Saturday, August 29, 2009

Film Review: THE MECHANIC (1972, Michael Winner)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 100 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Keenan Wynn, Jill Ireland, Jan-Michael Vincent. Written by Lewis John Carlino (writer/director of THE GREAT SANTINI and director of CLASS).
Best one-liner: Bronson: "You always have to be dead sure. Dead sure, or DEAD."

A taut, stylish Bronson potboiler that I would place at the forefront of his oeuvre (along with ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, RIDER ON THE RAIN, and the original DEATH WISH). Known primarily as THE MECHANIC, and sometimes as KILLER OF KILLERS, it could very well be titled DIARY OF A SOCIOPATH.

It's by far Michael Winner's greatest film: here, he reminds me much more of John Boorman or Nic Roeg at their best than, say, the director of WON TON TON- THE DOG WHO SAVED HOLLYWOOD (yeahhh, Winner did that one). It's a detached, melancholy thriller with crisp, artistic cinematography;

Shades of M (1931)?

a wonderful Jerry Fielding score comprised of dissonant piano and strings; and perhaps Bronson's most complex, compelling performance.

The opening sequence (which observes Bronson planning a hit from bureaucratic start to grisly finish) is filmed entirely without dialogue, and, if separated from the film, would surely qualify as one of the greatest shorts of all time. It's not a pretentious film, however: Winner still possesses his old bag of tricks, which includes laughable depictions of hippies (see: THE STONE KILLER),

I think Winner had been reading a lot of cautionary National Review clippings.

people knocked into a swimming pool by a motorcycle, and Bronson indulging in his love for ice cream (see: DEATH WISH 2 and 3).

Damn, he loves it!

Now here's something you don't get to see every day.

In his hits, Bronson employs deceit, genius planning, ruthless cunning, and a lot of sport coat/turtleneck combos.

He's not merely a disconnected killer, however, and we catch glimpses of his fascinating, tortured psyche: an obsession with Bosch's "Garden of Earthly Delights," stories of an abusive father, a strange dynamic with a bizarre role-playing prostitute (Jill Ireland), and his body's subconscious revulsion at his sociopathic persona.

He plays his cards close to his chest, and to the other characters [like Jan-Michael Vincent (the snotty up-and-comer) and Keenan Wynn (as Jan's gangster dad)] he remains a wax ball-squeezing, squinty, brutal enigma. The end result is something action-packed, unexpected, and extremely satisfying. Five stars.

-Sean Gill

Friday, August 28, 2009

Film Review: RUNAWAY TRAIN (1985, Andrei Konchalovsky)

Stars: 4.7 of 5.
Running Time: 111 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Jon Voight, Eric Roberts, Danny Trejo, Eddie Bunker, John P. Ryan (IT'S ALIVE, DELTA FORCE 2, CLASS OF 1999), T.K. Carter (Nauls in THE THING), Rebecca de Mornay, Hank Worden (THE SEARCHERS, STAGECOACH, the odd, milk-delivering waiter from TWIN PEAKS Season 2), Tommy 'Tiny' Lister (EXTREME PREJUDICE). Music by Trevor Jones. Produced by Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus.
Best one-liner: [makes flatulent noise] "That's your mother's farthole, Rankin. The bitch is LOUD."

"Existential." "Poetic." "Award-winning." These are not words I would expect to use while describing a Golan-Globus film. To put it in perspective, they produced DEATH WISH 3, RAPPIN', INVASION U.S.A, and MISSING IN ACTION 2 the same year (1985).

Now, the forces which collaborated to make RUNAWAY TRAIN a reality are simply mind-blowing: it began its life as a shelved Akira Kurosawa script, picked up by Cannon and adapted by Paul Zindel (Pulitzer Prize winner for EFFECT OF GAMMA RAYS ON MAN-IN-THE-MOON MARIGOLDS), Djordje Milicevic (Serbian writer of John Huston's VICTORY), and Eddie Bunker (former inmate turned writer/actor). Bunker (who plays a memorable role here), is likely the most fascinating of the bunch- he stabbed a boy in the eye with a fork at 15, he was on the FBI's Ten Most Wanted List, he shivved a prison guard and befriended Danny Trejo (who makes his debut here), became buddies with Michael Mann after his release, wrote STRAIGHT TIME and ANIMAL FACTORY, and appeared in RESERVOIR DOGS (as Mr. Blue) and THE RUNNING MAN, among others.

Annnyway, Golan and Globus handed the directorial reins to Russian art house director Andrei Konchalovsky, and cast it with Hollywood powerhouses and Cannon heavies alike. Holy shit, what a combination! Our plot is this:

Two inmates- Jon Voight (a charismatic, raging grizzly of a man- "I'm at war with the world and everybody in it!") and Eric Roberts (who possesses a sleazy, oddly snakelike naivete)- escape the clutches of their steely, gum-chewing, mustachioed warden John P. Ryan

(who prays "God, don't kill them- let me do it!"), only to find themselves on a...RUNAWAY TRAIN. It develops into a brutal meld of TAKING OF PELHAM 1,2,3 and BRIDGE ON THE RIVER KWAI that feels like a shiv to the palm.

It all ends with a Shakespeare quote, and your gut reaction is not "Damn, that's pretentious," but rather to catch your breath, wipe your brow, and make sure your guts are still there. Now, THAT says a lot.

-Sean Gill

Thursday, August 27, 2009

Film Review: BLADE RUNNER (1982, Ridley Scott)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 117 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Harrison Ford, Sean Young, Rutger Hauer, Daryl Hannah, M. Emmet Walsh (MISSING IN ACTION, BLOOD SIMPLE), Edward James Olmos, Joe Turkel (the Bartender in THE SHINING), James Hong (BIG TROUBLE IN LITTLE CHINA), Brion James (HOUSE III), William Sanderson (DEADWOOD), Joanna Cassidy (THE OUTFIT) . Cinematography by Jordan Cronenweth, music by Vangelis. Based on the novel DO ANDROIDS DREAM OF ELECTRIC SHEEP? by Philip K. Dick.
Tag-lines: "Man Has Made His Match... Now It's HIS Problem!" Wow.
Best one-liner: "Wake up, time to die!" (often and enthusiastically quoted by Abel Ferrara on his commentary track for THE DRILLER KILLER)
Schlitz Sign Sightings: 2

On a TV, BLADE RUNNER's an essential film; on the big screen, it's a revelation. From the ominous opening tones and expository scroll to the first shots of fireballs bursting forth from futuristic smokestacks, the viewer is immediately aware that they're about to embark on something enrapturing, exceedingly rare, and immaculately crafted.

Director Ridley Scott, cinematographer Jordan Cronenweth (ROLLING THUNDER, ALTERED STATES CUTTER'S WAY), special effects artist Douglas Trumbull (2001, CLOSE ENCOUNTERS OF THE THIRD KIND), and production designer Lawrence G. Paull (BACK TO THE FUTURE) merge their talents to create a moody, jaw-dropping, futuristic atmosphere, the likes of which hadn't been seen since METROPOLIS and will likely be never seen again, so long as Hollywood clings to its CGI like a cured fool to his needless crutch.

Though not following his work to the letter, the film wonderfully replicates the Philip K. Dick 'aura'- a world of confusion, filth, wonderment, paranoia, disquiet, and mystery. A smoky Middle-Eastern nightclub with shades of PEPE LE MOKO; an icy laboratory where eyeballs are fashioned from bubbling, frigid vats; a dark, rain-soaked alley, intermittently lit by neon and the flashing headlamps of police spinners;

a sooty, decaying space, full of mannequins, robots, and incessantly chortling mechanical toys; a musty, shadowy, Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired apartment

where Harrison Ford's Deckard pours bottle after bottle of stinging hooch down his throat– the sheer creativity and perfect realization of these places leaves them etched upon your mind, long after the film has finished. Combined with an ethereal Vangelis score, one sits, transfixed and with mouth agape, as one might while experiencing one of the great cathedrals.

Violence is handled with firm-handed Dickian weight: visceral and distressing, full of shrieks and spasms and existential dread. The acting is superb: Sean Young's art deco naivete, Brion James' detached brutality, Rutger Hauer's unsettling perfection, James Hong's yammering hermit, Joe Turkel's thick-lensed mogul, Edward James Olmos' craggy visage, William Sanderson’s sweet gullibility,

Daryl Hannah's raccoon-eyed urchin, and M. Emmet Walsh’s oily countenance all function to develop a colorful landscape of characters, remaining true to Dick's wider vision. Ultimately, Scott possesses a complete confidence in his material, and never second-guesses, never concedes a point, never gives in to showcasing some 'flavor of the month,’ and consequently has created a languid, timeless work of art.

-Sean Gill

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Television Review: RAWHIDE- "DUEL AT DAYBREAK" (1965, Sutton Roley), AKA BRONSON VS. EASTWOOD

Stars: 3 of 5.
Running Time: 53 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Clint Eastwood, Charles Bronson.
Best one-liner: "Puttin' a high price on a pair of pants, aren't ya?"

So I've been doing a lot of Bronson reviews lately, and the subject of 'Bronson vs. Eastwood' has come up on several occasions. I'm going to take this opportunity to rehash 'what we know,' before proceeding with what may be the very birth of the (possibly imagined) rivalry; an episode of RAWHIDE, starring Clint, and guest starring Bronson. This article by no means will offer the final word on the feud, but will perhaps offer some deeper insights into this eternal battle. But before I get into the RAWHIDE episode, let's rehash...


#1. The Leone connection: Bronson might have, in retrospect, felt foolish for turning down the role of the 'Man with No Name' in Sergio Leone's famous Dollars Trilogy, a role that ultimately went to Clint and made him an international star. Later, Bronson finally broke down and made a film with Leone (and a slew of other European films in the late 60's and early 70's) - ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. Now, to complicate things, the three men who Bronson shoots in the opening sequence were originally meant to be the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Clint, Lee van Cleef, and Eli Wallach). Van Cleef and Wallach signed on for the cameo appearances, but Clint declined. Clint claimed (perhaps correctly) that he declined because it wouldn't be fair to diminish the character's legend in such a superficial, slapdash manner. But perhaps the real reason he declined was because he didn't want to be shot by Bronson.

#2. And much like how Bronson went and did Italian films after Clint had, Clint went and did some WWII ensemble cast movies after Bronson. Bronson had THE GREAT ESCAPE ('63) and THE DIRTY DOZEN ('67) under his belt when Clint went and did WHERE EAGLES DARE ('68) and KELLY'S HEROES ('70). Was Clint jealous that Bronson's 'men on a mission' movies were more successful? Hard to say. Clint didn't return to WWII until after Bronson's death, and even then he just directed (FLAGS OF OUR FATHERS, LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA).

#3. Bronson and Eastwood both have a preference for the 'finger and thumb gun.' Whether or not they ever had a 'finger and thumb gun' battle is unknown to me, but as far as I know, it was never captured on celluloid.

#4. Perhaps the most famous roles for Bronson and Eastwood were, respectively, Paul Kersey (the DEATH WISH series) and Harry Callahan (the DIRTY HARRY series). Each series had five installments- did Bronson only agree to DEATH WISH V: THE FACE OF DEATH ('94) so that he could match Eastwood for number of installments?

#5. Don Siegel was perhaps Eastwood's greatest mentor, and they collaborated five times (COOGAN'S BLUFF, DIRTY HARRY, THE BEGUILED, TWO MULES FOR SISTER SARA, ESCAPE FROM ALCATRAZ). Late in Siegel's career, he worked with Bronson (TELEFON). How did this make Clint feel? Did Bronson ever twirl his mustache thinking about it?

#6. Bronson hates orangutans and mocks EVERY WHICH WAY BUT LOOSE in DEATH WISH II. There's a good possibility that Bronson disliked how much fun Clint was having, and this was borne of jealousy, though it's also possible that Bronson couldn't believe that a badass icon (who he was frequently compared to) could get away with a monkey/trucker movie. What if all this time, however, Bronson secretly wished he could do whacky movies involving apes and Oreos and duets with Ray Charles, but instead steadfastly remained a willing martyr to his jaw-clenching tough guy roles?

#7. Bronson and Eastwood both have worked with Lee Marvin, Clint just once with PAINT YOUR WAGON, and Bronson many times, with an episode of M SQUAD, an episode of BIFF BAKER U.S.A., DIPLOMATIC COURIER, YOU'RE IN THE NAVY NOW, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE MEANEST MEN IN THE WEST, and DEATH HUNT. What did Lee think about all this?

Would he have knocked their heads together like coconuts, given the chance?

#8. There was a Filipino movie made in 1989 called PABLIHASA DETEKTIB, which evidently presented a fictitious staging of the Eastwood vs. Bronson rivalry. Any information on how to obtain this could prove valuable.

#9. Bronson appeared at the ALL-STAR PARTY FOR CLINT EASTWOOD ('86), hosted by Lucille Ball. Whether or not he was formally invited, or he 'crashed' it is unclear. I do know that they shook hands and appeared somewhat pleasant at this event, but whether it represented subterfuge or a genuine healing of the rift is not known to me at this time. I do know, however, that Bronson is really bad at subterfuge, so maybe it was genuine.

#10. Bronson and Eastwood both HATE crack. Bronson made a movie about how much he hated crack- DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN. Clint made a PSA for TV. Perhaps this was some common ground they could bond over in the later years.

#11. Both appeared in the special HAPPY 100TH BIRTHDAY HOLLYWOOD ('87). Whether or not they interacted is unknown to me.

#12. They both had a significant other who they collaborated with many, many times. Bronson appeared with Jill Ireland in 16 films and one TV episode. Clint appeared with Sondra Locke in 6 films, most of which he directed. Bronson remained with Jill from their 1968 marriage until her tragic death from breast cancer in 1990.

Clint remained with Sondra (a breast cancer survivor) from 1975 until their breakup in 1990 (they were never married).

Now, granted, these are not all of the facts. These are only some of the facts. It's certainly something to go on. Now let's go back in time to 1965, when Bronson met Eastwood...

DUEL AT DAYBREAK is a pretty solid episode of 60's Western TV. The majority of the episode is the villainous Bronson trying to shoot people, Eastwood stepping in and talking some sense, and preventing said shootings from happening.

This makes Bronson mad. The opening scene involves Bronson trying to teach "a wet behind the ears kid a lesson in manners." The kid tries to use a plank to cross a gigantic mud puddle and gets Bronson's pants muddy. Bronson says that the "bridge" is his, it's private. The kid tries to leave.

Bronson demands the kid's hat, and a shoot-out is about to commence when Clint and a bunch of dudes step in and talk some sense.

"Puttin' a high price on a pair of pants, aren't ya?" says a pissed Clint. [Which is doubly ridiculous, given that later on, as Dirty Harry, Clint refuses to have his nearly $30 pants cut by a doctor to remove bullet shards ("For $29.50, let it hurt!")].

Anyway, Eastwood keeps breaking up duels between Bronson and other dudes, which pisses Bronson off, because he'd love to just be indiscriminately shooting people. (He would eventually get his chance in DEATH WISH 3).

Why won't Clint just let Bronson do what he's good at?!

He gets so frustrated he flings a table across his room.

"Get your foot offa that chair...."

Turns out, it's largely over a woman (this was long before Bronson was made into an asexual being by Golan-Globus in the 80's). Bronson finally gets his wish and shoots some people, but not fatally. In a re-duel with The Kid, (with Clint obviously backing The Kid), Bronson is fatally shot.

This is the little shitball...

...who kills Bronson.

Clint doesn't even get to handle a gun. Now it's great to see Eastwood and Bronson sharing the same (small) screen and flinging verbal barbs at one another, but I must say that, overall, it's not the most satisfying endeavor. I wanted Clint to tell Bronson to "Get off my lawn" and Bronson to say "Chicken's good. I like chicken."

I'm not sure what else to say. More to come.

-Sean Gill

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Film Review: ST. IVES (1976, J. Lee Thompson)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 94 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, Jeff Goldblum, Robert Englund, Maximilian Schell, John Houseman, Jacqueline Bisset, Harry Guardino, Elisha Cook, Jr. Music by Lalo Schifrin.
Tag-lines: "He's clean. He's mean. He's the go-between."
Best one-liner: "What are the odds in the Rams-Dallas game?"

Raymond St. Ives. Layabout, writer, gambler, and all-around classy dude.

Bronson could totally host 'Masterpiece Theater.'

Tagline says "He's clean, he's mean, he's the go-between." He sleeps in late and (on the poster at least) lights his pipe with $100 bills. Not sure why he does that, since he suffers from debilitating financial difficulties. In fact, he's so behind on his bills, up to his ears in gambling debt, and is suffering writer's block, he decides to act as the bagman for some shady characters who are enduring some Raymond Chandler-esque blackmail.

A grown man sleeping in till noon- what is the world coming to.

Well, Charles Bronson is Raymond St. Ives, and the film's a well-made Noir in the same vein as the Bob Mitchum Marlowe movies that popped up around the same time. Of course it's the type of (70's) noir that's chock full of wood paneling, olive green carpet, and light brown neckties. It's also Bronson's first of 9 collaborations with director J. Lee Thompson (CAPE FEAR, DEATH WISH 4).

Bronson is in top form.

Even seven Bronsons are not enough.

He gets tossed down an elevator shaft by Jeff Goldblum and Robert "Freddy Krueger" Englund, climbs back up, and kicks their asses. At one point, Bronson has to swallow his pride and feign OCD in order to secure the proper restroom stall for a hand-off. Must've been rough on him. The supporting cast is solid: Maxmilian Schell is a zany German psychiatrist; John Houseman channels Sydney Greenstreet; and Jacqueline Bisset's the neo-femme fatale. Lalo Schifrin provides a score that's more than reminiscent of his work on DIRTY HARRY. And a man gets thrown from the window of a high-rise, which leads me to wonder if that's written into Bronson's contract.

It happens in nearly every Bronson movie (STONE KILLER, DEATH WISH 2,3,&4, etc., etc.)- maybe Charlie just loved the sight of dummies spiraling to their doom. Or maybe I'm crazy. Annnyway, it all ends on an awkward freeze frame punchline, then cuts to ANOTHER freeze frame, this one of Bronson eerily smiling. Nicely done, St. Ives. Splendid. Four stars.

-Sean Gill

Monday, August 24, 2009


Coming soon:

For two nights only, October 22nd and October 29th, Junta Juleil Theatricals and Rachel Klein Productions are collaborating on an evening of short theater, burlesque, dance, and other mind-blowing forms of performance, with each piece indebted to a different 1980's horror film. It will be held at The Duplex (in Manhattan; 61 Christopher Street at 7th Avenue). More details to come.

Film Review: KELLY'S HEROES (1970, Brian G. Hutton)

Stars: 4 of 5.
Running Time: 144 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Clint Eastwood, Carroll O'Connor, Telly Savalas, Don Rickles, Donald Sutherland, Harry Dean Stanton. Music by Lalo Schifrin.
Tag-lines: "Never have so few taken so many for so much."
Best one-liner: "Take that underwear off your head, enh? Enough is enough."

KELLY'S HEROES combines the 'men on a mission' action drama (THE GUNS OF NAVARONE, THE DIRTY DOZEN) with the ensemble comedy (IT'S A MAD MAD MAD MAD WORLD) and a touch of the spaghetti western (THE GOOD, THE BAD, AND THE UGLY), and the results are, surprisingly, excellent. Director Brian G. Hutton (who had directed Clint in his other WWII movie, WHERE EAGLES DARE, two years prior), writer Troy Kennedy-Martin (THE ITALIAN JOB), and the eclectic cast maintain this difficult balance well, never letting the proceedings get too goofy or, conversely, too serious. The perpetually scowling Clint and the super-pissy Telly Savalas are our straight men, the stressed-out Don Rickles and the screwy 1940's hippie Donald Sutherland are our goofs, and the possibly drunken Harry Dean Stanton and the pompous Carroll O' Connor lay somewhere in between. Basically, it's the DIRTY DOZEN with slackers instead of convicts. And these guys, especially Sutherland, are lazy as shit. They make Beetle Bailey look industrious and the soldiers in THREE KINGS (loosely based on KELLY'S HEROES) look like candidates for the Congressional Medal of Honor.

As Sutherland's "Can you dig it?" hippie gleefully attests, the filmmakers' primary aim is not historical accuracy. There's even a ridiculous Lalo Schifrin-composed anthem named "Burning Bridges" that plays throughout, conjuring imagery of 70's TV shows more readily than that of Operation Overlord. (Clint even recorded a .45 of this theme song!)

Schifrin's music at times is facetiously Morricone-esque, and many sequences are given an Italian Western flavor, recalling the "Spaghetti War Films" that began to pop up in the late 60's, like Enzo Castellari's EAGLES OVER LONDON, Mino Loy's DESERT ASSAULT, or Alberto de Martino's DIRTY HEROES. Of course, none of those would exist without DIRTY DOZEN, but that's just the ouroboros of filmic influences continually rearing it's (tail-eating) head. Four gold brickin' stars.

-Sean Gill

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Film Review: DEATH WISH 4- THE CRACKDOWN (1987, J. Lee Thompson)

Stars: 4.5 of 5.
Running Time: 99 minutes.
Notable Cast or Crew: Charles Bronson, John P. Ryan (IT'S ALIVE, CLASS OF 1999), Danny Trejo, Soon-Tek Oh (MISSING IN ACTION 2), George Dickerson (BLUE VELVET, PSYCHO II), Mark Pellegrino (Jacob on TV's LOST, MULHOLLAND DR.).
Tag-lines: "The biggest Death Wish ever!"
Best one-liner: "I was just using the... toilet?" (said by Bronson)

Ah, 1987. When the scourge of crack lashed ceaselessly across the welted and track-marked back of America; so much so, that everybody and their brother and Pee-Wee and Clint Eastwood were doing anti-crack PSAs. Well, it was time for Charles Bronson to step in and say- "Anyone connected with drugs deserves to die!"

"When can I start?"

But the thing is, DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN forgets that it's a PSA about 25 minutes in, and turns into a balls-to-the-wall Golan-Globus shoot 'em up, which is completely fine by me. With J. Lee Thompson directing instead of Winner, one could worry about the film's moxie. The first scene lets you know those fears are unfounded: a woman's alone in a parking garage with some jazzy sax and slappy bass. You know something awful's about to happen, and yet the film is completely gleeful about the set-up. Some ominous men, an engine that won't turn over, some high-fives, and an attempted gang rape later, Bronson shows up, says his name is "Death," shoots the hoods, has a nightmarish vision á la Luke in Yoda's cave, and then wakes up from a nightmare!

The high-five during gang-rape is essential.

"Who are you???" –"Death."

At least he wasn't dreaming about a white buffalo. I should do a scholarly paper on the dream-life of Bronson.

There's a lot goin' on: we got a dude blown away by Bronson, zapped, and cooked atop a bumper car rink; a wild-eyebrowed John P. Ryan;

Laura Dern's cop Dad from BLUE VELVET (George Dickerson); Mark Pellegrino (the hitman in MULHOLLAND DR. and Jacob on TV's LOST) as a mascara-wearin' Punk;

Danny Trejo meeting the wrong end of Bronson's exploding wine bottle;

Bronson's hidden room of assault weapons and C-4 behind his 'fridge; really awkward Bronson subterfuge;

Bronson cater-waitering a party (to infiltrate and destroy);

insane self-promotion (one of the baddies has an office lined with Cannon posters like BREAKIN' and TEXAS CHAINSAW MASSACRE 2);

a daytime shootout later referred to as having happened at night, because they were too lazy to alter the script; the best stilted Bronson one-liner since DW3's "It's MY CAR!" (with "I was MAKIN' A SANDWICH!");

and a climactic shootout at a roller disco.

This sort of thing happens all the time.

Yep, this is a Cannon film. And it is terrific. Recommended to anyone who hates drugs, people who sell drugs, people who use drugs, or people who know people who sell or use drugs.

-Sean Gill