Thursday, June 23, 2011

Cinematic Consumption - DEATH WISH 4: THE CRACKDOWN

Death Wish 4 may just have the sweetest subtitle of all time: The Crackdown! Because Charles Bronson is "crackin’ down" on crime. Get it? And, since this 1987 film has the aging tough guy singlehandedly winning the war on drugs, it has a double meaning! Down with crack, kids, or crazy ol' Uncle Charlie will shoot you in the face with a grenade launcher! Wait, I'm lost. How did this series get to this point? Wasn't the first one a fairly sombre character-driven revenge drama? Doesn't rapidly mummifying Paul Kersey - architect by day, vigilante by night (except, of course, when he's just being a vigilante 24/7) - usually focus his attention on street punks, rapists and purse-snatchers? How did he suddenly come to star in a hilariously over-the-top-and-down-the-other-side generic mob war shoot 'em up in the Canon Group Pictures mould.

Oh, right, because Death Wish 4 WAS made by Canon, those fine purveyors of crappy-looking, cheesy 80s action extravaganzas, such as Cobra and Missing in Action, who never produced a film in which a villain shuffled off the mortal coil quietly. Indeed, people die horribly in The Crackdown. At one point, a dope dealer gets shot a half-dozen times by a sub-machine gun and turns, arms swinging wildly, and runs headfirst through a car window. That's dedication! Another baddie gets his noggin smashed through an exploding television, is thrown across a room, flips right over a 15-story balcony and lands facedown on a limo windshield. To quote the amazing Spunkadelic: I give it a 9.95!

The film even opens brilliantly! A nameless blonde woman is walking to her car in a darkened parking lot (Is there any other kind?). Nervous, she gets into her vehicle and fumbles with the keys, trying to start the car. It won't start. She looks up to see a shadowy figure nearby wearing nylon over his head. She panics and tries the ignition again. Nadda. She raises her head and now there are two goons patiently watching her. Once more, she freaks and turns the key. Bupkis. Whoa, now there are three goons standing there. What's with these guys' weirdo showmanship? After one last futile attempt she surveys the parking lot. The three men have utterly vanished in the span of two seconds. Or have they?! Suddenly they break through her windows, drag her out of the automobile and begin to slap her. But then Kersey, resembling Marvel’s the Punisher, steps out of the darkness. He blows away two of the assailants and chases the third down, capping him in the back. As he turns over the corpse, he sees his own face staring back at him! Kersey awakes with a jolt. It's all a dream! Obviously, it means that Kersey's quest for vengeance is going to consume his soul, right? Like Luke Skywalker in that magic tree on Dagobah? Wrong. It's never referenced again. Pretty cool opening, though, huh?

Following the silly teaser, we're reintroduced to Chicago's finest anti-hero, who's back in the architecture game and dating clueless investigative reporter Karen Sheldon (Kay Lenz). Her daughter Erica (Dana Barron) is a sweet young teenager with a promising aptitude for architectural design. Surprise, she's doomed! After ingesting too much nose candy, the girl flatlines. However, before Kersey can drag out his killer hobo clothes, he's recruited by Nathan White (John P. Ryan - who looks like Dick Van Dyke crossed with John Carpenter), a millionaire press baron who also lost a child to drugs. He hires Kersey to kill the town's two warring cartels, and supplies him with explosives, Uzis and assault rifles (Revolvers are sooo 1970s!). Soon, Kersey is wiping out powder merchants left, right and center - and making zero attempts to remain inconspicuous.

Whoops, almost forgot: At the same time, Karen sets out to write a damning expose of Chicago's drug scene. Or something. Don't worry about paying close attention. The movie drops this sub-plot after about 5 boring minutes.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown was one of the last pictures directed by the J. Lee Thompson, helmer of the original Cape Fear and The Guns of Navarone. Seems his waltz with genius was pretty short-lived, as he spent most of the 70s and 80s half-heartedly overseeing junk like King Solomon's Mines, Battle for the Planet of the Apes, Firewalker and the forgettable Bronson clinkers Avenging Angels and Kinjite: Forbidden Subjects. I wish I could say The Crackdown was a final grasp at glory, but it really, really isn't. There's a climactic shoot-out at a roller disco, for the love of Pete!

All beating up on the picture aside, I'd be lying if I said I didn't slightly enjoy Death Wish 4. It's a dopey reminder of the half-witted, cartoonish action flicks I spent my teenage years consuming by the dozen. How can you not smile at a film that makes explicit reference to a villain having a "highly-trained baritone singing voice," and then never features a single scene of him bellowing a tune? Or a film which depicts a 66-year-old man being talked into a limousine by an evil chauffeur, locked inside, then given enough time to watch the goon walk up the road to another car and drive away, sit for a minute in desperate contemplation, try all the doors, shoot out a window, crawl through the opening and, finally, dive away before the vehicle explodes? So, in essence, if you want to watch a trashy movie so stupidly violent it'll give you a bad case of the giggles, you need to get down... with THE CRACKDOWN!!!

2 out of 5

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

One-Sheet Showcase - KING KONG (1933)

Category: Cool

God, I love this King Kong poster. It's big, pulpy, scary and thrilling in all the right ways, with the title gorilla barrelling through Skull Island's temple doors, almost exploding with fury, bathed in fiery, hellish shades of red, orange and yellow. If there's a better way to capture the unstoppable rage and might of the character, no one else has yet to stumble upon it. Had I been a youngster in 1933, nothing short of divine intervention could have prevented me from skeedaddling to the local movie house and slapping down 25 cents for this humdinger of a talkie! No, siree!

Like the very best one-sheets of the period, this evocative piece of advertising manages to flawlessly convey the sensational feeling of a lost era; an exploratory time when the possibility still existed that maybe, just maybe, there were still undiscovered lands left to uncover. Lands filled with fearsome gargantuan creatures still stalking the earth, untamed by human civilization. It also powerfully speaks to the deliriously imaginative dreams (or nightmares) that so many cinephiles, of all ages, journey to the theatres to see magically realized in front of their eyes. 

It's notable that this poster solely promotes the edge-of-your-seat adventure of King Kong, not the earnest sense of wonder or the heart-string tugging finale. That's just smart marketing. Lure 'em in with promises of bold, unforgettable sights, then hit them with the emotion and message. That said, traces of Kong's veiled sexual politics still remain present. Notice the placement of Ann Darrow in reference to the towering simian's anatomy. I'd say it is pretty unlikely that that was merely a coincidental artistic touch.

The King Kong property has produced a number of frame-worthy posters. This action-packed effort from the disappointing 1976 remake still lingers, as do several of the pieces released in conjunction with Peter Jackson's epic-sized 2005 version. Heck, I even kinda like the cartoony one-sheets for 1986's terrible King Kong Lives and 1963's camptastic King Kong Vs. Godzilla. Maybe I just have a thing for giant monkeys...

Regardless, this one-sheet manages to out-cool the competition. I own a replica print, as well as a t-shirt bearing its likeness, yet still never grow tired of gazing at it. No doubt about it, when it comes to motion picture one-sheets, this Kong poster is still king. 

Monday, June 20, 2011

Film's 5 Most Nauseating Dinner Table Scenes

As anyone who’s ever spent much time with me can attest, I'm a pretty picky eater (I prefer the term "cautious consumer"). It seems to run in the family. Hence, there are few things more unbearable than revolting eating scenes in movies or television. Inspired by a recent viewing of one of the films mentioned on this list, I decided it was time to assemble my own personal Top 5 Most Nauseating Dinner Table Scenes in cinema. The criterion was easy: did the moment in question make me gag? All five of the titles listed below managed that task. Perhaps, a bit too well for my taste...

Before we begin, there were a few regrettable exclusions. I would have loved to include Monty Python's The Meaning of Life and Oldboy but, alas, they feature characters eating alone. I was looking for the communal experience. Misery loves company, after all. Julie Taymor's adaptation of Titus also came close, but I decided one Anthony Hopkins movie was enough. Plus, it frankly doesn't belong in the same category as the five that were ultimately chosen.

5) Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984) - Steven Spielberg and George Lucas must have been cackling like a pair of naughty school children while assembling their nightmarish Indian banquet from this second Indiana Jones adventure. After all, with a menu that includes such delicacies as chilled monkey brains, eyeball soup, beetle innards and "Snake Surprise," there must have been precious little doubt that audiences would squirm, wince and retch until scene's end. It wound up being one of Temple of Doom's most iconic moments, and ensured that we would never again have to wonder what it would look like to see a grown man scarf down a live eel whole. Ick.

4) Alien (1979) - Was it not punishment enough that Kane (John Hurt) had to spend a couple days confined to the infirmary with a giant space insect suckered to his face? Could he not just be left alone to enjoy a pleasant dinner of freeze-dried rations with his friends and co-workers? Apparently not, as director Ridley Scott soon subjects the poor sap to the worst case of indigestion known to man. When that toothy creature explodes out his chest, spraying the table with showers of gore and entrails, all semblance of calm is instantly eradicated, along with our appetites.

3) Hannibal (2001) - This Silence of Lamb sequel paid off its predecessor's unforgettable closing line "I'm having an old friend for dinner" tenfold. Although the movie itself is a pretty mixed bag, it's doubtful many will ever forget the sight of a dazed Ray Liotta, sans the top half of his skull, being fed sautéed chunks of his own sliced-off grey matter and savouring every stomach-turning, squishy chew. Thomas Harris' original novel had Julianne Moore's Clarice eagerly joining in on the brain-food feeding frenzy but, fortunately, director Ridley Scott (who, judging from #4 as well, apparently has a thing for gross-out meal gatherings) spares us that sight and instead provides us with a relatable dinner party member; one who makes no effort to shield her revulsion. Too bad she's not present at the film's end when an escaped Dr. Lecter (Anthony Hopkins), aboard a flight, offers his leftovers to an impressionable young seat-mate.

2) The Texas Chainsaw Massacre (1974) - A dinner party requires great company to succeed, so what happens when the company consists of a screaming family of inbred hillbilly cannibals? Such is the scenario faced by Sally Hardesty (Marilyn Burns) in director Tobe Hooper's horror masterpiece. Awakening at a dilapidated table, shackled to a chair made from human remains, the hysterical heroine shudders and screeches in terror as the villainous family of man-eating mass-murderers hoot, howl and paw perversely at her blood-stained hair. As if that wasn't bad enough, set right in front of her is a plate of unpleasant meat products of questionable origin. Why, it's enough to send a poor soul shrieking like a banshee into the night! Not surprisingly, Sally soon does just that, without thanking her hosts on the way out. Unsurprisingly, this situation was repeated in future sequels/remakes/prequels - probably most gruesomely in 1986's The Texas Chainsaw Massacre 2 - but none were as potent as the originator.

1) Eraserhead (1977) - There are few greater discomforts than having to eat dinner at a prospective romantic partner's parents' house. The potential for awkwardness alone is enough to make anyone break into a sweat. David Lynch, who's rarely stooped to subtlety in exercising his gift for mutating the mundane into the sickening, uses his audacious debut to create the mother of all disturbing family dinners. In Eraserhead, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance) is urged, by his girlfriend's seemingly lobotomized plumber father (Allen Joseph), to carve a pathetic genetically modified chicken. Just as he's about break the skin, the tiny morsel's legs start to kick, and slick black, bubbling blood begins to ooze out all over the spotless white plate. Then mom (Jeanne Bates) starts spasming like Linda Blair. It's a repulsive sequence which is, troublingly, merely just a hors d'oeuvre for the plethora of cringe-inducing horrors still to come.