schlondorff. The film was very controversial upon release and still holds some power many years later...let's see what the Gents thought of the classic film. We also go over a bit of feedback.

Direct download: The_Tin_Drum.mp3 
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Friday, January 25, 2013

Episode #219: Southern Gundown

Welcome back!!!

This week the Gents bring you an episode sponsored by the fine folks over at!!! We bring you coverage of Southern Comfort (1981) directed by Walter Hill and The Big Gundown (1966) directed by Sergio Sollima.

Kick back and enjoy the show folks!!!

Direct download: Southern_Gundown.mp3

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Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Bare Knuckles (1977)

Mustaches amaze me (okay, that’s a mild overstatement).  You can disguise yourself with a beard, but a mustache somehow says something about a man’s character (and the characters of a few ladies).  Nothing belches forth the Drakkar Noir stench of machismo quite like a mustache.  Rivaled only by a thick carpeting of body hair as a display of manliness (something which is, today, not only rarely seen anymore but also tragically unacceptable socially, said the hirsute man), the mustache is the primal scream therapy of cult cinephiles the world over.  You may not even be able to grow a decent one yourself, but I would be willing to bet that you have stood awed in the brilliance of the testosterone-soaked light cast by some of the great mustaches in cinema history.  Charles Bronson had the subtle catfish style.  Lee Majors sported the chevron for a brief time (I would even argue it helped him tame Bionic Bigfoot).  Sam Elliott scoured the lips of his lovers with the walrus style.  But no matter which type of mustache is your personal preference, I think we can all agree on one thing: mustaches equal facial hair.

Zachary Kane (William Smith lookalike Robert Viharo) is a tough-as-nails, mustachioed bounty hunter (see?).  After meeting ugly with Jennifer (former Make Room For Daddy co-star, Sherry Jackson), Kane makes the lovely lady fall in love with him.  Meanwhile, serial killer Richard Devlin (Michael Heit) kills a jumpsuited (and whatever happened to jumpsuits, huh?) lady (Judith Novgrod) in front of multiple witnesses, but only one recognizes him, a singer named Barbara (Gloria Hendry) who, scared out of her wits, goes into hiding.  Joining forces with black bounty hunter Black (John Daniels), Kane hits the streets to stop Richard’s reign of terror but more importantly to get the reward for bringing him in (a cool $15K).  

Don Edmonds is better known by leaps and bounds for his sleaze classic Ilsa: She-Wolf Of The SS, but Bare Knuckles is certainly an Action film worth seeing, in my estimation.  There is a level of gritty desolation that makes itself known from the very first scene.  Kane is beating the crud out of a perp and taking a few lumps himself.  After clubbing the bad guy into submission, there is no pithy quip from Kane, no self-satisfied grin.  If anything, he looks more upset.  The man has captured a criminal and is about to get paid for doing so, but he is completely unhappy.  He knows that this victory means nothing.  Not only is our hero essentially a nihilist, but he is also a sadomasochist.  He enjoys inflicting and receiving pain as a substitute for sex, even after he meets Jennifer.  In this way, he is equated with the villain.  Both live lives of violence, but Richard’s violence is much more overtly sexualized.  He attacks and kills women exclusively, and he does so because he has some severe mommy issues.  His mother is fairly loose with her affections, and since those affections are not directed at Richard, he feels that she is a whore.  By extension, then, any woman who Richard finds attractive is also a whore and fit for slaying.  

By contrast, Kane’s violence is subtextually homoerotic in nature.  He enjoys intense physical contact with men (we assume he does so with Jennifer as well, though he tries to push her away and tells her to forget about him).  Along with the leather-vest-clad black cowboy Black, he visits a gay bar filled with rough trade to track down a witness to Devlin’s crime.  Soon, he is in a scuffle with all of the bar’s occupants, a metaphor for Kane’s sexual denial.  Later, he is caught by a gang of hoodlums, stripped, and beaten, and this interaction will wind up in grim violence, too.  But every time, it is men doing violence to men where Kane is involved, and it is something which he seeks out.  It’s reminiscent of the clichéd closeted homosexual who deals with his own self-loathing through brutality toward homosexuals.

By that same token, the stoicism Kane displays at all times is a callback to the hardboiled tradition, which the film also incorporates into itself.  Kane is summed up by the line, “black coffee, straight whisky, and unfiltered cigarettes.”  He is a street-level private dick who believes that “the jungle runs in all directions,” and since he posits himself at the bottom of it, that generally means that the higher one goes up the ladder, the worse the class of person you will meet.  Naturally, this ideology is epitomized in the character of Richard who, unlike Kane, comes from money and is an abhorrent human being.  Like a 1970s era Sam Spade he is patterned after, Kane loathes high society and would love nothing more than to bring it all crashing down to his level, and this even applies to his relationship with Jennifer who is much more cultured than Kane and becomes his pawn to get close to Richard.  Yet, you also suspect that even if he were able to accomplish the feat of destroying the cultural elite, he would have no idea what to do next.  Kane’s not a planner (or at least not a very good one), he is a reactionary, and like the pulp heroes he emulates, he is straightforward with everyone except himself.

The inciting incident of the film is a direct reference to the murder of Kitty Genovese in 1964.  For those who don’t know, Ms. Genovese was killed on a city street in Queens, New York in full view of numerous witnesses, none of whom lifted a finger to help the woman.  From this, came the idea of the bystander effect (the name says it all; they stand by and do nothing), which is a phenomenon heightened by the diffusion of responsibility (the idea being that if there are more witnesses present, one’s personal responsibility to offer assistance is lessened since there are so many other people present, so one of them should do something instead, and since they’re not doing anything, it’s acceptable at least in terms of personal guilt to also do nothing, because all of these other people’s inaction can’t be wrong, can it?).  In Bare Knuckles, this idea is slightly augmented.  The onlookers to the opening murder don’t simply gawp in shock at what they’re seeing or turn away.  No, they become enthralled in what they’re seeing.   It becomes another entertainment, their windows transformed into television sets tuned into the real world.  Like the rest of the film, violence is ever-present to the point that it is banal, a part of everyday life, but unlike Kane and Richard these witnesses are observers not participants.  Just like the film’s audience.  

MVT:  The MVT is the low fidelity grittiness of the film’s general ambience.  Everything about the film feels like it was dragged in directly off the street and thrown up on the screen.  It’s an apocalyptic feeling that haunts the entirety of the film and deprives even the characters’ small victories of any joy.  And since that’s the case, there’s no way that anything can be considered a win.  It is violence and apathy and resignation stitched together in a kind of cosmic statement on and of nothingness.

Make Or Break:  The Make is the infiltration of the tenement around the middle of the film.  It is tense, and action-filled, and skincrawlingly disturbing in how it winds up.  It lays bare the base nature of the characters, and reveals that even those we may have assumed to be innocent are actually nothing more than venal animals.

Score:  6.75/10

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Wednesday, January 16, 2013

No Dead Heroes (1986)

Bionic Commando was one of those video games on which I could never quite get a grip.  I suppose, like Khan Noonien Singh, my thinking is a little too two-dimensional (and if you’ve been reading these reviews for long enough, I’m sure you probably think it’s more like one-dimensional).  So, you’re now thinking to yourself, “But, Todd, Bionic Commando is a side scrolling game, and there’s nothing more two-dimensional than that.”  Yes and no, and if we’re out to lay blame at anyone or anything’s feet, I would blame the eponymous wrist tool (that just sounds dirty) of the eponymous soldier.  You see, you don’t just go from left to right in the game.  No, you have to go up and over and sideways (not in and out of the screen, I grant you, but I’m the type of guy who needs boundaries), and I wind up missing more goodies and getting hit by more baddies than is acceptable.  Give me something like Mega Man any day.  And never even mind games like (non-bionic) Commando which were vertical scrollers and your guy could go anywhere on the screen to get blown up.  What’s more, you couldn’t even see their faces.  How the hell can you trust a video game character like that?  You can’t.  They should be banned like asbestos (thanks and apologies to Berke Breathed).  Now, I was going to write an introduction about how Steve Rogers appears in Junn P Cabreira’s (as JC Miller) No Dead Heroes (aka Commando Massacre aka War Machine) as some anonymous green beret.  For those who don’t know, Steve Rogers is the no-longer-secret identity of one Captain America, and what he’s doing in this puddle is beyond me.  But there you have it.  I got sidetracked.  It happens more than I’d like.

The year is 1972, and the soldiers of some unnamed American unit in Vietnam are being ritually tortured and killed by yellow-haired (not blonde, yellow) Russkie nutjob Ivan (Nick Nicholson, who is tied with the entire rest of the film’s cast for the BEM Award - a first), who believes absolutely everyone is a CIA agent.  Meanwhile, actual CIA agent Frank Baylor (played with beady-eyed zest by Mike Monty) recruits grunts Richard Sanders (Max Thayer, oddly enough not playing a colonel) and Harry Cotter (the granitelike John Dresden) from Colonel Craig (David Anderson) to exfiltrate or kill the captured Americans, take your pick.  After much shooting and exploding, Sanders makes it to their chopper at the rendezvous point, but Cotter is shot and captured by the evil Reds.  Fourteen years on, Cotter is implanted with a microchip which now-handler Ivan can use to control the man’s actions via his Casio calculator watch.  Next thing you know, Sanders is being hauled out of retirement to track down his old pal.

If you’ve ever seen a film from the Philippines, then you sort of know what to expect when you sit down to watch this one.  There is a story.  There is a progression to that story.  But the way the film follows it is akin to being on a roadtrip.  If you close your eyes for a few minutes, let’s say (and assuming you’re not the driver), when you open them back up, you can still recognize where you are and what’s happening.  Nonetheless, there’s still a gap of those scant minutes in which something may have happened but surely couldn’t have, because you weren’t watching.  And yet, you’re now in the present and continuing to move forward.  That’s the best way I can describe the experience.  However, unlike the more fantasy-related films from the region, where these oddly-chosen elisions can be more readily forgiven due to those films’ more outré nature, films which are meant to be set in what we commonly regard as reality tend to call out and draw attention to themselves for these jumps (think like skips on a record, if you know what a record is).  It’s not that they ruin the film.  If anything, they accent it in the same way you wouldn’t expect to get chicken parmigiana in a Chinese restaurant, but you could still get chicken.  From what I have seen of Philippines cinema, this seems to be more of a cultural trend, an accepted means of telling a story which, I’m sure, to Filipinos makes perfect sense but to ugly Americans (like me) can seem sort of jarring and incompetent.  But since they get these films as they are (in the sense of comprehension, not physical delivery), and we generally don’t, I would be very reluctant to say that these films are necessarily inept nor that we are necessarily correct in such an estimation.

Like almost every film of the time featuring soldiers, No Dead Heroes deals with that eternal struggle against the oppressive overlords of the Soviet Union, and it illustrates the struggle through Cotter.  Disregarding the basic idea lifted straight from The Manchurian Candidate (and sans the matriarchal overtones), this film still makes a very strong statement about the feelings regarding communism during the 1980s (by accident or on purpose is yours to debate).  Cotter starts as a good soldier and fighter who follows orders but is also self-sacrificing and knows when to disregard his orders if it means saving human life (like Captain America but not played by Steve Rogers).  Naturally, after the microchip is inserted in his brain stem, his individuality vanishes.  Now, he is an even better soldier, his only purpose to serve his masters.  But his willingness to place other peoples’ safety over his own, that thing which made him a unique soldier (and we could argue human) has evaporated.  Yes, he will still lay his life on the line to protect another, but now he has no choice in the matter, and individual choices are what make us ostensibly better than them.  He is a cog in the communist machine.  He may be the first to successfully have this chip implantation procedure, but he will certainly not be the last, and consequently, he is now more disposable.  That Ivan cavalierly throws Cotter into life-threatening situations speaks to this fact.  If he were valuable to the Party, more care would be taken in selecting how he is utilized. 

By contrast, Sanders is the typical All-American, and in pitting him against Cotter, it’s like Rocky boxing Drago.  Not only are the two men embodiments of their respective sides in the Cold War, but they were once close friends.  That said, once Cotter crosses the line, Sanders really no longer has any compunction about taking his erstwhile brother-in-arms out.  In fact, Sanders even lights a prisoner on fire once he has extracted information from the man.  This act serves to further equate Sanders with Cotter, but what it also does is brings Sanders down in the audience’s eyes (or elevates him, depending on your particular view of things, but I go with the former) to the level of that which he is fighting.  He has become the monster which monster hunters run the risk of becoming by dint of vocation.  I don’t think I’m ruining anything by saying that the filmmakers’ handling of this juxtapositional story element could charitably be described as inconsistent.  But again, not being Filipino, could it be I’m complaining about the speck of sawdust in someone else’s eye while ignoring the plank in my own?  At the risk of sounding immodest (me?), I don’t think so, but by that same token, I don’t feel that the approach (or my grousing about it) ruins what I found to be a fun, goofy Action film.    

MVT:  All of the film’s over-the-top elements make this an interesting watch.  Nothing seems too much or goes too far (did I mention there is a martial arts/communist guerilla training camp in the middle of this movie or a woman (Toni Nero) who makes Rosie Perez seem understated and coherent?  Well, there is).  Movies from the Philippines are experiences for which no amount of writing can truly do justice.  They must be witnessed.

Make Or Break:  In a scene as eyebrow-raising as it is nonchalant, Cotter comes home to America briefly and forces Sanders to commit to hunting his old Army buddy down.  It’s the Make, because it dances across the line this type of film so gleefully straddles.

Score:  6.25/10

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Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Episode #218: Top 30 First Time Watches 2012

Welcome to a special episode!!!

This week Large William is joined by Rupert Pupkin ( Death Rattle Aaron ( and The Brinn from The Hammicus Podcast for a top 30 list of films they have seen for the first time on 2012!!!

Direct download: Top30FirstTime.mp3

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