Sunday, June 28, 2009

Vigilante (1983)

The story of “Vigilante” [1983] starts with Fred “The Hammer” Williamson (“Mean Johnny Barrows”) in an underground room, surrounded by several people. He starts to explain to them that he is sick and tired of being afraid at nights and how they need to take the streets back from the gangs.

The tone of the picture is officially set after this one shot.

Soon after, we see for ourselves exactly what Williamson was talking about.
This is the best “Death Wish” rip-off – one which even manages to surpass its inspiration.

What separates “Vigilante” from “Death Wish” is that William Lustig (”Relentless”) directed without concern for the box-office and attempted to see how far he could push the audience, resulting in a no holds barred film that manages to consistently shock its audience.

Simply put, it’s an exploitation masterpiece.

Robert Forster, (”Walking the Edge”), is an Oscar-nominated, underrated B-movie veteran who gives a brave and daring performance in “Vigiliante,” playing Eddie Marino, whose life is ruined after a gang of punks brutally murder his son and severely injure his wife. Although he continues to believe that the system will provide justice, a harsh reality proves just how corrupt society can be.

As stated earlier, Williamson’s character of Nick is sick and tired of seeing the trash run his neighborhood. He knows how unjust the system is and that is why he has taken the law into his own hands. He declares himself early on as “Judge, Jury and Executioner.”

Seeing Williamson distributing his own brand of justice to these punks is a thrilling endeavor. A chase between Nick and a drug dealer through the streets also provides ample thrills; especially because you can rest assured that “The Hammer” will catch him. It’s not until Marino finally decides to team up with him, the streets start to rain with blood.

Williamson seems to be playing himself in the film, but the truth is actually that he has a natural screen presence – and this performance is not nearly as showy as some others.

The supporting cast is also strong. Woody Strode (”Once Upon a Time in the West”) plays Rake, who befriends Marino while he is in prison and becomes his bodyguard. Strode never rose to great success in Hollywood, but has collected a huge list of credits, often playing the strong silent type.

The sleazy and always reliable Joe Spinell (”Maniac,” “Rocky”) plays a smarmy lawyer on the take. His brief appearance is good enough to make you believe he is an actual lawyer.

An apology to all you attorneys out there, but the man virtually oozes professional sliminess.

The real treat of ”Vigilante” is that it allows you to be a voyeur in an area you normally wouldn’t want to visit. That mood that the director controls quite nicely allows you to root for the good guys and wish death upon the punks on the streets. No one ever said that the characters were three-dimensional, but the appeal of “Vigilante” isn’t in its ability to provoke a critically thoughtful response – it’s in its ability to make you feel as though you’re there, in this archaic and precarious time and place.

When the camera is on the streets, fear is palpable.

Early scenes set up the uncertainty people risk when walking to the grocery store or coming home from work. The audience is instantly confused on what to expect, but feels safe once the vigilantes clean up the raw sewage.

Films like these provide good escapism as well. We are allowed to be exposed to the dark side of the world and our very own minds.

However, unlike the very complex and mystifying real life, justice on these factious streets always prevails.

Friday, June 26, 2009

R.I.P: Jackson

Throughout the years Jackson was able to convince some of the greatest artists from the movies, sports and music worlds to help him create lavish music videos and improve his music. His music videos were mini-movies and the best music videos we have seen. That image alone is enough, but when realize some of the best directors helped create his music videos. John Landis, ("Trading Places") with the make-up of Rick Baker, ("The Exorcist") helped create the creepy zombie creations in "Thriller".

Also you have Martin Scorsese ("Raging Bull") shooting "Bad" and utilizing the griminess of the New York subway transit.

Most musicians were never lucky enough to have directors like that, but there's more. A-list actors such as Marlon Brando,("The Godfather") Joe Pesci, ("Goodfellas") Eddie Murphy, ("Beverly Hills Cop") and Michael Madsen ("Kill Bill") all elevated his music videos to something more. They often had unique stories to tell giving these actors meaty roles.

The man was able to create magically music videos that will continue to find an audience for years to come.

Whether Jackson was singing a duet with Paul McCartney or letting Eddie Van Halen perform a mean guitar solo in "Beat It" it just added a new dimension to his work as an artist.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

Goodbye Grasshopper

June 3, 2009 marked the passing of 72-year-old actor David Carradine.

When a friend called me that day to tell me the news, I was a bit taken.

You see, to the cult film fan, Carradine was a hero. He was always taking chances on obscure films for the better of his career, much like his father. Regardless of the role he occupied however, Carradine was always cool and collected.

Quite simply, he was “the man.”

I am going to find it so hard watching his films now and realizing that his career is over. I honestly don’t think we need to know why he committed suicide because what is important is the over 200 credits he made to television and film.

So rather than harp on the mysterious and provocative way he passed, I think it’s better to remember what we loved about him, rather than what shocked us.

And boy, was there a lot to love.

It often seemed that the secret ingredient to a cult film was the addition of a Carradine. The Carradines were a hard working family of actors that seemingly took on all the roles they were offered. That work ethic often landed them in some bizarre and classic cult films. The patriarch of the family, John Carradine, had a career that ranged from “Stagecoach” to “Vampire Hookers.”

The younger Carradine however made his mark in some very important films of our times, with an early appearance as a drunk in Martin Scorsese’s breakthrough 1973 film, “Mean Streets.” The year before, he beat out Bruce Lee for the role of “Caine” on “Kung Fu,” which permanently etched his name in pop culture lore.

However, his greatest contribution to film was the 1976 bio picture, “Bound for Glory.” The then 40-year-old Carradine played folk legend Woody Guthrie. The film was director Hal Ashby’s (”Eight Million Ways to Die”) tour de force and it catapulted Carradine to the A-list for a brief period. After that film, he went to work for the legendary Ingmar Bergman in “The Serpent’s Egg.”

But I suppose people best remember his most recent success in 2005’s “Kill Bill.”

As a cult film fan, my top five favorites from Carradine. These five flicks will help you better appreciate his work.

1. ”Q: The Winged Serpent,” directed by cult film legend, Larry Cohen. (writer of “Maniac Cop”)
It is the tale of a giant flying serpent that takes over Manhattan. What separates this film from other cult films are the strong performances. Michael Moriarty, (”Bang the Drum Slowly”) gives a brilliant method performance that seems out of place in this film, but makes for great fun. Carradine and Richard Roundtree (”Shaft”) turn in some good supporting performances as detectives. Of course the real star is Q himself, who is created from stop motion animation.

2. ”Lone Wolf McQuade”
This tale finds Carradine going toe to toe with Chuck Norris in one pretty sweet action film. The martial arts are outstanding and the finale leaves you with a bang.

3. ”The Warrior and the Sorceress
This is a cheaply made Roger Corman rip off of “Yojimbo.” The variation with this film is that it is set in a mythic world. Carradine starts a major war between two feuding gangs. The flick is cheesy schlock that will appease fans of the genre.

4. ”Sonny Boy
One of the strangest films ever made. Carradine plays a woman– and what an ugly one. This is one real wacky movie and a testament to Carradine’s convictions as an actor.

5. ”Roadside Prophets
This was Beastie Boys’ Adam Horovitz’s first feature and is a road trip film, with a ton of cameos including Carradine and John Cusack. A fun ride.

We’ll miss you, Grasshopper.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Fritz the Cat (1972)

"Fritz the Cat" is an animated feature that could have only been made in the decadent seventies era of film.

Simply put, it is a film that will offend everyone looking for something to be offended about.

Because of this, it is an audacious and brilliant satire of the seventies and a film worth watching over 30 years later.

Everything in “Fritz the Cat” has a deeper meaning than you would expect, giving it a levity and social significance not found in many animated films, never mind an X-rated one.

For example, the cats oppress the crows, which is meant to deal with the racism many faced at that time. Early in the film, one cat asks a crow, “Why does James Earl Jones always have to play a black man?” making us wonder if “the cats” really understand what is going on with “the crows” at all.

Aside from from addressing the issue of race, Fritz tackles authority by portraying police officers as pigs. Today, a film would never be this bold on the issue of racism and authority. The funny thing is that “Fritz the Cat” deals with the issue better then the pointless exercise in futility known as “Crash,” despite being over 30 years old.

If it isn’t obvious already, this is a film that dares to be bold and in your face. This ability and the fact that it can still make you laugh through all of this is what makes this an admirable film. Films like this are what make the cinema sometimes a great adventure. However, as stated before, this is a film for open minded and smart adults.

Aside from the story, the animation was both gritty and imaginative and a breakthrough for its time, especially since it was the first X-rated cartoon. The film’s use of vibrant colors and real life New York locations allow you to forget you are basically watching a horny cat. The film also animates real pictures to provide some of the landscapes. It is sad that not many more inventive cartoons like this were produced.

The theme of Fritz is a bi-product of the film’s director, Ralph Bakshi, who was equally as provocative and interesting. Throughout his career, his films dealt with important issues of there time and were all animated. Starting out in the sixties with Spider-Man, Iron Man, and Captain America cartoons, Bakshi evolved into a Hollywood director. Aside from Fritz the Cat, Bakshi’s other great films include "Fire and Ice", (Inspired by Conan the Barbarian) and "Coonskin".

However, Fritz served as many viewers’ introduction to his work.

To this day, “Fritz the Cat” remains a constant reminder of a time when movies didn’t try to cater to everyone or try to beat a message in by being overtly obvious. It makes you laugh, and also points out the flaws in society.

As a matter of fact, even if the message was removed from this film, it would still be a very funny film to watch.