Bronson’s Back!: Death Wish II (1982, directed by Michael Winner)


To quote John McClane, “How can the same shit happen to the same guy twice?”

It has been eight years since Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) lost his wife and single-handedly cleaned up New York City.  The first Death Wish ended with Paul in Chicago, preparing to gun down a new group of criminals.  I guess Chicago didn’t take because, at the start of Death Wish II, Paul is in Los Angeles and he’s working as an architect again.  He has a new girlfriend, a bleeding heart liberal reporter named Geri (Jill Ireland, Bronson’s real-life wife) who is against the death penalty and who has no idea that Paul used to be New York’s most notorious vigilante.  Having finally been released from the mental institution, Carol (Robin Sherwood) is living with her father but is now mute.

Crime rates are soaring in Los Angeles and why not?  The legal system is more concerned with the rights of the criminals than the victims and Paul has retired from patrolling the streets.  But when a group of cartoonish thugs rape and kill his housekeeper and cause his daughter to fall out of a window while trying to escape them, Paul picks up his gun and sets out for revenge.

Death Wish II was not the first sequel to Death Wish.  Brian Garfield, the author of the novel on which Death Wish was based, never intended for Paul to be seen as a hero and was disgusted by what he saw as being the film’s glorification of violence.  As “penance,” he wrote a sequel called Death Sentence, in which Paul discovered that he had inspired an even more dangerous vigilante.  When Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus bought the rights to produce a second Death Wish film, they decided not to use Garfield’s sequel and instead went with a story that was co-written by Golan.

It’s the same basic story as the first film.  Again, Paul is a mild-mannered architect who is a liberal during the day and a gun-toting reactionary at night.  Again, it’s a home invasion and a death in the family that sets Paul off.  Again, Paul gets help from sympathetic citizens who don’t care that the police commissioner (Anthony Franciosa) wants him off the streets.  Jeff Goldblum played a rapist with a switch blade in the first film.  This time, it’s Laurence Fishburne who fills the role.  (Fishburne also carries a radio, which he eventually learns cannot be used to block bullets.)  Even Detective Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) returns, coming down to Los Angeles to see if Paul has returned to his old ways.

The main difference between the first two Death Wish films is that Death Wish II is a Cannon film, which means that it is even less concerned with reality than the first film.  In Death Wish II, the criminals are more flamboyant, the violence is more graphic, and Paul is even more of a relentless avenger than in the first film.  In the first Death Wish, Paul threw up after fighting a mugger.  In the second Death Wish, he sees that one of the men who raped his daughter is wearing a cross, leading to the following exchange:

“Do you believe in Jesus?”

“Yes, I do.”

“Well, you’re going to meet him.”

BLAM!

Death Wish II is the best known of the Death Wish sequels.  It made the most money and, when I was a kid, it used to show on TV constantly.  The commercials always featured the “You believe in Jesus?” exchange and, every morning after we saw those commercials, all the kids at school would walk up to each other and say, “You believe in Jesus?  Well, you’re going to meet him.”  It drove the teachers crazy.

Overall, Death Wish II is a lousy film.  Michael Winner, who was always more concerned with getting people into the theaters than anything else, directs in a sledgehammer manner that makes his work on the first film look subtle.  He obscenely lingers over every rape and murder, leaving no doubt that he is more interested in titillating the audience than getting them to share Paul’s outrage.  The script is also weak, with Geri so poorly written that she actually gets more upset about Paul going out at night than she does when she learns that Paul’s daughter has died.  When Paul sets out to track down the gang, his method is to merely wander around Los Angeles until he stumbles across them.  It doesn’t take long for Paul to start taking them out but no one in the gang ever seems to be upset or worried that someone is obviously stalking and killing them.

There are a few good things about the film.  Charles Bronson was always a better actor than he was given credit for and it’s always fun to watch Paul try to balance his normal daily routine with his violent night life.  Whenever Geri demands to know if he’s been shooting people, Paul looks at her like he is personally offended that she could possibly think such a thing.  Also, the criminals themselves are all so cartoonishly evil that there’s never any question that Paul is doing the world a favor by gunning them down.  For many otherwise sensible viewers, a movie like Death Wish II may be bad but it is also cathartic.  It offers up a simple solution to a complex issue.  In real life, a city full of Paul Kerseys would lead to innocent people getting killed for no good reason.  But in the world of Death Wish II, no one out after nightfall is innocent so there’s no need to worry about shooting the wrong person.

Finally, the film’s score was written by the legendary Jimmy Page.  The studio wanted Isaac Hayes to do the score but Winner asked his neighbor, Page.  Page took the film, retreated into his studio, and returned with a bluesy score that would turn out to be the best thing about the movie.  The soundtrack was the only one of Page’s solo projects to be released on Led Zeppelin’s record label, Swan Song Records.

Tomorrow, Bronson returns with Death Wish 3!

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: Fathom (dir by Leslie H. Martinson)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  It’s going to take her forever but, with the help of Dexedrine and energy drinks, she is determined to get it done!  She recorded 1967’s Fathom off of FXM on April 3rd of this year!)

Fathom is a spy spoof, one that was made the height of the initial James Bond craze.  It’s very much a late 60s film, in everything from the way the film looks to the overly complicated storyline to the film’s cultural attitudes.  This is one of those films that you know was probably considered to be “naughty” when it was released but, seen today, it’s all rather quaint.  There’s no nudity, there’s no cursing, and there’s very little violence.  However, it does feature in Raquel Welch in a lime green bikini and you just know that, when this film came out, there were probably people bemoaning it as the end of civilization.  “What happened to the movies that you could take the entire family too!?” they probably wailed.  That’s the way history works.  What was once daring now seems remarkably innocent.

I watched the film last night but I’d be lying if I said I could follow the plot.  I think that was intentional on the part of the filmmakers.  Fathom satirizes the spy films of the late 60s by taking all of their familiar elements to their logical extreme.  Spy thrillers feature unexpected twists and turns.  Fathom has a new twist every 10 minutes or so.  Spy thrillers feature sudden betrayal and double agents.  With the exception of Raquel Welch, literally no one in Fathom is who they initially claim to be.  It becomes exhausting to try to keep up.  In many ways, Fathom plays out like an old serial.  Every few minutes or so, there’s another cliffhanger.  Oh no, Raquel Welch is on an out-of-control motorboat!  Oh no, the bad guys have got Raquel Welch on an airplane!  Oh no, Raquel Welch is being chased by a bull and she’s wearing a red dress!  ¡Olé!

Raquel plays Fathom Harvill, who works as a dental hygienist except for when she’s touring Europe as a member of the U.S. parachute team.  She’s recruited by some spies to help track down a nuclear triggering mechanism, one that is being hidden somewhere in Spain.  The Scottish secret service just wants her to parachute into a villa owned by a mysterious American named Peter Meriweather (Anthony Franciosa) and plant a recording device.  Things don’t go quite as smoothly as they should and soon, Fathom’s going from one extreme situation to another.

(Even though Peter is supposed to be a suave, James Bond-type, Franciosa gives such an oddly intense performance that it feels like a dry run for his later work in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae.  Interestingly enough, in Argento’s film, Franciosa’s character is named Peter Neal.  Is it possible that Peter Meriweather changed his last name?)

But really, the entire plot is just an excuse to get Raquel into that lime green bikini and she totally owns the moment.  Raquel Welch is one of my favorite of the old film stars because she never apologized for who she was.  She had the body, she was sexy, she knew it, and she used it to her advantage.  Of course, when seen today, it’s disappointing that Fathom spends the entire movie being rescued by men but then again, I imagine that just the idea of a woman being a secret agent was revolutionary in 1967.  Actually allowing her to get out of situations on her own might have made heads explode.  If Fathom were made today, Fathom would at least get one scene where she gets to kick some ass, Angelina Jolie-style.

Anyway, Fathom is an enjoyably silly spy film.  Don’t worry about trying to follow the plot and, instead, just enjoy it as an over-the-top time capsule.  It doesn’t get more 1967 than Fathom.

The Medium is the Message: Andy Griffith in A FACE IN THE CROWD (Warner Brothers 1957)


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If you only know Andy Griffith from his genial TV Southerners in THE ANDY GRIFFITH SHOW and MATLOCK, brace yourself for A FACE IN THE CROWD. Griffith’s folksy monologues had landed him a starring role in the hit Broadway comedy NO TIME FOR SERGEANTS. The vicious, wild-eyed Lonesome Rhodes was thousands of miles away from anything he had done before, and the actor, guided by the sure hand of director Elia Kazan, gives us a searing performance in this satire of the power of the media, and the menace of the demagogue.

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When we first meet Larry Rhodes, he’s in the drunk tank in rural Pickett, Arkansas, a small town not unlike Mayberry. Local radio host Marcia Jeffries is doing a remote broadcast there, hoping to catch some ratings. The no-account drifter is hostile at first, but when the sheriff promises him an early release, you can practically see the wheels spinning…

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Embracing the Melodrama Part II #30: The Sweet Ride (dir by Harvey Hart)


The_Sweet_Ride_FilmPosterThe 1968 film The Sweet Ride takes the audience on a ride through Malibu and reminds us all that, in many ways, the 1960s sucked.

The Sweet Ride opens with actress Vicki Cartwright (Jacqueline Bisset) losing her top while swimming in the ocean.  While Vicki panics and tries to figure out how to get back to the beach without anyone seeing her breasts, she’s spotted by a surfer named Denny McGuire (Michael Sarrazin).  Denny hands her a towel and then leads her back to the beach house that he shares with aging tennis player Collie (Anthony Franciosa) and stoned musician Choo-Choo (Bob Denver).

The rest of the film is a 90 minute tour of California beach life in the late 60s.  Despite Collie’s cynical warning against falling in love, Denny does just that, despite the fact that Vicki refuses to tell him anything about her past or even where she lives.  Meanwhile, Collie spends his time hustling on the tennis court and the married Choo-Choo pretends to be gay in an attempt to get out of being drafted.  (Choo-Choo probably could have gotten out of the draft by pointing out that he appears to be 40 years old but the filmmakers decided to have him walk around with a poodle and speak in falsetto.  Just in case you had any doubt that this film was made in 1968…)  It’s a mix of comedy, romance, and drama and it’s features footage of some real bands performing in actual Malibu nightclubs and that’s a good thing for all of us history nerds.

And, since The Sweet Ride was made in 1968, the whole film gets progressively darker as it reaches its conclusion.  Choo-Choo does get drafted and it’s hard to believe he’ll survive a day in Viet Nam.  Collie’s perfect life is revealed to be an empty facade.  Denny realizes that his friends are all immature losers.  And Vicki ends up getting assaulted by a high-power studio executive (Warren Stevens).  It all leads to more violence, disillusionment, and general ennui.

For some reason, The Sweet Ride shows up on FXM fairly regularly.  It’s a strange film because it doesn’t really work and yet it’s also compulsively watchable.  It tries to be about everything and, as a result, it often feels like it’s about absolutely nothing.  And yet, somehow, it remains compelling…

Why is the film compelling despite itself?  It’s not because of the main characters, that’s for sure.  The boys in the beach house are probably some of the least likable film protagonists in cinematic history.  Anthony Franciosa gave some great performances in his career (check him out in A Face in the Crowd and Tenebrae) but Collie is such a smug jerk that you find yourself hoping that someone will just punch him in the face.  Meanwhile, Denny tends to come across like a weak-willed and obsessive stalker and Choo-Choo — well, Choo-Choo often seems to be a character in a totally different movie.  As for Vicki, her character pretty much exclusively exists to be victimized.

Ultimately, I think The Sweet Ride is watchable because it is such an imperfect time capsule.  If I wanted to know what it was like to be alive in the 60s, The Sweet Ride is one of the films that I would watch.  It’s not the best film ever made but it is a chance to look into the past.

(Incidentally, The Sweet Ride was directed by Harvey Hart, who also directed the underrated Shoot.)

 

Shattered Politics #58: City Hall (dir by Harold Becker)


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Interestingly enough, New York City may be the center of wealth and politics in the United States but being Mayor of New York rarely leads to any sort of greater office.  Though the Americans Elect people tried to unsuccessfully recruit Michael Bloomberg in 2012 and there’s a few deluded souls who seem to think that Bill de Blasio could run and win in 2016, only three NYC mayors have taken the plunge and actually run for President.  Of the three of them, DeWitt Clinton was the most successful.  He not only won the Federalist nomination but he came close to beating James Madison in the election of 1812.  However, both John V. Lindsay and Rudy Giuliani were forced to end their campaigns when their electoral success in New York failed to translate into votes outside of the Northeast.

And that’s the thing really.  Everyone in America knows that New York is an important city, perhaps the most important city in the United States.  And they resent the Hell out of it.  It’s kinda like how the rest of country hates my home state of Texas because they need our oil more than we need … well, whatever the Hell it is that the rest of the country brings to the table.

I mean, let’s face it.  There’s a lot of resentment out there.  And that resentment will probably keep anyone from going from Gracie Mansion to the White House.

That’s one of the problems that I had with the 1996 film City Hall.  In order for City Hall to work, you have to believe that Mayor John Pappas has a legitimate chance to not only be nominated for President but to win the election as well.  At the start of the film, we’re informed by Deputy Mayor Kevin Calhoun (John Cusack, speaking in one of the worst attempts at a Louisiana accent that I’ve ever heard) that Pappas is the greatest mayor that New York City has ever had.  I guess that might be true, even though we really don’t see any evidence of that fact.  (Pappas does get to deliver a few monologues about how much he loves New York but if love is all it took, I’d be a really kick ass Prime Minister of Canada.)  However, it’s because Mayor Pappas is such a product of New York City that he’d probably never be able to actually win a primary in Vermont and capture Iowa’s electoral votes.  That’s one reason why it’s difficult to buy Mayor Pappas as a future President.

The other reason is that Mayor Pappas is played by Al Pacino.  And we’re not talking about Godfather or Dog Day Afternoon Al Pacino here.  Instead, we’re talking about raspy voiced, constantly bellowing, thousand-yard state Al Pacino.  As played by Al Pancino, it takes only one look at Mayor Pappas to imagine thousands a middle American voters running in terror away from the voting booths.

(One gets the feeling that if a large group of police officers ever turned their back on Mayor Pappas, he would immediately start jumping up and down while yelling, “YOU ARE TURNIN’ YOUR BACKS ON DA MAYOR HERE!  WHAT DA FUCK IS GOIN’ ON WITH THIS SHIT HERE!?”)

That said, there’s another reason why Mayor Pappas may never be President.  There’s been a shooting.  An undercover cop and a drug dealer shot each other.  A little boy was hit by a stray bullet.  The little boy is black but, oddly enough, nobody in the film ever suggests that there was any sort of racial element involved.  Instead, Mayor Pappas goes to the boy’s funeral and is enthusiastically applauded by the entirely African-American congregation.

It turns out that the drug dealer is the nephew of a mafia don.  He should have been in prison at the time of the shooting but instead, he was given an early release by a seemingly incompetent judge (Martin Landau).  As Calhoun and a lawyer named Marybeth Cogan (Bridget Fonda, giving a good performance in a generically written role) investigate how the dealer came to be released, they discover that local politician Frank Anselmo (Danny Aiello) may have had something to do with it.  Calhoun also discovers that his idol, Mayor Pappas, may know more than he’s saying as well…

If you do happen to watch City Hall, be sure to compare Danny Aiello’s performance with Al Pacino’s.  Both Aiello and Pacino are playing larger-than-life characters.  And both Aiello and Pacino have a tendency to bellow and to play big.  But, whereas Pacino’s performance feels forced and oddly empty, Aiello’s performance feels totally natural.  You actually believe that Aiello could be elected to a citywide office whereas Pacino — or at least the version of Al Pacino that shows up for City Hall — seems like he’d have a hard time getting elected to a student council, much less Mayor of America’s largest city.

Anyway, City Hall is currently making the rounds on cable, which is how I saw it.  It had the potential to be an interesting look at urban politics but, ultimately, it just doesn’t work.  To a certain extent, I hate to be negative about any film that, like City Hall, has its heart in the right place but the movie just doesn’t work.

 

44 Days of Paranoia #29: A Face In The Crowd (dir by Elia Kazan)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Elia Kazan’s 1957 political satire, A Face In The Crowd.

The film opens with radio producer Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal) visiting a local jail in Arkansas.  She’s looking for human interest stories that she can feature on her show and she discovers one when she meets an imprisoned drifter named Larry Rhodes (Andy Griffith).  When Marcia interviews him, Rhodes proves himself to be a natural performer, telling folksy jokes and launching into a song about being a “free man in the morning.”  Rhodes proves to be so popular that, after he’s released from jail, he pursues a career in show business with Marcia as both his manager and, eventually, his lover.

Moving to Memphis, a renamed Lonesome Rhodes eventually lands his own television variety show and he soon starts doing irreverent commercials for local companies.  Along the way, Rhodes also finds a new manager, the glib and manic Joey DePalma (Anthony Franciosa).  With the help of Joey, Rhodes becomes the spokesman for a fake energy supplement, Vitajex.

As Rhodes’ fame grows, so does his ego.  After dumping Jeffries, Rhodes impulsively marries a 17 year-old majorette (Lee Remick).  His show also goes national and Rhodes soon starts to use his influence to try to both promote an incompetent, business-backed Presidential candidate and to destroy anyone who he considers to be an enemy.  As his show’s disillusioned head writer (Walter Matthau) puts it, Rhodes has become a “demagogue in denim.”

A Face In The Crowd is a personal favorite of mine.  Director Kazan deftly mixes satire with melodrama and, with the exception of the weak ending, the film’s vision of media manipulation and demagogic celebrities probably feels more plausible today than when it was first released.  The film is full of great performances, from the avuncular Walter Matthau to vulnerable Patricia Neal to the innocent-and-then-not-so-innocent Lee Remick.  Anthony Franciosa is wonderfully glib and sleazy and it’s a lot of fun to watch his joy at discovering how easy it is to manipulate the world.

Ultimately, however, the film’s success is mostly due to Andy Griffith’s amazing performance as Lonesome Rhodes.  Griffith, displaying all of the folksiness but none of the empathy that would be displayed in his later television show, turns Rhodes into a force of nature, a smiling charlatan and a charismatic sociopath who manipulates for the pure enjoyment of manipulation.

To make the obvious comparison, it’s very easy to imagine Lonesome Rhodes getting his own show on MSNBC, where on a nightly basis he could bark orders at his followers and ridicule anyone who dares to question him.  But even beyond that, the character of Lonesome Rhodes resonates.  I’m from the South.  I grew up down here and I live down here.  I can tell you, from my own personal observations and experiences, that we still have our share of demagogues.  Some of them run in elections and some of them preach on Sunday but all of them have got a bit of Lonesome Rhodes inside of them.

For that reason, A Face In The Crowd is probably more relevent today than it’s ever been.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed

Scenes I Love: A Face In The Crowd


Located below is the famous Vitajex advertising montage from Elia Kazan’s 1957 film, A Face In The CrowdEverytime I see this, I wonder if maybe American audiences in the 50s were smarter than we give them credit for. 

Then again, A Face in The Crowd was a notorious financial and critical failure when it was first released.  It’s actually one of the best and most influential movies ever made.  Certainly, it’s one of the few Kazan films that still seems artistically relevent today.  It should also be noted that A Face in the Crowd features Anthony Franciosa years before his starring turn in Dario Argento’s Tenebrae, Andy Griffith playing a villain, the film debut of Lee Remick, Walter Matthau as a tv writer, and Patricia Neal having a nervous breakdown.  Supposedly, a very young Rip Torn is somewhere in this film as well but I’ve never been able to spot him.