Sunday, January 21, 2018

2017 in the 70s

The American Friend - Wim Wenders  - Effectively moody and atmospheric, decidedly non-pulpy take on Patricia Highsmith's novel Ripley's Game (with a little bit of Ripley Underground thrown in). Bruno Ganz, as a terminally ill man who agrees to kill a man for money he hopes to leave behind for his family, is the warm spot in the center of this ice cold movie and Dennis Hopper's enigmatic take on the iconic Tom Ripley character is about as far removed from Alain Delon's as you could get. Fun to see Nicholas Ray show up as the forger. I'd forgotten about that.

The American Soldier - Ranier Werner Fassbinder - An American hitman returns to Germany where he spent some time growing up and catches up with friends and family members he hasn't seen in some time while he waits for instructions. He's been hired by homicide police to knock off a few underworld types and the killer tracks them down and coldly dispatches them while generally behaving like an ugly American louse.

Bad Company - Robert Benton - Alternately bawdily debased and sweetly naive this works as both a romantic and revisionist western about young men looking to make a name for themselves just after the twilight of the open country. Barry Brown comes from a respectable family and Jeff Bridges from nothing, but they form a partnership based on equally misguided notions of honor and glory and necessity's dictations. Just when it seems the whole affair might be too in love with the romantic figure of the cowboy something awful and tragic and dumb as shit will happen to balance the scales. Fun toward the end to watch young Bridges and David Huddleston have a couple of scenes together foreshadowing their Big Lebowski showdown.

Badlands - Terrence Malick - Not the first, certainly not the last, but one of the most distinctive takes on the young lovers/killers on the run genre. This one introduced Malick's style which had yet to completely develop into the singular signature it is today, but which was clearly in process and present - lots of voice over, shots of nature, and themes of innocence lost - it's beautiful even if the romance is hollow and the consequences horrible all around.

Battles Without Honor and HumanityKinji Fukasaku - The first installment in Fukasaku's five-film Yakuza Papers kicks things off with a blast of chaotic post-war ultra-violence as competing yakuza families work out petty squabbles with the occasional practical business concern sprinkled in with bloody inefficiency. The blackly humorous tone and irreverence toward mythic yakuza cool and stoicism is still refreshing forty years later.

Breakheart Pass - Tom Gries - Charles Bronson is Ben Johnson's prisoner as they hitch a ride aboard an army train headed to a remote mountain town supposedly in the grip of a disease outbreak. Bronson leverages his value as a man educated in medicine against mounting danger as the train's personnel are killed off one by one. Based on the novel by Alistair MacLean it features a swell cast of 70s faces including Ed Lauter, Charles Durning, Richard Crenna, David Huddleston, Roy Jensen, Bill McKinney and, as always, Jill Ireland.

Breakout - Tom Gries - Bronson is a Texas pilot and mechanic who takes on a mercenary job springing John Huston's son in law Robert Duvall out of a Mexican prison with the help of his ragtag recruits including Randy Quaid and Sheree North. Solid Bronson comic-caper adventure.

Dog Day Afternoon - Sidney Lumet - The slow-roll of the plot remains masterful as does the cast from John Cazale, Charles Durning, Chris Sarandon, Lance Henriksen, a younger old Dominic Chianese and just barely managing to stay atop the cresting clusterfuck, Al Pacino as the impulsive, compulsive, bank robber Sonny (based on the larger than life exploits of John Wojtowicz).

Double Indemnity - Jack Smight - Made for TV remake of the far superior Billy Wilder version based on James M. Cain's novel adapted by Raymond Chandler. Nothing really to recommend this one - a curiosity available as a special feature on the Criterion release of the 1944 film.

Escape From Alcatraz - Don Siegel - Solid hardboiled procedural. Just nuts and bolts and picks and spoons chiseling away at concrete and steel.

Final Episode Kinji Fukasaku - Fifth and final installment of the Yakuza Papers. See review of Battles Without Honor and Humanity above.

The French Connection - William Friedkin - Somehow the obsession and exhilaration and blind despair of the last few minutes of this film always catch me off-guard. Love to revisit it and John Boorman's very different, but underrated sequel regularly.

Friends of Eddie Coyle - Peter Yates - Robert Mitchum's sad sack Eddie is such a great performance and a terrific bit of casting. Yates concludes his amazing little run with Bullitt and Robbery with an adaptation of the influential novel by George V. Higgins.

Gator - Burt Reynolds - Reynolds returns on both sides of the camera as Gator McClusky in this sequel to White Lightning and offers further proof evidence that I'm just not a Burt fan. He can be charming and smug and smugly charming and even appear in some terrific films, but the ones built around his persona just don't land for me. Probably as much a reflection on when I was born as Reynolds-super-fandom is for others.

Hiroshima Death MatchKinji Fukasaku - Second installment in the five-part Yakuza Papers. See Battles Without Honor and Humanity above for review.

How to Kill a Judge Damiano Damiani - Franco Nero plays a film maker whose latest crime thriller uses fiction to suggest a reality of corruption in the state. When real events begin to mirror those in his film the government attempts to seize it.

Jericho Mile - Michael Mann - Mann's feature debut was made for television, but filmed on location at Folsom Prison and displays several future trademark traits including exploration of convict mentality and prison life as well as characters with obsessive pinhole focus on excellence in their pursuits. Wish there were a quality DVD available.

Killing of a Chinese Bookie - John Cassavetes - Hypnotic and engrossing couple of days in the life of dreamer, schemer, schmoozer and loser Ben Gazzara a skin club owner who likes to think of his leisure spot as classy because he writes absurd musical acts with feints at wit and humor of which he is outsizedly proud - demonstrably in his rambling introduction to each vignette. His outsized estimation of his own charms and talents get him in a bad situation when, as soon as he's made good on a gambling debt, he celebrates by visiting a mob-run casino and runs up a large new sum whilst trying to impress the gangsters who've flattered him by visiting his club. To pay his debt he's given the impossible task referenced in the title - an assassination mission he doesn't know he's not expected to succeed and survive. This is just one of my favorite noirs period. Sad people with illusions and delusions that drive them ever-downward, but who're presented with enough recognizable humanity to invest in and empathize with... Mister Sophistication indeed.

Klute - Alan J. Pakula - Pakula really started with a bang making some of the best conspiracy thrillers that helped shape the paranoid mood of seventies cinema. While All the President's Men got the awards and The Parallax View gets plenty of love in retrospect, Klute is not one I see much chatter about, though it features some of the most troubling and horrific moments between the three. Donald Sutherland is a private investigator on a missing person case who begins shadowing Jane Fonda's prostitute and learning terrible things.

The Long Goodbye - Robert Altman - Altman and Gould have to be one of the least likely teams to make a satisfying Raymond Chandler adaptation, but they managed to make my favorite. Gould's Marlowe is a wise ass afloat in and amused by the cesspool he floats in, neither a part nor a judge of the hedonism and checked-outedness around him, he reserves his contempt for the elements in the power structure inside and outside of the law and positions himself as a protective barrier between those with and without power. He admires few people and only shows real emotion when betrayed. And it's in those rare moments of real hurt and anger when this film sizzles.

McCabe & Mrs. Miller - Robert Altman - Warren Beatty's gambler and Julie Christie's prostitute go into business in a snowy mountain town where Leonard Cohen's greatest hits seems to always be in the air. Not a fucking bad way to spend a couple hours at all.

The Mechanic - Michael Winner - Before John Wick presented an alternate universe with an elaborately detailed and structured underworld my favorite Bronson picture presented Chuck and Jan-Michael Vincent as partners and highly skilled, and paid professionals in a bizarre global fraternity of organized criminals. The strangeness of the world is really barely hinted at at least when compared to the John Wick flicks, but there are weird little touches that keep cropping up in this otherwise grounded murder and revenge entertainment. It's so great even the Jason Statham remake ain't bad (that second one though... oof).

Mr. Majestyk Richard Fleischer - From an original screenplay by Elmore Leonard (which he then wrote the novel from) this is probably my second favorite Bronson picture (some days my favorite). Bronson is a stubborn ex-con set on selling a melon harvest to set him up financially.

Moonraker - Lewis Gilbert - I'm not really a Bond fan. I didn't grow up watching the films with a father or brother or other masculine role model... didn't have any formative experience with the franchise, so I can take or leave most of them and never get bent out of shape over casting or tone. Yeah, my favorites are the first couple Sean Connery flicks and the Daniel Craig Casino Royale, but I never really understood why Roger Moore's run gets shit on so frequently for its silliness because man, from at least Thunderball on they've all been pretty loony. This one though is probably the looniest. For my money though it remains too long earthbound. The real (mild) pleasure of this one is the full-on space battle with lazer weapons.

Panic in Needle ParkJerry Schatzberg - Al Pacino and Kitty Winn are heroin enthusiasts in New York City making the trip from semi-bohemian tasters to habitual users straight on through to full-blown junkies who turn to crime to keep themselves well. As with most drug dramas the highs are high and the lows are grim and the bulk of the picture is tedium. Solid performances though and the last act finishes strong. Screenplay by Joan Didion and John Gregory Dunne based on a book by James Mills.

Police TacticsKinji Fukasaku - This fourth installment in the five-part Yakuza Papers is of a piece with the others, but is probably the most unique among its siblings as it brings the police and government presence to the fore instead of barely acknowledging them as a factor in the other episodes. As the years of violence go on and more innocent civilians are casualties the police are under increased pressure to put a lid on the bloodshed.

Proxy WarKinji Fukasaku - Third installment in the five-part Yakuza Papers. See Battles Without Honor and Humanity review above.

Saint Jack - Peter Bogdanovich - Ben Gazzara is a Bangkok vice figure who pimps and procures illicit pleasures for mostly western clientele in this unusually sweet portrait of a seedy existence. Based on the novel by Paul Theroux, it belongs on Bogdanovich's top-shelf output and makes for an intriguing companion piece to Cassavetes' The Killing of a Chinese Bookie with Gazzara at his most utterly charming.

Serpico - Sidney Lumet - The first chapter in Lumet's NYC corruption cycle (Prince of the City, Q&A, Night Falls on Manhattan) opens the run as idealistically as its main character and perhaps has the most satisfying emotional arc of any of them.

The Seven-UpsPhilip D'Antoni - The sole directorial credit for the guy behind the greatest car chase sequences of his (or arguably any) era (Bullitt, The French Connection) features predictably a show-stopping car chase that remains the most notable part of the film. Stylistically this one leans heavily on Friedkin's French Connection and even brings back Roy Scheider, but the story is hardboiled cop pulp and mostly coherent though if you lose track of the plot you can still enjoy the cast and tone and spirit of the thing.

Shamus - Buzz Kulik - A coitus-engaged couple are attacked by flamethrower from the skylight above them and then a two man team in flame-retardant outfits break into a safe in the room to steal some diamonds. That's just... damn, that's how you start a movie. If the rest of the movie was as great as the first 30 seconds, this would be the greatest movie of Reynolds' career. Unfortunately things get a lot more standard and pat from there. The best or worst thing about the whole endeavor though is that Burt clearly don't give a shit.

The Silent Partner - Daryl Duke - This Christmas favorite about a quickly escalating cat and mouse game between bank teller Elliot Gould and bank robber Christopher Plummer is based on a book by Anders Bodelsen with a screenplay by Curtis Hanson. When Gould intuits that his bank is about to be robbed by a gun-toting mall Santa Claus he seizes an opportunity to make off with a better score than the armed robber gets. When Plummer's thief figures out he's been ripped off he begins to extort and threaten Gould. Both men prove to be formidable adversaries who underestimate the resolve and wit of their foe leading to some shocking consequences. Gould is great, but Plummer runs away with this one in an electrifying and vicious performance.

Sorcerer - William Friedkin - I love this movie and agree even think it bests the original - Wages of Fear - directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot. Both films are based on the novel of the same name by Georges Amaud which is slated to have a third adaptation by Ben Wheatley, no less, soon. The story follows a group of desperate men hiding out in a small South American village from various sources of trouble around the world. They've all ended up in the last place on earth they want to be and the last place of refuge existing for them and hang around waiting to die... until... there's a disaster for the big oil company drilling nearby. The pipeline is burst and on fire and because of the remoteness of the location, the best plan they can come up with is to send two rickety old trucks, (two because at least one of them is bound to perish) loaded with decaying dynamite, oozing nitroglycerin through the jungle to put out the blaze. The volunteers for the suicide mission come out of the woodwork because the reward for succeeding and surviving is a lot of money. Tryouts are held and four men selected to captain the two trucks at walking pace over harsh and antagonistic terrain. The tension is near unbearable and the volume is low as we get the feeling that even loud words could ignite the volatile payload. The themes are among my favorite ever and the precision suspense film making is undeniable.

Street MobsterKinji Fukasaku - A year or so before his Yakuza Papers gave traditional yakuza pictures something of a thematic overhaul the Yakuza Papers' director and star Bunta Sugawara submitted this equally brutal, but pulpy, slice of nihilistic bloodletting.

Sympathy For the Underdog - Kinji Fukasaku - If The Yakuza Papers are Fukasaku's Unforgiven, this one belongs to his Man With No Name style mythic treatment of gangsters. Like all of them, it's bloody and gnarly, but it has a more traditional narrative structure including a climactic showdown that's pretty badass.

Telefon - Don Siegel - Before the Russians wielded overt influence over policy in our country we had fun making supervillians of them during the Cold War. This one concerns unwitting sleeper agents activated by subconscious cues delivered via phone calls that send them off to commit acts of terror.

Thieves Like Us - Robert Altman - Edward Anderson published two novels before disappearing into obscurity. One of them was adapted as a feature film by twice by two of the most important American film makers of their day. While I prefer Nicholas Ray's They Live By Night, Altman's Thieves Like Us is strong and one of my favorites from the most potent period of output.

Thunderbolt & Lightfoot - Michael Cimino - Working back through Cimino's output after his death last year this one surprised me the most by appreciating since the first time I'd seen it. Clint Eastwood and Jeff Bridges are modern day cowboy-outlaw types for whom living free of societal constraints is far more important than ever getting rich from their work. Terrific cast includes George Kennedy, Geoffrey Lewis, Dub Taylor, Gary Busey, Roy Jenson, Catherine Bach and Bill McKinney.

Truck Turner - Jonathan Kaplan - Isaac Hayes is a hot shit bounty hunter in deep shit after his dead partner's widow puts a price on his head and Yaphet Kotto takes the gig. Pure fun all the way through. Cast includes Nichelle Nichols, Scatman Crothers and Dick Miller.

Vengeance is Mine Shôhei Imamura - In the age of fresh mass murders every few weeks in this country it's a little bit of a challenge to get worked up about a serial killer whose grand total number of victims was five, but this is a picture from the seventies inspired by a real killer (Akira Nishiguchi) from the sixties and an unsettling portrait of a-morality and escalating anti-social behavior that transcends body count. Ken Ogata plays Iwao Enokizu a disaffected social outsider who graduates from petty larceny to more elaborate confidence scams and finally to murder in his criminal career.

Vigilante Force - George Armitage - When rampant lawlessness becomes too much for a blue collar town to stand they bring on Kris Kristofferson as sheriff and give him carte blanche to hire a rough gang of deputies to restore order. After initially squelching crime the motley group consolidates their power to become the unapproachable crime syndicate in town and only Kristofferson's brother Jan-Michael Vincent can organize the townsfolk to stand up to them. From the director of fare like Hit Man, Miami Blues and Grosse Pointe Blank this one joins The Big Bounce in not standing up to the standard of his other work.

Who? - Jack Gold - Joseph Bova plays an American scientist involved in a terrible car accident along the East German border who returns to the west later unrecognizable due to the metallic shell the East German doctors supposedly encased him in the effort to save his life. Elliot Gould is the intelligence operative assigned to determining whether the good Dr. is still a good guy. Has he been brainwashed and sent home as a spy? Is he a... robot? Questions about the nature humanity and consciousness arise, but are largely overshadowed by the super silly look of the post-op Bova character. Based on a novel by Algis Budrys it would almost certainly have been better suited for a Twilight Zone or even Star Trek episode than feature length film.

Who'll Stop the Rain?Karel Reisz - Nick Nolte is an soldier hired to help a disillusioned American journalist and his wife sell heroin smuggled home from Vietnam. High on moral relativism the idealist's experiment with capitalism becomes a nightmare awfully quick when corrupt DEA agent Anthony Zerbe and his thugs make clear their aim of ripping off the shipment for themselves. Nolte finds himself more than just a business partner and hired muscle and something closer to reluctant spiritual landmark by which the couple (Tuesday Weld and Michael Moriarty) may navigate their way out of their own assholes. Adapted by Robert Stone and Judith Rascoe from Stone's novel Dog Soldiers it's a much better look at the sixties becoming the seventies (and leaving the writing on the wall for the eighties) than Easy Rider for my money.

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