Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on November 19, 2013
The violence in Assault on Precinct 13 is a result of simple geometry. Director and writer John Carpenter sets up four narrative lines that collide at a soon-to-be-shut-down police station. Taking advantage of the wide Panavision frame, Carpenter emphasizes horizontals, from long shotgun barrels to threatening gang members strung out across a darkened road like holes in a belt. This nearly wordless group of thugs has the station surrounded, its cowering occupants an uninspiring group of rookie cops, wounded secretaries and wiseass convicts. Enclosed and in the dark, these panicked heroes learn how to turn the space to their advantage, choking off the gang’s freedom of horizontal movement and funneling them into a narrow chamber that evens the odds. Reducing the action film to its basic elements, Assault on Precinct 13 still packs the force of a blunt object to the cranium. The textured transfer on the new Blu-Ray, out today from Shout! Factory, is the ideal way to re-acquaint yourself with its concussive impact.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on October 1, 2013
We associate film noir with cramped urban spaces, labyrinthine warrens of crime and vice. This slipperiest of genres, identified by French film critics years after its demise, also gained resonance by departing from the city and hitting the road. Often this takes the form of a last ditch attempt at salvation, as in the transition from city to country in On Dangerous Ground, when Robert Ryan’s cop finds humanity in the dead eyes of Ida Lupino. Olive Films recently released two curiously located 1950s noirs, the beachside diner of Shack Out on 101 (1955) and the highway heist film Plunder Road (1957). Both dispense their pleasures through their constrained locales, the first taken place almost entirely in a shabby eatery, the second inside a getaway truck. The first veers towards absurdist humor while the second is a straight-faced procedural, but both display how the noir ingredients could be combined in an endless variety of ways, and that there are always discoveries to be made in even this most picked over of genres.
Posted by Susan Doll on August 19, 2013
While living in Chicago during the 1990s, I suddenly found myself unemployed. To keep active while searching for another job, I became a volunteer at the Field Museum, the city’s world renowned natural history museum. My duties involved either manning the owl station or the teeth cart, though I longed to work as a docent in the mammal galleries where animals from all over the world were stuffed and mounted for display. Instead of explaining the stealth capabilities of owls or the difference between alligator and crocodile teeth, I really wanted to tell folks about the Field’s most notorious residents, the man-eating Lions of Tsavo.
In 1898, these two lions stalked and preyed on the Hindu immigrants working in Africa for the colonial British, who insisted they had a right to build the Kenya-Uganda Railroad across the continent. When the company began to construct a bridge over the Tsavo River in Kenya, the lions terrorized the crew by attacking and devouring several workers. Fearful of being eaten alive, the crew halted work, and many fled. The British sent Lt. Col. John Henry Patterson to calm the crew and ensure their safety. At first, Patterson assumed the stories about man-eaters were exaggerations, but he soon discovered the two beasts exhibited behavior uncommon for lions. They hunted together as a pair; they made their den in a cave, where they dragged their prey; they were unafraid to get close to humans, even in daylight. Apparently the cats eluded several traps, crawled under thorn fences, and figured out how to get around the raging fires intended to keep them at bay. It took Colonel Patterson about nine months to kill the lions, though not before they consumed about three dozen employees. On December 9, he wounded one of the lions in the leg. According to the Colonel’s published account, the big cat returned to camp that night to seek revenge, but he shot it dead. About 20 days later, he killed the second lion. The Colonel’s self-promotional account is not entirely accurate: He claimed that the Lions of Tsavo had killed and eaten about 135 people. After Field Museum scientists discovered and studied the lions’ original den and ran tests on their fur and skin, they estimated one of the man-eaters had consumed about ten victims, while the other had digested about 24.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on July 16, 2013
This is Part 2 of a series on director Allan Dwan. Part 1 focused on his silent films.
Dwan was ready for the transition to sound. He had experimented with the new technology as early as 1925, when he made a satirical sound short that screened at the private Lambs’ Club. There was a failed effort at the men’s only institution to allow women to join, or at least perform at their “gambols”. So Dwan directed a sketch in which Gloria Swanson audibly crashed their proceedings, as reported by Frederic Lombardi in his Dwan biography. In 1927 he made a sound newsreel for Movietone News (“The Military Academy at West Point”), and shot a sound prologue for The Iron Mask (1929). So when his career fully transferred to talkies later in ’29 with Frozen Justice, he already had a feel for how he could bend the technology to serve his roving camera. In her introduction for Slightly Scarlet at the Museum of Modern Art, filmmaker and critic Gina Telaroli remarked that the concept of “circulation” is the key to Dwan’s art, referring to his circling plots as well as the perambulations of his camera and actors. His mastery of the tracking shot, which he developed as early as 1915 in David Harum, continued unabated into the sound era, even with the restrictions of onerous recording equipment. Even when the camera is static, his films percolate with a choreography of micro-movements inside the frame, as his anxious characters push forward into the unknown.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on April 23, 2013
“Nobody can beat Bruce Lee, everybody can beat me” -Jackie Chan
Failing as a stoic Bruce Lee clone early in his career, Jackie Chan discovered that audiences preferred him as a cheery masochist, enduring abuse for fun and profit. His kung-fu clowning in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978) established a persona he would tinker with the rest of his career. When he shifted from martial arts period pieces to modern day action thrillers in the 1980s, his drifting fool becomes professionalized, an innocent goofball in uniform. His masterpiece of this period is Police Story (1985), which was recently issued on Blu-Ray by Shout! Factory, along with its initial 1988 sequel, Police Story 2 (1988). Chan has made five Police Storys to date, with a sixth in production set for release later this year, but the original remains his (and my) favorite.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on March 26, 2013
To make a thoughtful direct-to-video action movie is about as difficult as recovering from a meaty right hook to the jaw from Stone Cold Steve Austin. Working on shoestring budgets and two-week deadlines, most DTV product is a jumbled mess of plot holes and broken bones. So when a director is able to compose a coherent space and worldview out of such chaos, it’s a minor miracle. With The Package (2012), Jesse V. Johnson joins Isaac Florentine (Undisputed III) and John Hyams (Universal Soldier: Day of Reckoning) in accomplishing this magic act. It is a simple story well told, of a mob muscleman (Austin) tasked to deliver a mysterious package to a gangster known only as “The German” (Dolph Lundgren). Its contents are sought by a third gang, and what was a simple job for Austin turns into a war. Johnson strips down dialogue and establishes character through fighting styles: Austin is a deliberate and quiet thinker, waiting slowly for an opening for his devastating punch, while the flamboyant Lundgren speaks in long winding monologues before springing for a quick and outrageous kill. Johnson shoots fights up close but in wide angles, so the need for cutting is minimized and blows register with traumatic impact. Jesse V. Johnson has been a stuntman (The Amazing Spider-Man), a writer (The Butcher, 2009) and a director, and he took some time out to speak to me about his varied career adventures. We discuss Dolph Lundgren’s working methods, the fun and frustrations of working in DTV, and the motivation behind his viral Wonder Woman fan trailer.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on January 15, 2013
For the past decade Korea has produced the most innovative genre films in the world, with directors Park Chan-wook, Bong Joon-ho and Kim Jee-woon reinvigorating revenge thrillers, police procedurals and westerns. This year Hollywood is playing catch-up, commissioning remakes of recent Korean hits and importing that influential trio to make their English language debuts. Spike Lee is shooting his version of Park’s seminal Oldboy, and Allen Hughes has signed on to redo Kim’s A Bittersweet Life (2005, and whose Tale of Two Sisters was Americanized in 2009 as The Uninvited). Bong is finishing up production on his dystopic sci-fi film Snowpiercer, starring Chris Evans, while Park’s psychological horror film Stoker, featuring Nicole Kidman, will be released on March 1st. The first out of the gate will be Kim’s action movie The Last Stand, opening this Friday, which marks the post-gubernatorial screen return of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Kim is a restless genre tweaker, using traditional templates and then pushing them to extremes. His style varies from the antic energy of his “kimchi Western” The Good, The Bad, The Weird to the elegant control of his criminal revenge saga A Bittersweet Life, but his films insistently return to the theme of self-destructive violence that pulses just below the surface of the human psyche.
Posted by R. Emmet Sweeney on December 18, 2012
For as long as there are aging matinee idols looking for a quick paycheck, there will be commando movies there to pay them. While the painfully self-conscious Expendables movies brought this prestigious genre back into box office glory, it’s a format that has been cranking along for decades. Before Stallone, the most successful old man revitalizer was Andrew V. McLaglen (son of actor Victor), who cranked out fogey action flicks from the 60s through the 80s, after a long career in TV Westerns. Cult home video outfit Severin has just released The Wild Geese (1978) on Blu-Ray, which stars the leathery trio of Richard Burton, Richard Harris and Roger Moore. McLaglen’s favorite among his films, it is a bloody imperialist fantasy in which a group of ex-Special Ops Brits parachute into Africa to rescue a deposed leader from a tyrannical despot. Fitfully released in the United States as its distributor was going through bankruptcy, it exudes more testosterone per film frame than Stallone’s pec-flexing opus.
Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on December 13, 2012
As I was getting ready to wrap-up my year long celebration of ‘60s spy films, I received something extraordinary in the mail; the new special issue of Cinema Retro’s Movie Classics magazine celebrating “50 years of James Bond in Cinema.” The issue boasts a spectacular cover image of Sean Connery and Ursula Andress taken in 1962 to help promote the first Bond film, DR. NO. The image literally jumped off the page and into my heart reminding me of how magnetic the two actors were in those iconic roles. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to think of a more memorable screen couple from 1962 but at the time that the photo was taken Connery and Andress were relatively unknown. DR. NO would catapult them both into cinema history and eventually make James Bond one of the most recognized film characters in the world.
Today it’s hard for modern audiences to fathom the impact that DR. NO had. The film was made for just one million dollars but its unique visual style and pop art sensibility made it seem light years ahead of its time. It took audiences to exotic locations while introducing them to a handsome, well-dressed international man of mystery who could easily outwit and outmuscle fiendish villains hell-bent on world domination. Sean Connery’s James Bond may have dressed like a million bucks but his roguish manner and rumbling Scottish accent hinted at his working class roots and that gave him universal appeal. He was exactly what film audiences needed to combat the Cold War jitters and help usher in the swinging sixties.
Posted by David Kalat on December 1, 2012
Having brought up Dr. Mabuse recently, naturally my thoughts also flit to Fantômas. I had promised a while back that I would eventually address Andre Hunebelle’s 1960s Fantômas revival in this blog, and now seems the best time to live up to my word. Along with last week’s visit to Dr. Mabusiana, I’m going to spend the next several weeks exploring the world of pulp mysteries on film—specifically how different filmmakers have approached the task of rendering in cinematic terms a corpus of literature that flourished in the late 1800s and early 1900s.
The Hunebelle Fantômas films are not readily available for viewing. It is the case that anyone with an Amazon account can obtain a DVD box set of the entire trilogy—but this import set will come without English subtitles and will only be playable in a region-free player, so it’ll alienate most casual American viewers. With that in mind, I’m going to be fairly heavy on clips this week, so give you a good sense of what these three films are really like. I’ve added subtitles to these clips from an online source of fan-created subtitles. Given the awkward wording, I’m guessing by “fan-subbed” they really mean “ran the French script through Google Translate and performed no proof-reading at all.”
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