dinsdag 23 december 2014

Hell Up in Harlem (1973)

HELL UP IN HARLEM (1973, Larry Cohen)

Dir: Larry Cohen - Cast: Fred Williamson, Gloria Hendry, Margaret Avery, D'Urville Martin, Julius Harris, Tony King, Gerald Gordon

A sequel to the successful blaxploitation drama Black Caesar, hastily put together. After the unexpected success of the first movie, director Cohen was asked to come up with a blitz sequel. Problem was that both he and his star Williamson were occupied. Williamson was working in California on a movie called That Man Bolt while Cohen was busy on the East Coast, completing his own movie It’s Alive! The bulk of Hell Up in Harlem was shot over the weekends, with Cohen traveling from coast to coast, using all his imagination to construct a story and a movie.

The opening scene uses footage from the first movie, disregarding its bleak conclusion and changing the context of the assault on Williamson’s life. It is now suggested that the assault was masterminded by a corrupt District Atttorney and that Williamson survived the attack with the help of a few brothers. Using this new outcome of the first adventure, Cohen pieced together a frantic story of planes, trains and automobiles, with action up in the sky and down on the ground, Williamson running from one mayhem to another murder, kicking white ass wherever he goes and killing opponents by the dozens. When Williamson was not available, scenes were shot from his viewpoint, with a double filmed from behind. Julius Harris, who returns as Williamson's father, has a much bigger role now, carrying entire parts of the movie all by himself.

As a result this sequel is more action than drama, offering a collection of set pieces rather than a coherent narrative. The comedy (yes, there’s some) is rather tasteless, but there’s a funny scene in which Williamson is surprised by a white lady who knows karate. Not great, not all bad. Half good, 5/10

zondag 21 december 2014

Divergent (2014)

DIVERGENT (2014, Neil Burger)

Dir: Neil Burger - Cast: Shailene Woodley, Theo James, Kate Winslet, Maggie Q, Ansel Elgort, Caleb Prior, Ashley Judd, Tony Goldwyn, Zoë Kravitz, Ray Stevenson, Mekhi Phifer

Half the world seems to be reading dystopian novels aimed at younger audiences these days, while Hollywood is trying to turn these novels into movies the whole world wants to see. Divergent is set in a future Chicago, a few decades after the great Cataclysm. Society - or what’s left of it - is divided into five different factions called Abnegation, Dauntless, Erudite, Amity and Candor. At the age of 16, all youths must pick the faction in which they will live for the rest of their lives. A test indicates in which faction they really belong, but they’re nevertheless free to follow their heart. Most of them choose the faction in which they were born, but there are exceptions and of course our heroin, Beatrice (Tris to friends), is one of them: she born in Abnegation and her parents are shocked to find out that she opts for Dauntless.

Beatrice is also one of those who do not fall into one single category: the result of her test was inconclusive, she is divergent. These youths are thought to be dangerous are therefore expelled from society, but luckily for Tris the proctor who takes the test is a divergent herself and changes the test results. Tris will have more luck in the remainder of the movie: characters who are in a position to influence the course of things, will often turn out to be divergent.

Those who have read the books will tell you that the story moves on at good pace, but the movie is rather slow, with too much attention spent to the training of the initiates in Dauntless; they're put to various endurance tests as well as drug-induced simulations (to find out what their deepest fears are). I won't say these sessions are dull, but they're not thrilling either and it takes a while before the real story-line picks up: Society is ruled by Abnegation, but Erudite wants to take over power with the help of Dauntless. This puts Tris in immediate danger: Erudite has planned to control the minds of the Dauntless warriors with the help of a specially developed serum, but it doesn’t work for those who are divergent ...

Divergent has been called a wannebee Hunger Games. Shailene Wooley (who plays Beatrice) is no Jennifer Lawrence, and she’s 23, not 16, but it doesn’t really matter: she’s quite a babe, all hair, eyes and curves, and there’s also some chemistry between her and square-jawed Theo James, her instructor, mentor and (of course) lover. Kate Winslet is great in a supporting role as the deliciously wicked leader of Erudite and Maggie Q. and Ashley Judd make nice cameo appearances. With a setting in a post-apocalyptic world and a plot about mind control, it may sound like an adult version of a teenage adventure, but the movie remains firmly rooted in teenie weenie wonderland. Minds are controlled by a serum, not by religious or ideological indoctrination, and don’t forget: The mind of our heroine can’t be controlled, so whatever happens, in the end she will save us all. The future’s not bright, but every dystopia has a silver lining.

All hair, eyes and curves ...  

vrijdag 19 december 2014

Shadows and Fog (1991)


Dir: Woody Allen - Cast: Woody Allen, Mia Farrow, John Cusack, Donald Pleasence, Madonna, Philip Bosco, Jodie Foster, Kathy Bates, Lily Tomlin, Charles Cragin, William H. Macey, Fred Gwynne, John Malkovich

Woody’s homage to German expressionist movies (notably Fritz Lang’s M, Eine Stadt sucht einen Mörder) and the world of Kafka, with some typical Allen wit & wisdom added. The film was entirely shot on a studio set (2,400 m2) at Kaufman Studios, New York. The budget has been estimated at $14 million and with the film only grossing a mere $2 million, it's one of Woody’s major financial failures.

Allen himself plays a cleck called Kleinman who’s awakened in the middle of the night by a vigilante mob and asked to assist them in the search for a serial killer on the loose. When Kleinmann leaves his house to catch up with the mob, the streets seem deserted, and most of the time we see him aimlessly walking around the town, encountering all kind of strange folk and eventually becoming the main suspect in the case. All this doesn’t prevent him from falling in love with a circus performer, sword swallower Irmy (Mia Farrow) who has left her husband, the womanizing clown Paul (John Malkovich).

Allen once said: As long as my movies don’t make money, I must be doing something right. In this case the failure doesn’t pay off. Shot in black & white, the large studio set constantly shrouded in fog, this is a cleverly constructed, beautifully looking homage to European arthouse cinema, but the beauty feels artificial and with dialogue that’s never as sparkling as in some of the director’s best work, the cleverness feels cold. The numerous cameo appearances (by Jodie Foster, Lili Tomlin, John Cusack and even Madonna) are fun but also work distracting. Allen has a knack of synthesizing themes and genres, but in this particular case the combination doesn’t gel. It all fits, but the magic isn’t there. 6/10

maandag 15 december 2014

Black Caesar (1973)

BLACK CAESAR (1973, Larry Cohen)

Blaxploitation crime drama about an Afro-American crime boss (Fred Williamson) in Harlem, his bloody conflicts with the Italian Mafia and his live-long feud with an Irish police captain (Art Lund, in a good performance), who almost crippled him as a kid, when he was a shoe polisher. The movie was well-received by contemporary critics and was also hailed for the score by legendary soul artist James Brown (in reality most of the material was written by Brown’s band leader, jazz trombonist Fred Wesley). For a B-movie, Black Caesar is quite ambitious, presenting Williamson not simply as a brother who kicks some white ass, but rather as a tragic person fighting racial prejudice while working himself up in the Harlem underworld, but losing all touch with reality and therefore ending up being as bad as the racist schmuck he’s trying to chase from the black neighborhood.

Like the character, the movie over-stretches its own possibilities; it’s not bad, but it’s too crude to fulfill its higher ambitions. We get a few effective action moments, in particular a sequence of a wounded Williamson being chased by hired killers in the streets of Manhattan, but in the end this is no more than a black version of a subject (the rise and inevitable fall of a crime boss) that has been filmed many times before and after, often by better directors, and with better actors. The script is serviceable but ultimately predictable and Williamson is cool, but no Edward G. Robinson, James Cagney or Al Pacino. His sideburns are definitely more impressive than his thespian talents.


vrijdag 12 december 2014

Blue Thunder (1983)

Roy Scheider is Frank Murphy, an ex-Vietnam helicopter pilot, now serving LAPD. He’s asked to test a new high-tech helicopter called Blue Thunder, an anti-terrorist chopper loaded with state-of-the-art spy technology and heavy artillery; its stealth technology allows it to fly almost undetected and thanks to the advanced listening devices, people can be overheard wherever they are, even in their own bedrooms. The LA police force is preparing for the 1984 Olympics, and Murphy is told that the chopper will only be used for surveillance, but when his old army nemesis Cochran (Malcolm McDowell) pops up, Murphy becomes suspicious about what’s really going on ...

The combat helicopter from the title is a real wow and director John Badham keeps things moving from start to finish, but the story about a subversive action group eliminating political opposition is poorly developed; we learn that there’s a group of conspirators (apparently all-linked to the Military Complex) who want to use the chopper for their private agenda, but we never learn what their exact plans and motivations are. Frank Murphy is presented as a trouble maker with psychological problems and we ask ourselves how on earth a group of conspirators would ever hire such a man to run some tests for them, the more so since they have an ace pilot (Frank’s old army nemesis) in their own ranks.

Made two decades earlier, Blue Thunder could have been a hellova paranoia thriller. Murphy is a hero in the line of Steve McQueen’s tough, low-key police detective from Peter Yates’ Bullitt (1968), but in 1983, when the movie was released (1), the Reagan administration was in full swing and Hollywood was recovering from its post-Vietnam trauma action cinema with a series of heroic, patriotic action movies, usually featuring a super hero and propagating a conservative, anti-liberal message. “May we win this time?” Sly Stallone asked in Rambo: First Blood II, when facing a liberal politician. The message of this scene was unambiguous: those who had served in Nam had done the best they could, the politicians back home had stabbed them in the back. Like Rambo, Frank Murphy is a troubled Vietnam veteran and in the original plans his psychological scars were much deeper and the character would go on a rampage (2). Somebody must have realized that it was not the right moment for such a movie.

Reactions to Blue Thunder have always been mixed; one critic wrote: it’s so bad, it must be a Badham movie (3), others were more positive. Personally I think Badham did quite a good job, offering more than enough helicopter action and explosions to lead the attention away from the wacky script. Blue Thunder doesn’t make much sense, but man, have ya’ seen that chopper?

Enjoy your flight. 


* (1) Blue Thunder was filmed in 1981 but only released two years later. Warren Oates had died in the meantime.
* (2) It was written in the late Seventies, within a totally different political context. The original draft of the screenplay is available on-line: http://airwing.uplink.com.au/bluethunder/index.cgi?page=8&1979-blue-thunder-original-draft-screenplay
* (3) http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/alex-sandell/

zaterdag 29 november 2014

The Two Faces of January (2013)

Dir: Hossein Amini - Cast: Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Bevan, David Warshofsky, Karayianni Margaux, Yigit Ozscener, James Sobol Kelly

A thriller based on the novel of the same title by Patricia Highsmith; the title refers to the Roman God Janus, the double-faced God of transitions and new beginnings, who gave his name to the month of January, the beginning of the new year. The title also refers to the characters played by Viggo Mortensen and Oscar Isaac, who are both con man, not showing their real face to others.

Highsmith is best known for providing Hitchcock with the source material for “Strangers on a Train” and creating the character of Ripley, the young man with a talent for deceit and murder. Ripley is a rather unlikely Highsmith hero in the sense that he is successful in what he’s doing: most of her ‘heroes’ are people who almost accidentally get into trouble and then take all the wrong decisions, making things worse with every next step they take. Even if it’s not one of her very best novels, The Two Faces of January it's a genuine Highsmith, dark, sinister and disturbing. 

The story’s set in the first half of the 60s. Isaac plays a young American, working as tourist guide in Athens, who’s fascinated by middle-aged, well-to-do businessman Mortenson, because the man reminds him of his recently deceased father (but is much easier to talk to). In reality Mortenson is a con man who duped dozens of customers; when he’s tracked down by a private detective he accidently kills the man. Isaac, who is a small-time crook himself, decides to give Mortenson some assistance in escaping the country, but things are complicated by the fact that he feels attracted to Mortenson’s much younger wife (Kirsten Dunst) ...

The script follows the novel by and large but some minor changes have been made; in the novel the emphasis is less on the woman but far more on this strange relationship of the two men, who feel attracted to each other while hating each other at the same time. In the 60s (when the novel was also written) Freud was omnipresent, of course. The changes are minor, but because of them the ending, which rings true in the book, feels out of place here. 

Deconstructing Harry (1997)

Dir: Woody Allen - Cast: Woody Allen, Judy Davis, Kristie Alley, Richard Benjamin, Bob Balaban, Billy Crystal, Elisabeth Shue, Tobey McGuire, Paul Giamatti, Stanley Tucci, Demi Moore, Mariel Hemingway, Amy Irving, Robin Williams

A great comedy drama, along with Husbands and Wives (1992) Woody’s finest movie from the 90s. Woody is Harry Brown, a sex-obsessed author who lived through three marriages and numerous affairs. So far things seemed to go his way: he went to psychiatrists (six different ones) while others went nuts (including that one psychiatrist who became his wife), but now it’s pay-back time:  his real-life friends and lovers as well as the characters he created are trying to seek redress. Worst of all: his latest flame, a young admirer, has left him for a friend ...

Once again Woody gets the very best out of a great ensemble cast. Virtually everybody is in great form, but kudos go to Kristie Alley (as the psychiatrist/wife going nuts) and Elisabeth Shue (as the young lover who abandons him). There are also nice cameos by Demi Moore and the late Robin Williams (as a man who’s - literally - out of focus!). According to some, the character of Harry Brown was based on Philip Roth, not on Woody himself.

# Some notes on the title:
I don’t know if Woody has really studied Derrida, he’ll probably know him from popularized articles on his work, but the film does  illustrate the idea of deconstruction in relation to truth (in this case the truth behind Harry Brown’s character and work): peeling off layer after layer without ever getting to the core (which doesn’t exist: truth is compared to an onion, you can peel off ring after ring, but will never get to the onion itself, since the peeled off rings are part of it, like the peeled off layers are part of the truth; in other words: like the onion, the truth is hiding itself)

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug (2014)

The first part of the trilogy ended with Smaug the dragon opening one eye, but it takes more than 100 minutes before we get to see him in this sequel, the ‘extra’ part created to turn the planned diptych into a triptych. If you ask me, they had better stuck to the original plans. This second entry feels too much like an entr’acte to be fully successful; it's still enjoyable, but it's hard to escape this feeling of redundancy and déja vu. The first half is needlessly drawn-out, offering far too many Orcs, those stupid creatures that are killed by the dozens and never manage to kill one of the dwarves or elves. Suckers. You wonder why anybody’s afraid of them.

But okay, the film grossed more than $950 million worldwide and no-one wants to kill the goose that lays the golden eggs, right? Money makes the dwarves go round, and round. And yes, there’s some good news too: the character of Tauriel, the Robina Hood of the Elves, created for the series to fill a few narrative gaps, is both sexy and fun, and Lake Town, a sort of dreamland version of Bangkok, is an almost unbelievable creation by the SFX/CGI-department. Thanks to the dragon the story picks up in the last 45 minutes, but then, all of a sudden, it all ends with the enormous cliffhanger of Smaug flying out to wreak havoc on Lake Town. I understand the film makers wanted to be sure that people buy a ticket for the third installment, but this type of anti-climactic endings feel like cheating.