Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Italian faux-realism

"A Crime For 3 Sins"

Called "the most exciting and intricately plotted crime film since I don't know when!" by film critic Salvatore Fibrizio, A Crime For 3 Sins is finally being released on DVD.

Three low level crime men plan the perfect hold-up of an armored truck. Each does it for different reasons. Marco (Anthony Sante) is in desperate need of the money due to his gambling debts. Sal (Roberto Iolleni) plans on finally being able to use his wealth to steal his deaf-mute half sister away from their domineering father and create the perfect lifestyle where they can love each other openly and without fear of taboo retaliation. Tony (Alfred Mavala) banks on the money to, somehow, appease his wife and win her back from her many torrid love affairs with other men. But, complicating matters are Sgt. Azara (Federico Leulla), a dedicated and professional detective who gets wind of the heist due to the fact he's one of the many men sleeping with Tony's wife. Plus, shady associates of Sal's gambling debts find out about the plan and put their own execution of the heist in the works. Who will get to the money first? How will the seperate camps outsmart each other? And more importantly, will anyone walk away clean with the loot?

Directed with verve from acclaimed, reclusive filmmaker Dante Ferriota, this 131 minute version has finally been restored by NoShame DVD and given a proper release. Previously, only a severely truncated 94 minute version was available after the film's director pulled "A Crime For 3 Sins" from the Italian film market after a less-than-remarkable debut at the 1997 Venice Film Festival. Critics decried his uneven mixture of handheld cinematography coupled against Antonioni-like long takes, as well as the film's handling of it's matter-of-factly filmed themes of incest.

Finally, the director has re-emerged with his original print and all of it's biting glory can be found on NoShame DVD.

Sounds interesting right? I'm glad you like it. It's a made up synopsis of a movie that doesn't exist. Over at www.moriartylabs.typepad.com/moriartys_dvd_shelf/, he threw together a contest in which we created the plot outline of an Italian crime film and submitted it to his site. The best one would get a copy of a new film called "Uno Bianca", apparently a 3 hour crime film from the director who brought American audiences "Cemetary Man" a few years back, and a film that bares striking similiarity with Michael Mann's "Heat". I didn't win with the above synopsis, but I gave it a great college try. The most heartening thing about all of this is the resurgence of giallo, cult, and hard-to-find Italian films being released on DVD- including such illustrious titles as "Double Game", "Forbidden Photos of a Lady Under Suspicion", "Pyjama Girl Case", "The Black Belly of the Tarantula" and "Fifth Cord". Couple those with all of the recent Argento, Fulci and "What Have You Done With Solange" discs, and one begins to jump for joy in all of the genre's excessive perversions. NoShame DVD and Blue Underground are the companies behind these flicks, and one can only hope that they continue their distribution of the lost and forgotten.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

The Art of the Chase

Sixteen Blocks

I have to commend Richard Donner's "16 Blocks". Not only does it prove to be a highly entertaining, frenetically paced action film, but it manages to shroud Bruce Willis with his first role wherein he gets the chance to look, act and feel like the years are wearing on him (unlike the stubborn 'machoness' that Harrison clumsily exudes in "Firewall"). Willis is asked to do nothing super-heroish in the film. He walks steadily with a limp, runs continually out of breath and looks like shit the entire film, carrying a pale complexion that leads one to wonder if he was actually drinking before Donner yelled action. "16 Blocks" is an old-fashioned film that unfolds in real time as Jack Mosley (Willis) has to transport Eddie Bunker (Mos Def) 16 blocks to appear in court. Of course, it turns out that the court date is to virtually bury several of New York's finest, and they (as well as the gargantuan sprawl of the city itself) stand in the way. David Morse (such a fine character actor) is one of those cops, and "16 Blocks" certainly takes a jaundiced eye at the New York police department. There's a scene in a small bar towards the beginning of the film (the first that David Morse appears in) where Willis learns of his ex-partners motivations. The tightness and economy of that scene is breathless, and it's a tone that Donner sustains throughout the remainder of the film. Nice stuff.

Running Scared

I wish the same economy and tightness was found anywhere in Wayne Kramer's "Running Scared". Now, an admission- I was drawn to this film from the slightly glowing review of Andres Sarris in ****** .com in which he wrote that the film is not as bad as others are saying. I'm not sure what Sarris saw in the overly aggressive and emotionally bankrupt motivations of this film, but it didn't strike me as anything more than yet another Paul Walker vehicle in which he gets to look tough and overract. I won't go into the narrative details, except the fact that it's virtually about the allure and criminal perversions that often accompany a handgun as it passes through various hands, a trope that usually offers interesting results, as in the way Bresson handles the subtle human calibrations as a bill makes it way through the landscape. But I apologize for even mentioning Bresson in any comparison to "Running Scared". This is a crushingly boring film, even though it features probably 95 minutes worth of action and bloodshed. If anything, the most memorable part of takes place towards the end in which all the film's nauseatingly empty characters end up in a hockey rink and take practice on Walker's face. At this point, my disinterest in the film turned into pleading for the film's full frontal assault to end. And the most inane part of the whole affair is the way Kramer's script dodges it's hyper-reality and twists towards a happy climax.


Kiyoshi Kurosawa is quickly becoming a filmmaker that I shout out to anyone interested in Asian cinema- with slight caution. His film's won't give you nightmares through cheap scares… they creep up on you and disturb your senses in subtle ways. And even then, not all of his films are designed to disturb. They slowly immerse the viewer in dread-soaked visions that leave your eyes searching the corners of the frame. And they feature great humor, such as in "Doppelganger". "Pulse" is no exception. There is one scene where a woman slowly walks out the shadows towards a man hiding in the same dark room. She swaggers and almost stumbles in a highly supernatural way that chilled me to the bone. But "Pulse" is not really a ghost story. Instead, it's an apocalyptic caution drama doused in horrific overtones, featuring images that rattle around in your head for days (such as an airplace crashing off-screen and the single take as a woman leaps from a water tower.) The idea is this- isolation and loneliness as the key to world destruction. People slowly fade out of reality and become black gobs of soot in their final minutes. Sometimes, they re-appear inside computer screens, slowly reaching out to the living for some kind of connection, which is Kurosawa's sly comment on the disconnected-ness that world wide technology like the internet is supposed to eliminate. Even if all of the film's ideas aren't readily understood on first viewing, "Pulse" is still a masterpiece of world cinema that sells itself as horror and comes off as something more. Essential viewing.

Thursday, March 09, 2006


And while we're at it.... in conjunction with the recent survey of Peckinpah's films, what better way to ammend that than with a list of how I rank his films! In order from favorite:

1) The Killer Elite
2) The Wild Bunch
3) Ride the High Country
4) Junior Bonner
5) The Getaway- simply becaise Steve McQueen oozes coolness from every pore.
6) Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia
7) The Ballad of Cable Hogue
8) Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
9) Straw Dogs
10) The Deadly Companions
11) Cross of Iron
12) The Osterman Weekend
13) Major Dundee
14) Convoy- it means well....

Placing Peckinpah

There are very few pre-1990 filmmakers whose entire body of work can be seen by the average viewer. Studio rights, individual rights, bad prints (or lost prints)… these are just a few of the cinematic potholes that sink into our restoration and release process. DVD is a big proponent of the new fashion of multi-work releases and deluxe edition boxsets. In early January, Warner Brothers released the "legendary westerns" boxset which included "The Wild Bunch", "Ride the High Country", "Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid" and "The Ballad of Cable Hogue". With those four titles released, the entire canon of director Sam Peckinpah can be viewed and enjoyed within the comfort of your home. That's exactly what I did, and what follows is a small appreciation of the filmmaker's body of work.

So much is said about the violence of Peckinpah's films. That doesn't make any sense. I assume this is coming from people and pundits who were only privileged to see "The Wild Bunch" (1969) and "Straw Dogs" (1972), certainly two of his more polarizing films. and the ones that have been available on home video release the longest. While "The Wild Bunch" does belong in the halls of fantastic (and groundbreaking) movie-making, "Straw Dogs" was his follow-up to that masterpiece. "Straw Dogs" is a film in which Dustin Hoffman and his wife, Susan George, are continually assaulted both physically and mentally by the local community of the remote village they've settled in. In fact, "Straw Dogs" is still banned in the UK due to it's portrayal of a rape scene in which actress George eventually gives in and 'appears' to be enjoying the moment. Peckinpah dials down the physical violence just a bit, but he cranks up the psychological malaise. It's difficult to place "Straw Dogs" after "The Wild Bunch", and if the film doesn't succeed quite as well, it's because the performances of Hoffman and George are a little stilted. But what is clear from these two efforts is that Peckinpah finally found a stylistic voice. The success of "The Wild Bunch" gave him the levity to create a more interior work like "Straw Dogs". It charted a straight line within Hollywood in which he had the freedom to disappear in Mexico and take his time piecing together the melancholy haze that graces the visuals and mood of "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia". And they certainly gave him the chutzpah to barrel ahead and churn out nihilistic works like "Cross of Iron" and "The Osterman Weekend", films a little shoddy on look and tempo but striking in texture and creative authenticity. But, through all of this, are "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs" the reason there's not a more consistent and widespread demand for the works of Peckinpah to explode on modern viewers? Is he saddled with the monikor of "violent" because, as a culture, we're insatiable about pigeonholing our artists with one word? If one takes both of these dynamic and unsettling films out of his oeuvre, I wager that Peckinpah becomes more respected within the confines of the average viewer. Everyone understands the greatness of both these works on the industry in the late 60's and early 70's, but I think these two films also cast a shadow of distrust over the remainder of Peckinpah's career. It's easy to overlook the humor in many of his films, like in "The Killer Elite". It's easy to disregard the sensitive and congenial spirit pulsing through every look and gesture of Steve McQueen in "Junior Bonner". And it's irresponsible to view "The Ballad of Cable Hogue" as anything but a filmmaker coasting on pure delight in morphing the well-worn tropes of the western genre into a comedy of epic proportions. To so many, Peckinpah is forever remembered as the violent masochist who drank himself to death and focused on the dark corners of the human psyche. That is very unfair. Watch any other film besides "The Wild Bunch" and "Straw Dogs" and one will see a director enamored with humor, redemption, affection and trust. And at times, Peckinpah is much more satisfied with the playful listlessness of his characters on the screen rather than gun fire and rape.

But one cannot debate Peckinpah without bringing up his numerous forays into the western genre. It's the western that defines him. In fact, seven of his first nine films are westerns. And couple those with the wild streak of "Convoy" in 1977- in which eighteen wheelers could be seamlessly substituted for horses, and "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" in which Warren Oates tramples around Mexico with a human head, dodging hired hitman- and you begin to see that these two works could also easily fall under the graces of the wild western tradition. It's not that the western is such an easy genre to tackle, but it gives filmmakers such a wide canvas to work with- both in look and allegorical character development. His first two films, "Ride the High Country" and "The Deadly Companions", are great westerns not because of what they present, but because of what they infer- the dying vestiges of a landscape concerned not with fighting Indians and shoot outs at the OK Corral, but with men fighting something inside themselves. Both films feature lead actors (Randolph Scott and Joel Mcrea, Brian Keith) as worn out figures in a land that slowly passing them by. The latest and best filmmaker to conduct this sort of redemptive strike at man-versus-the-western-landscape-as-savior is Tommy Lee Jones with his "The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada". That film certainly wouldn't have been quite as pungent without the slow-to-burn moral compass guiding Brian Keith in "The Deadly Companions" and Warren Oates in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia" as both Peckinpah characters pay their dues across the western vistas, wrangling their sins (a head and a child's body) in the form of a journey. Redemption, like revenge, is a common theme in all of Peckinpah's works, but he doesn't pull at the core quite as evocative as he does in "The Deadly Companions". In "Ride the High Country", Scott and Mcrea are brokeback (sorry, couldn’t resist) gunslingers who begin escorting gold to a small mining town, and end up violently protecting the virginal figure of Mariette Hartley. Again, like the best of the genre, Peckinpah circumvents the values and norms of the western, slowly turning the story inward, and in the case of his first two films, creates a rigid sense of individualism and timelessness that ends with his characters bowing out in poetic and humane fashion.

As far as style, that came about with "The Wild Bunch". Peckinpah's fascination with dragging out the images of bodies falling, cross-cutting amongst a single violent incident and prolonging the final blow started in 1968. There wasn't a hint of it in 1966 when he polished off "Major Dundee". And while this became a minor distraction in later efforts (especially in one fantastically designed bar room brawl in 1972's "Junior Bonner"), Peckinpah coalesced his editing trickery with "The Wild Bunch" and used it as a trope throughout the remainder of his work (as well as the recurring images of children bearing witness to various acts of violence and bloodshed). In fact, Peckinpah's claim to visual auterism is his manner of cross-cutting and frenetically inserting images against each other. That, above all else, is what aligns Peckinpah with so many peers of his generation. He was not the author of very many of his works. The few writing credits affixed to his name come from a partnership with another writer. Peckinpah was a visualist… a filmmaker who adapted the writings of others and marginally surfaced his sensibilities. He became a chameleon to a vast array of genres and styles, yet another characteristic of a director less concerned with vanity and more interested in telling as many stories as possible. Can you imagine the shock that must have followed the cathartic bloodletting of "The Wild Bunch" in 1968 when he released the playfully subdued "Ballad of Cable Hogue" two years later, giving Jason Robards one of his most charismatic and unpretentious roles? Or the sledgehammer see-saw effect that "Junior Bonner" must've had when it was released in 1972, sandwiched between "The Getaway" and "Straw Dogs". Or, as judging by a lot of critics reactions to his final film, "The Osterman Weekend", the release of an aggressively paranoid 70's thriller ten long years after that genre had run its gamut? That's why I love cinema; the ability to be constantly poked, prodded and challenged by my expectations of a filmmaker. I can think of no higher praise for Peckinpah than that.
So, with all that said… the purpose of this short writing is to explain that there is more than meets the eye when it comes to the dynamic career of Sam Peckinpah. All of these titles are available on DVD. Check them out.