The TSL’s Grindhouse: Red Sonja (dir by Richard Fleischer)


The 1985 film, Red Sonja, invites us to take a journey to a forgotten age, a time of a mythical kingdoms, evil sorcery, epic sword fights, and annoying little child kings who spent a lot of time shouting.  It’s a time of wonder, danger, heroism, and, of course, Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Reportedly, the once and future governor of California has frequently named Red Sonja as being the worst film in which he ever appeared.  When you consider some of the other films that have featured Gov. Schwarzenegger, that’s indeed a bold statement.  In Red Sonja, Schwarzenegger plays Lord Kalidor.  Interestingly enough, Lord Kalidor is absent for the majority of the film.  He shows up briefly at the beginning of the film and then he vanishes for quite a bit of Red Sonja‘s 89-minute running time.  Whenever Schwarzenegger does show up, he wears the smirk of a man who knows that he’s going to get paid a lot of money for doing very little actual work.

The majority of the film focuses on Sonja (Brigitte Nielsen), a warrior who lives in one of those vanished ages, perhaps after the War of the Rings but before the sinking of Atlantis.  When we first see her, she’s being spoken to by what appears to be a puff of smoke, which is apparently meant to be some sort of warrior goddess.  The puff of smoke fills tells Sonja about everything that happened to her before the start of the movie, though we never do learn why Sonja needs to be told her own backstory.  After rejecting the sexual advances of the evil Queen Gedren (Sandahl Begman), Sonja was forced to watch as her parents and brother were murdered and then she was raped and left for the dead by the Gedren’s soldiers.  The Goddess promises to make Sonja into a superior warrior, on the condition that Sonja agree to never have sex with a man unless that man can first beat her in fair combat.  Sonja agrees and is sent off to get trained by the Grand Master.  It’s kinda like Kill Bill, if Bill was a puff of smoke.

Jump forward to …. well, I’m not sure how many years pass.  To be honest, it’s next to impossible to really discern any sort of coherent logic to the film’s narrative progression so let’s just give up on that.  What’s important is that there’s this temple and, inside the temple, there’s a glowing green talisman.  Apparently, the talisman created the world but now it needs to be carefully watched over before being destroyed.  Only women are allowed to handle the talisman (Yay!) but they’re not allowed to destroy it unless directed by a man.  (Booooo!)  The temple priestesses are waiting for Lord Kalidor to arrive so that they can get rid of the talisman.  However, Queen Gedren shows up first.  Not only does she steal the talisman but she kills the priestesses as well.

One of the priestesses was Varna (Janet Agren, who you might recognize from Lucio Fulci’s City of the Living Dead).  Varna just happens to be the sister of Sonja.  (Sonja is now known as Red Sonja, because she had red hair.  From now on, I want to be known as Red Lisa.)  Now, Sonja has yet another reason to want to kill Gedren!  Rejecting Kalidor’s help, Sonja heads off for revenge.  Along the way, she meets an annoying child king named Tarn (Ernie Reyes, Jr.), who is upset that Gedren previously destroyed his kingdom.  Despite hating him, Sonja allows Tarn and his guardian, Falkon (Paul L. Smith), to tag along with her.  Despite not being an official member of the revenge party, Kalidor decides to follow after them because he wants to beat Red Sonja in fair combat, if you get what I mean.

Red Sonja is a spectacularly silly film.  The dialogue is stilted.  Even by the standards of the 1980s ,the special effects are poorly executed.  This the type of film where the evil Queen nearly destroys the world not because she has any sort of grand scheme but instead, just because she’s evil and that’s what evil people do.  Brigitte Nielsen delivers her lines with a forced solemnity while Schwarzenegger, Bergman, and the great Paul L. Smith seem to be struggling not to start laughing.

And yet, there’s a sneaky charm to be found in all of the silliness.  For instance, when Sonja does finally reach the queen’s castle, she has to cross a bridge that appears to basically be the skeleton of giant rhinoceros.  No none in the film seems to be surprised to come across a skeleton a giant rhinoceros and, to be honest, there’s no reason for it to be there.  It’s just there and it’s so wonderfully out-of-place that it becomes rather fascinating.  Add to that, while the portrayal of the evil lesbian queen is problematic in all sorts of ways, this is a film about a strong female warrior who doesn’t need a man to rescue her and that was probably even more rare in 1985 than it is today!

Watching Red Sonja, you get the feeling that nobody involved in the film took it all that seriously and that perhaps the best way to handle the movie is to just sit back and have a laugh.  It’s dumb, it’s campy, it often makes no sense but, at the same time, it’s still a lot easier to follow than Game of Thrones.   Like many bad films, it’s only bad if you watch it alone.  Watch it with a group of your snarkiest friends and you’ll have a totally different experience.

Gone With The Whaaat?: MANDINGO (Paramount 1975)


cracked rear viewer

If you’ve never seen MANDINGO, be prepared for loads of gratuitous sex, violence, debauchery, depravity, racism, incest, nudity, and other such unsavory stuff! Some people today discuss the film in a scholarly manner, dissecting the sociological implications of pre-Civil War decadence in the deep South, the plight of the abused slaves, the overindulgent cruelty of the slave owners, and blah blah blah. I’m gonna talk about what the movie really is: pure, unadulterated Exploitation trash, in which some scenes will have your jaw dropping in shock, while others will leave you laughing at the exaggerated overacting and ludicrous dialog!

The movie centers around the Maxwell family and their plantation home, Falconhurst. It’s no Tara; Falconhurst is a run-down, gloomy, decrepit mansion that looks like it belongs in one of those “hillbilly horror” schlockfests of the 60’s or 70’s. Family patriarch Warren Maxwell wants a grandson to carry on the family…

View original post 771 more words

Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: ARMORED CAR ROBBERY (RKO 1950)


cracked rear viewer

Looking for a tough, no-frills ‘B’ crime drama? Look no further than ARMORED CAR ROBBERY, which is just what it says it is, the planning, execution, and aftermath of said dirty deed, with a cast of rugged mugs and hard-hearted dames directed by Richard Fleischer during his salad days at RKO. The movie echoes Robert Siodmak’s CRISS CROSS in its heist scene, and I’m sure Stanley Kubrick watched and remembered it when he made his film noir  masterpiece THE KILLING .

Make no mistake, ARMORED CAR ROBBERY isn’t on a par with those two films. It is, however, an enjoyable little 67 minutes of cops vs crooks. Criminal mastermind Dave Purvis assembles a gang of low-lives to pull the caper off, killing a cop in the process. The cop’s partner, Lt. Jim Cordell, is now determined to hunt the crooks down and avenge him. One of the participants, Benny McBride…

View original post 402 more words

Film Review: Barabbas (dir by Richard Fleischer)


Who was Barabbas?

The simple answer to that is that Barabbas was the prisoner who, according to the Gospels, Pontius Pilate released during Passover.  As the story goes, Pilate gave the people the choice.  He could either release Barabbas or Jesus.  For what crime was Barabbas being held?  The Gospel of Matthew merely says that Barabbas was a “notorious prisoner.”  Mark and Luke both write that he was involved in a recent riot and that he was a murderer.  The Gospel of John refers to him as being a bandit, which may have been another term for revolutionary.  Regardless of what crime he had committed, the people overwhelmingly called for Barabbas to be released and for Jesus to be crucified.  What happened to Barabbas after he was set free is not recorded but has been the subject of a good deal of speculation over the centuries.

(Of course, there are some scholars who believe that the Barabbas story was simply an invention of later writers, designed to shift the responsibility for the crucifixion away from the Romans.  There’s also some who say that Jesus and Barabbas were actually the same person and that the inclusion of the Barabbas story was meant to indicate that Jesus was actually a revolutionary who was working to free Judea from Roman role.  I imagine Dan Brown will eventually base a novel on this theory, so look forward to hearing your grandma debating the historicity of Barabbas at some point in the future.)

Back to the original question, who was Barabbas?

According to the 1961 film of the same name, Barabbas was Anthony Quinn.

Based on a novel by the Nobel Prize-winning Swedish author, Pär Lagerkvist, Barabbas opens with Pilate (Anthony Kennedy) making his infamous offer.  Barabbas or Jesus?  Perhaps the only person more shocked than Pilate by the people’s decision is Barabbas himself.  A brutish and violent man, Barabbas is looking forward to returning to his old life but, as he leaves the prison, he finds himself fascinated by the sight of Jesus stoically carrying the cross, heading to the fate that Barabbas was spared.  Later, Barabbas witnesses the Crucifixion and is shaken when, upon Jesus’s death, the sky turns black.

(Director Richard Fleischer shot the Crucifixion during an actual solar eclipse, so that the sky actually did turn black during filming.  It’s a stunning scene.)

For the rest of his life, Barabbas is haunted by both his narrow escape from death and his subsequent notoriety.  When Barabbas tries to reunite with his former lover, Rachel (Silvana Mangano), he discovers that not only does she now want nothing to do with him but that she has also become a follower of Jesus.  (Later, in a surprisingly graphic scene, Rachel is stoned to death.)  Barabbas becomes convinced that he cannot die and he becomes increasingly reckless in his behavior.  Over the next few decades, he finds himself sold into slavery and forced to spend 20 years working in the harsh sulfur mines of Sicily.  He befriends a Christian named Sahak (Vittorio Gassman) and, with him, is trained to be a gladiator by the sadistic Torvald (Jack Palance).  Eventually, Barabbas finds himself rejected by both the Romans and the Christians while Rome burns all around him.

Barabbas is a film that really took me by surprise.  I’ve seen a lot of Biblical and Roman films from the 50s and 60s and I was expecting that Barabbas would be another sumptuously produced but slow-paced epic, one that would inevitably feature stiff dialogue and overly reverential performances.  I mean, don’t me wrong.  I happen to love spectacle and therefore, I enjoy watching most of those old historical and religious epics.  But still, for modern audiences, these films can often seem rather … well, hokey.

But Barabbas was totally different from what I was expecting.  As wonderfully played by Anthony Quinn, Barabbas wanders through most of the film in a state of haunted confusion.  Even at the end of the film, after he’s met St. Peter (Harry Andrews), Barabbas doesn’t seem to fully understand what he believes or how he’s become one of the most notorious men in Rome.  Quinn plays Barabbas almost like a wild animal, one that has been cornered and trapped by his own infamy.  The more Barabbas struggles against his fate, the more trapped he becomes.  Barabbas may be a brute but, the film suggests, even a brute can find some sort of redemption.  Quinn gets good support from the entire supporting cast.  Jack Palance is perfectly evil as Torvald while Vittorio Gassman, Silvana Mangano, and Ernest Borgnine bring some needed nuance to characters who, in lesser hands, could have just been cardboard believers.

Barabbas is a surprisingly dark film.  When Rachel is stoned, the camera doesn’t flinch from showing just how cruel an execution that was.  Nor does the camera flinch from the violent brutality of the gladiatorial games.  When Barabbas is sold into slavery, the sulfur mines of Sicily are depicted in Hellish detail and practically the only thing that saves Barabbas from spending the rest of his life being smothered under a cloud of sulfur is a giggly Roman woman who decides to buy Barabbas so that he can serve as a good luck charm.  The scenes of Barabbas’s skill of a gladiator are contrasted with the bloodthirsty crowd demanding and cheering death.  Even when Barabbas joins the Christians in the Roman catacombs, he discovers that they want nothing to do with him, suggesting that they believe in forgiveness for everyone but him.  The spectacle of Rome is displayed but so is the terror of what lies underneath the city’s ornate surface.  If Barabbas is occasionally a ruthless or unsentimental character, one need only look at the world he lives in to understand why.

With the exception of a few slow scenes at the start of the film, director Richard Fleischer does a good job of keeping the action moving.  It’s a long film but it never becomes a boring one.  In the end, thanks to Quinn’s performance and the film’s unflinching portrayal of life in ancient Rome, Barabbas is a biblical epic for people who usually don’t like biblical epics.

 

A Movie A Day #293: See No Evil (1971, directed by Richard Fleischer)


After a rain, a car drives through a puddle and splashes mud on a man’s designer boots.  The owner of the boots follows the car back to a country manor and murders everyone inside.  (Did he really kill everyone in the house because his boots get muddied?  It is never really clear.  Before his boots got splashed on, he was looking at violent comic books in a shop.  Maybe Wertham was right.)  Later, Sarah (Mia Farrow), the niece of the car’s driver, arrives at the house.  As the result of a recent horse riding accident, Sarah is blind.  She walks through the house, unaware that she is surrounded by dead bodies and unaware that the owner of the boots left behind a bracelet that he will soon be returning to retrieve.

Obviously inspired by Wait Until Dark, See No Evil is a well-done cat-and-mouse game between Sarah and her unseen stalker.  Mia Farrow is great as the blind woman and the scenes of her unknowingly walking past the dead bodies of her family while being followed are tense and suspenseful.  See No Evil has been overshadowed by Farrow’s other two horror films, Rosemary’s Baby and Full Circle, but it is definitely worth a look.

Lisa Cleans Out Her DVR: The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing (dir by Richard Fleischer)


(Lisa is currently in the process of cleaning out her DVR!  How long is it going to take?  Forever!  For instance, she recorded 1955’s The Girl In the Red Velvet Swing off of FXM on February 1st and has now gotten around to actually watching and reviewing it.)

The story of Evelyn Nesbit is an interesting one, even if it is now a largely forgotten one.

In 1901, Evelyn Nesbit was a showgirl in New York City.  While she always claimed that she was 16 at the time, there are some historians that think it more likely that she was only 14.  One night, the beautiful Evelyn was introduced to Stanford White.  At the time, White was 47 years old and the most successful and prominent architect in New York City.  White was also a notorious womanizer and Evelyn soon became his latest mistress.  He moved her into one of his many apartments.  Years later, when the details of their relationship became public knowledge, people were shocked to hear that Stanford White kept a red velvet swing in the apartment and that he enjoyed watching Evelyn swing back and forth.  They would be even more scandalized by the news that Stanford also had a “mirror room.”  As Evelyn would later testify, she “entered the room a virgin” but did not come out as one.

Though Evelyn occasionally claimed that she and Stanford were truly in love, she never married him.  (Indeed, Stanford White apparently never married anyone over the course of his life.)  Instead, she ended up meeting and marrying Harry K. Thaw.  Harry was the heir to a 40 million dollar fortune.  He also had a long history of mental illness.  When he learned that, before meeting him, Evelyn had lost her virginity to Stanford White, he was outraged.

(It’s debatable how well Stanford and Harry knew each other.  Some historians claim that they were barely acquainted.  Other accounts claim that Harry and Stanford were business rivals even before Evelyn Nesbit arrived in New York.)

In 1906, Harry and Evelyn ran into Stanford White at Madison Square Garden.  Harry promptly pulled out a pistol and, in front of hundreds of witnesses, shot Stanford dead.

Harry’s subsequent trial was reportedly the first to ever be described as being “the trial of the century.”  Because hundreds of people had seen Harry Thaw shoot Stanford White and the Thaw family was adamant about not publicizing Harry’s history of mental illness, Harry’s defense team attempted to make the trial about Stanford White.  The defense attempted to portray Stanford as being such a depraved predator that Harry really had no other option but to shoot him in cold blood.  Evelyn took the stand and testified to every single detail of her relationship with Stanford White.  The details appeared in every major newspaper in America.

In the end, Harry was found not guilty by reason of insanity and was committed to the  Matteawan State Hospital for the Criminally Insane.  (Reportedly, due to his great wealth, he had the best room in the hospital.)  Meanwhile, Evelyn became one of America’s first reality stars.  Her notoriety led to her appearing in several silent films.  It’s a fascinating story, one that very much feels ahead of his time.  If Evelyn was a star in 1906, just imagine how famous she would be today.

The Girl in the Red Velvet Swing is about Evelyn Nesbit and her relationships with both Stanford White and Harry Thaw.  It’s a shame that the film isn’t as interesting as the real life story.  Ray Milland plays Stanford White.  Farley Granger is Harry Thaw.  Joan Collins is Evelyn Nesbit.  They all give good performances, especially Farley Granger.  But the film itself is just so bland.  Perhaps because it was made in the 1950s, it leaves out the majority of the sordid details that made the story so fascinating to begin with.  For instance, the red velvet swing appears but, in this film, no time is spent in the mirror room.  This true life story is pure tabloid material but The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing is way too respectful for its own good.  By refusing to come down firmly on the side of Harry Thaw or Stanford White, the film feels shallow and a bit empty.  (All good melodramas — even fact-based ones — need a good villain.)  And poor Evelyn Nesbit!  In real life, she was a savvy self-promoter who knew exactly how to manipulate the press.  In this film, she’s just an innocent ingenue.  Considering the facts of the case, the film version is unforgivably dull.

So, I don’t recommend The Girl In The Red Velvet Swing but I do recommend Paula Uruburu’s fascinating 2008 biography, American Eve: Evelyn Nesbit, Stanford White, The Birth of the ‘It’ Girl, and the ‘Crime of the Century.’  It goes into all of the fascinating details that were left out of this film.

More Of Bronson’s Best: Mr. Majestyk (1974, directed by Richard Fleischer)


Mr_Majestyk_movie_posterWhat happens when you combine the great tough guy writer Elmore Leonard with the great tough guy actor Charles Bronson?

You get Mr. Majestyk, one of Bronson’s finest films.

Vince Majestyk (Bronson) may be a former U.S. Army Ranger instructor and a decorated Vietnam vet but now that he has returned home to Colorado, all he cares about is running his watermelon farm.  With a lucrative harvest approaching, Majestyk hires a group of unionized Mexican migrant workers, led by the fiery Linda Chavez (Linda Cristal), to pick his crops.  When a local criminal named Bobby Kopas (Paul Koslo) shows up and demands that Majestyk hire his drunken crew instead, Majestyk does what Bronson does best.  He gives Kopas an ass-kickin’ beat down.

After Kopas charges him with assault, the local police arrest Majestyk and, despite his request that he be allowed three days to finish harvesting his crop, Majestyk is thrown in jail.  Also in the jail is a Mafia hitman named Frank Renda (Al Lettieri).  Renda may be a tough guy but nobody’s tougher than Vince Majestyk.  When Renda’s associates attempt to hijack a prison bus, Majestyk ends up hijacking it instead.  Majestyk plans to hold Renda hostage until the police agree to give him his three days of freedom so he can get back to his farm.  Renda even offers to pay him off but Majestyk doesn’t care about his money.  He just cares about melons.

Because he was the only 1970s action star who could be believable as both a decorated combat veteran and a no-nonsense watermelon farmer, Charles Bronson is the only actor who could have brought Mr. Majestyk to life.  Before he became an actor, Bronson worked for a living.  From the age of ten until he enlisted in the Army, Bronson worked in the Pennsylvania coal mines, earning one dollar for each ton of coal that he mined.  Though Bronson was never a great actor, his legitimately working class background allowed him to bring an authenticity to a role like Vince Majestyk that most other actors would have lacked.  When Bronson says that all he cares about is bringing in the harvest on time, you believe him just as much as you believe him when he’s beating up Paul Koslo or hijacking a prison bus.

The rest of the cast is full of good 1970s actors who have never really been given their due.  Al Lettieri may be best known for playing Sollozzo in The Godfather but he also does a good job as Frank Renda.  Paul Koslo plays another one his sleazy villains here and does a great job as Bobby Kopas.

Mr. Majestyk was directed by Richard Fleischer but, with its colorful characters, working class hero, and modernized brand of frontier justice, the film is clearly the work of Elmore Leonard. Though Mr. Majestyk is credited as being based on a novel by Leonard, Leonard actually wrote the screenplay before the novel.

The combination of Elmore Leonard and Charles Bronson makes Mr. Majestyk one of the best action films of the 1970s.

majestyk_rifle