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Death Wish Series – Review: Part 2

31 Mar

I vow to finish this series no matter what it takes, even if it kills me. The first Death Wish film, at this point, feels quite dated but it still presents the viewer with interesting points of discussion and some memorable sequences. Everything after that just got progressively worse to the point of being brainless and downright silly. Let’s see if that progression, or regression in this case, continues with the last two films in the series.

in 1987, Death Wish 4: The Crackdown was released, but this time Michael Winner was out of the director’s chair and replaced by J. Lee Thompson.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson), an architect by day and vigilante killer by night, seems to have finally found a place for himself with his girlfriend, Karen (Kay Lenz), and her daughter, Erica (Dana Barron). This stability is shaken to the core when Erica dies of a crack overdose one night, which angers Kersey to the point of once again picking up his weapons and cleaning up the mean streets of Los Angeles. Before he gets very far, Kersey is contacted by magazine publisher Nathan White (John P. Ryan) who tells Kersey that his own daughter died of a crack overdose and puts him on the trail of two big time rival drug dealers. Kersey now has a larger plan of action schemes to pit the two factions against each other while systematically wiping out their business on the streets.

I can believe I’m saying this, but Death Wish 4: The Crackdown may very well be the best sequel in this series so far. That isn’t really saying too much, but it at least keeps things minimally interesting. It’s still, at its core, the same exact thing. Someone close to Kersey dies so he goes on a revenge spree until he finds his way to the person truly responsible. It’s the formula for this series that has grown so old at this point. What this film does differently is show Kersey going against to warring factions and making them suspicious of each other, which at least adds a newer level that wasn’t in the other films. The unfortunate thing is that this doesn’t really amount to a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, and the effects that he has on them is over before you can fully appreciate what it is he’s doing. It was still nice to at least see the film makers trying something different with the material.

Death Wish 4 is still lacking in areas that the other films were, despite there being some improvements to the formulaic nature the series found itself in. For one thing, this film is still completely devoid of any emotional resonance which is garbage considering this is a revenge film. If you’re going to make a movie where a character feels the need to get revenge on someone, there should be some feeling expressed by the character. Instead, someone dies and Kersey kills people because that’s what it says in the screenplay, not because that’s what he feels he has to do. It’s so routine, and Bronson just looks like he’s going through the motions. It’s a very robotic feeling movie. Nothing happens because the characters feel this is what should happen next. Everything happens because that’s the way to move the story forward. That doesn’t make for good entertainment and that’s not the way a story should be written.

Death Wish 4: The Crackdown is a slight improvement over Death Wish 3, but not by a whole lot. It introduces some new concepts, which is fine, but doesn’t really go anywhere with them. The whole film just feels part of the same routine that other movies have already established. It also has one of the worst scenes involving a dummy I’ve ever seen, which can also be said about Death Wish 3. This isn’t a good action movie, but it isn’t the worst this series has to offer. I still found myself wishing I was just watching something else.

Final Grade: C-

As if 4 movies just wasn’t enough, a fifth and final movie was released in 1994. God help us all.

Paul Kersey, now living in New York City under the name Paul Stewart, has been madly in love with fashion designer Olivia Regent (Lesley-Anne Down) and has recently proposed to her. He also cares deeply for Olivia’s daughter, Chelsea (Erica Lancaster), who sees Kersey as a father figure. This happiness Kersey has found soon comes crashing down when Olivia’s gangster ex-husband, Tommy O’Shea, (Michael Parks) moves in on her business and eventually ends up disfiguring and killing her. This forces Kersey to once again pick up his weapons and bring real street justice to this band of criminals before they have the chance to hurt anyone else.

I really hate saying this, but I am so sick of writing about these movies. They wore out their welcome long ago, yet here I am commenting on another Death Wish film. Death Wish V: The Face of Death has few positives working for it. For one thing, Kersey has some interesting methods of killing people, and it sometimes borders into dark comedy territory. I also really enjoyed the villains in this movie, and they are much more memorable than any of the other antagonists this series had to offer. Michael Parks really hams it up as Tommy O’Shea and he comes of as slimy and down right villainous. I at least really wanted to see Kersey get his revenge on him and it works well. There’s also a really interesting character played by Robert Joy that is quite unique, but he’s never really touched upon except in a few very brief scenes.

Everything else about this movie is recycled, and I honestly don’t have too much to say about it. It’s all the same formula. Someone hurts one of Kersey’s loved ones and so he, in turn, kills them. It’s the same exact thing over and over again, and by this point it’s tired. Bronson, himself, seems bored out of his mind and this is obviously just a paycheck for him at this point. There’s nothing exciting about anything in this movie except for the end credits because I knew that it was at this point I was done with these movies.

I don’t have anything more to say about Death Wish V: The Face of Death that I haven’t already said for the other 4 movies in this series, especially concerning the sequels. This is a pretty boring movie that plays by the formula that it dares not change. There are only a few redeeming qualities, but it doesn’t really help that much.

Final Grade: D

The Death Wish series really didn’t have a whole lot of steam to start with, so the fact that there are 5 movies is really an anomaly of film. I will admit that it’s fun seeing Charles Bronson do what he does best, but there really isn’t much else worth while in these movies. I hate to use this term when it comes to movies, but this series is a prime example of cinematic garbage.

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Death Wish Series – Review: Part 1

24 Mar

One of the most iconic action stars of the past century is the one and only Charles Bronson. He has a charisma about him that is undeniable, so it’s no surprise that he’s a name still remembered to this day. The film that got him raised to such a status is a well known thriller called Death Wish. While controversial for its time, and even this time in a way, it has garnered a lot of fans and a possible remake from Eli Roth. Like with other films of this time and genre, one movie wasn’t enough, which resulted in a total of five Death Wish movies. What can be said about them? Well… they’re certainly something else.

Let’s start with the original from 1974.

Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) is a liberal minded architect living with his wife (Hope Lange) and daughter (Kathleen Tolan) in New York City during a time when crime is sky rocketing. One afternoon, a group of thugs break into Paul’s apartment and assaults his daughter and murders his wife. Overcome with grief, Paul doesn’t know what to do and his beliefs are all starting to go down the drain. After a business trip, Paul comes home with the answer and a brand new revolver. He takes it upon himself to start working as a late night vigilante, walking the bad streets of New York and shooting anyone that threatens him or another person. This causes the media, citizens, and police to start paying attention to his actions, and things in New York begin to slightly change. With the people starting to fight for themselves, NYPD Lt. Frank Ochoa (Vincent Gardenia) begins his nearly impossible task of tracking down the vigilante and putting an end to his spree.

Death Wish was made in 1974 and based off of a novel of the same name that was published in 1972. This was a time when crime was really getting bad in major cities, and people just didn’t know what to do about it. This brought about a new age of action films, with the most resonant being the Dirty Harry series. This film doesn’t quite hit as hard as some other films because the idea of vigilantism isn’t explored nearly enough. The novel takes the idea and shows the dark side that it can create, while the film shows Kersey as a straight up hero who can do no wrong. This makes the film feel incredibly dated and kind of a shallow experience, especially if you’re approaching this wanting to see an action classic that can stand the tests of time. It can also come off as very preachy in terms of its right wing political ideology. I don’t care if a movie leans a certain way, but make it subtle and don’t talk down to an audience.

There are things in Death Wish that do stand out. For one thing, Bronson’s performance is good even though the character sort of feels a little bit underdeveloped. Instead of being this boisterous vigilante, he plays the role very quietly, which actually reflects the whole tone of the movie. As the series goes on, it gets more and more off the walls, but this film is much more down to earth. In fact, it’s hard to call this movie a full blown action movie when it often times feels like a drama. The plot moves along slowly, which in retrospect actually works better than I originally thought. There are also no grand action set pieces. The “action” happens very quickly with Kersey pulling out his revolver and shooting a criminal, and once that’s done he just leaves the scene. It felt gritty and real and wasn’t at all what I originally expected this movie to be.

Death Wish is an interesting time capsule of a movie, but it’s one that hasn’t really aged well. It’s political ideology is rammed down the audience’s throat to the point of being obnoxious and it features a well known main character that didn’t always feel too complete. It does feature some cool scenes that feel gritty and realistic and the whole approach of not making a grand scene of the violence is a good choice. I just wish that the idea of vigilantism and its dark side was explored more instead of the whole concept just being praised. It’s an interesting movie for any film history buff and fans of Charles Bronson, but it’s really lacking in many ways.

Final Grade: B-

Eight years later, in 1982, a sequel crept its way into theaters and dragged things down even further.

After his vigilante spree in New York City, Paul Kersey has found a peaceful home in Los Angeles. His daughter (Robin Sherwood) is in a mental hospital and improving significantly, and he’s also found new love with radio reporter Geri Nichols (Jill Ireland). All of this comes crashing down when his daughter is kidnapped and murdered by a gang of criminals, which forces Kersey to once again pick up his revolver and hit the mean streets. As Kersey starts his revenge quest on the group of thugs, Detective Ochoa gets wind of what’s happening and travels to L.A. to put an end to Kersey’s spree, but it can never be that easy.

Death Wish II is straight up garbage. There’s no use beating around the bush with this one. It doesn’t even try to be anything different than the original. Kersey is living a happy live, then someone he loves is killed which brings him to his vigilantism. That’s the same exact plot as the original Death Wish. At least that one raises some questions and presents the material in a subtle way. This one, however, is just violence for the sake of it without any interesting material to back it up. That would be acceptable if this film had any sense of style, but it doesn’t even have that. It’s just a gray, ugly looking movie filled with cannon fodder for Bronson to take his anger out on. It’s absolutely mindless and devoid of any sort of flash to pull the viewer in.

Death Wish II succeeds at only the most base level. I will say that compared to the first one, there’s a bit more mindless entertainment. There’s no real set up to the movie. Things happen right away which leads Bronson to start his vengeful murder spree. If you want to see an action star just blow criminals away, this is the right movie to look at. There’s a lot more action and the violent scenes do feel bigger and more exciting, which is definitely a plus. The only problem, like I said before, is that there’s no style and the motivation feels completely stunted by Charles Bronson’s lack of dramatic presence.

There’s really not much to say about Death Wish II. It feels like a rehashing of the first film, but more loud and more violent. This would be a welcome addition if the story felt different and something new was added. There’s really nothing new here at all. The only time there was a plot development that could lead somewhere interesting, the film makers decided to cut that off prematurely in favor of more mindless proceedings. This film is really a waste of time and only die hard Charles Bronson fans should give this movie any sort of respect.

Final Grade: D-

But the series wasn’t done with the stinker that is Death Wish II. Not by a long shot. In 1985, Death Wish 3 was released, and this is where things really started to go off the rails.

Paul Kersey has been living the life of a vigilante for too long and has finally decided to put away the revolvers and lead a normal life. This personal promise to himself is shattered upon his return to New York City where he finds his long time friend bleeding to death after being attacked by a group of thugs in his apartment. Kersey is than approached by Inspector Shriker (Ed Lauter), who makes an off the records demand of Kersey to return to his old ways and clear the neighborhood of the goons responsible for all the mayhem. Kersey finds allies in the tenants of the apartment building, especially with WWII veteran Bennett Cross (Martin Balsam) and the mild mannered Rodriguez (Joseph Gonzalez). With the support of his neighbors and other victims of the community, Kersey wages war with the criminals and their leader, Fraker (Gavin O’Herlihy).

Death Wish 3 is one of the most unintentionally hilarious movies you or I may ever see. To be fair to it, it’s a slight step up from the second film but for some of the wrong reasons. I do like that the plot deviates from someone hurting his family, but it just goes right to someone hurting his friend. Where the movie really differs in that Kersey becomes something of a guardian angel to the neighborhood, and by the end they all join him in his war against Fraker and his goons. The third act of the movie, by the way, is an extended shoot out in the streets that seems to never end. It’s so much fun to watch but it’s some of the most absurd, mind numbing violence. By the end of it, there’s no emotion or excitement to be felt, other than the moment of joy when the first end credit begins to scroll up the screen.

The rest of the movie is also devoid of any kind of emotional or dramatic impact, which would be fine if the rest of the movie was as entertaining and off the walls as the third act. It isn’t unfortunately, and this is where things really get bogged down. It does have more memorable characters than the previous film, but they don’t really have to much to say or do until things really start happening. There’s a few scenes of Kersey gunning down people throughout the movie, but it’s just all part of the formula by now. Even with a storyline that’s changed, it’s not enough.

If you want a good laugh, Death Wish 3 might be worth checking out, if only for the outrageous finale. It still keeps up the same trend that the other ones did, so the whole routine is feeling kind of stale at this point. It is a step up from the second movie, but that’s hardly saying much.

Final Grade: D+

So that’s the first three films in the Death Wish series. I still have two more movies to go, so keep an eye out for the next part of this review.

The Great Escape – Review

18 Sep

At this point in time, I can honestly say that most people have heard of or can identify The Great Escape in some way. This 1963 World War II epic adventure film wasn’t received by critics well at all. They all said that the film lacked any kinds of artistic credit or skill, but what they failed to realize is that The Great Escape is just pure entertainment. In the 52 years since its release, the film has garnered classic status, and rightfully so. This film is an American achievement of pure fun and entertainment, while also offering plenty of suspense, character, and story telling.

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In 1943, after repeated escape attempts from British and American POWs, Nazi Germany decides to build a new camp, Stalag Luft III, which is designed to keep the most disruptive and tricky prisoners in one spot. This might’ve seemed like a good idea on paper, but it also brings all of the brilliant minds together. Some of these minds include Americans Robert Hendley (James Garner) and Virgil Hilts (Steve McQueen). When British Squadron Leader Roger Bartlett (Richard Attenborough) is admitted into the camp, a brilliant and complicated plan to escape involving multiple systems of tunnels is devised. It’s all a difficult procedure, especially keeping it hidden from the guards, but the plan soon becomes deadly when the escapees have to travel through Germany and Paris to get home.

The first time I saw this movie I was probably 11 or 12, so the grandiosity of the whole production wasn’t fully appreciated. I enjoyed the movie, but now I can truly understand it as something special. What happens when a real life story as incredible as this is turned into a movie with one of the greatest casts ever assembled to act in a story that is impeccably written? Well, you get a movie that has earned its firm and well respected spot in film history. There’s a lot of movies that kind of baffle me why they are loved so much by so many, but The Great Escape is not one of those movies. Throughout the entirety of its nearly 3 hour run time, I was completely involved and entertained.

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As I said earlier, the cast of The Great Escape is one of the best casts you or me or anyone is ever going to see. Steve McQueen, James Garner, and Richard Attenborough are always the first mentioned, but the list doesn’t stop there. There’s also James Coburn, James Donald, Donald Pleasence, David McCallum, and Charles Bronson in one of his more under appreciated roles. My personal favorite performances are McQueen’s (because of his boyish excitement towards everything happening), Donald Pleasence’s quiet and ultimately tragic role, and Charles Bronson for showing some weakness even though he’s best known for playing tough guys. While the cast is fantastic, none of this would matter if it didn’t have a screenplay to back it up.

James Clavell and W.R. Burnett took Paul Brickhill’s book of the same name and did something truly remarkable with it. This is a story of American and British POWs breaking out of a Nazi prison camp where the outcome is grim for a lot of them. Even with this heavy subject matter, this is a very light hearted adventure. There’s plenty of moments of humor and a lot of the banter between characters is very funny. Even Elmer Bernstein’s main theme for the film isn’t all that intense. This isn’t to say that there aren’t any scenes that really hits where it hurts. In fact, much of the second half of the movie loses the sense of humor for a more suspenseful and intense tone. This might have made the movie feel uneven in any other circumstances, but it works just fine here.

Simply put, The Great Escape is an achievement of American film making, and proof that an epic war film can still be a lot of fun. Even though the film boasts a three hour run time, I dare anyone to get bored watching this movie. There’s a lot of action, adventure, suspense, and humor mixed in a screenplay filled with memorable scenes played by great actors. I don’t have much more to say about this movie other than this is one of the most fun and well constructed movie you may ever see, and it would be a crime to miss out.

Once Upon a Time in the West – Review

22 Jan

I’m not a huge fan of the Western genre, especially American made westerns of the 1950s and the early 1960s. There are a few exceptions, like Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, and some modern films, but westerns in the 1950s and 1960s don’t really hold my attention. But let’s talk about Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre that can only be described as the graphic novel western. These are a different story altogether, and hold my attention way more than their American counterparts. When one thinks of this genre, the first name that should come to mind is Sergio Leone, and today I want to take a look at his hyper-stylized 1969 film, Once Upon a Time in the West.

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The story of this film follows different characters each with different goals which all intersect throughout the film. A man nicknamed Harmonica (Charles Bronson) arrives in the town of Flagstone looking for another man named Frank (Henry Fonda). Harmonica’s intentions are mysterious and his gunslinging is vicious. Jill (Claudia Cardinale) is a former prostitute from New Orleans who’s come to Flagstone to be with her husband, who she doesn’t know has just been murdered by Frank, along with the rest of his family. Cheyenne (Jason Robards) is a bandit who’s been framed for the murders of Jill’s husband and his family. He soon meets Jill and begins helping her, along with Harmonica, to save the land that is rightfully hers and get revenge on Frank and his employer.

I said earlier that Spaghetti Westerns are the graphic novel equivalents of the John Wayne/John Ford type of Western. Right from the get go, it’s clear that Once Upon a Time in the West is all about style, style, style. The beginning of this movie can objectively go down as one of the best beginnings in the history of film. The only soundtrack is the sounds of a train station as three hired guns wait for a train to arrive so they can finish off their target. How long does this last? A few minutes? No, it lasts about 15 minutes and not one of those minutes is boring. It’s an auditory sensation of hyper realism and gets you in the mood to go into this twisted old west. The cool doesn’t stop there, either.

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There’s a great story that Henry Fonda told about Sergio Leone that I just have to include in this review. Apparently, the main reason that Leone wanted Fonda to play the villain was because he was always casted as the good guy in movies, and Leone wanted people to lose it when Fonda’s character is first revealed murdering a family. Well that’s ridiculous, but it works great because Henry Fonda plays it cool and deadly as the hired gunman Frank. Still, the rest of the cast is awesome. Jason Robards has excellent chemistry with Italian actress, Claudia Cardinale who light up the screen whenever she’s onscreen. Also, Charles Bronson. Need I say more? Seeing Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson square up in duel is just fantastic.

I guess what I’m really trying to say about Once Upon a Time in the West is that it’s just so immersive. The colors that Leone uses combined with Ennio Morricone’s sweeping (as usual) score is just fantastic, and there were times where I really just wanted to listen to the music. The editing is also absolutely extraordinary. For example, there’s a great scene where Henry Fonda fires his gun, but the scene jump cuts to the underside of a train. It’s the kind of jarring juxtaposition that reminds me of the jump cut in Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. The music, the cinematography, and the editing are some of the finest examples of immersive film making which makes what I’m about to say hopefully seem justified.

I’ve heard it from professors, critics, and movie buffs alike so I’m going to add myself to the long list of people who have said this. Despite being super cool and highly stylistic, Once Upon a Time in the West is honestly, and almost objectively, one of the greatest films ever made. Like Peckinpah did with The Wild Bunch, Sergio Leone breathed some fresh air into a dying genre with this film. He made a name for himself with the Dollars Trilogy, and this film started a thematic trilogy all its own, but as a stand alone film, it succeeds as a revisionist western, an artistic achievement, and just a really cool movie.

Bronson – Review

20 Nov

Without giving away too much of the plot yet, let me just say that Bronson is based off of a true story. To anyone who has seen this movie before, it just makes the entire spectacle all the more ridiculous. Nicholas Winding Refn, whose most recanting outings of Drive and Only God Forgives has made him a more prominent name in the American film scene, already created a strange and beautiful head trip with Bronson. This isn’t your average, everyday biopic. This is a biopic through the eyes of a madman about a madman.

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Michael Peterson (Tom Hardy) didn’t come from a bad household, nor was he given a hard time at school. Michael Peterson, however, loved to fight. Combine that with his desire to be famous is a nasty concoction of insanity. After his first stint in prison, he spends his 69 days in the outside world bare knuckle boxing under his new name, “Charlie Bronson.” His time outside of prison doesn’t last long, and before he’s out for even a year, he’s back to what he calls home: a maximum security prison where his main goal is becoming “Britain’s Most Dangerous Prisoner.”

Keeping this a traditional, straight forward biopic wouldn’t be doing it’s subject any justice. Michael Peterson is a loose cannon whose mind seems to be all over the place. The form of Bronson is almost episodic, highlighting major moments in Peterson’s life, from his younger years to the more present time. All the while, we are treated to Peterson’s random acts of brutal violence with what seems like no motivation at all. He just loves the feeling of beating a prison guard’s face in.

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Now, a major problem with Bronson, that also seems to be apparent with Nicholas Winding Refn’s films, is that the movie gets a bit too pretentious for its own good. I’m all for artistic movies or movies that try to be as bizarre as possible, but Refn seems to go a bit too crazy at times. My only other experience of his films is Drive, and as cool as that movie is there are times where it gets too excessive in a way where Refn thinks he’s being super cool and edgy. The same can be said about Bronson, except that it is even more guilty of pretentious excess than Drive.

But for what it’s worth, I do love a lot of the insanity in Bronson. The fight scenes that are a main part of the movie are absolutely vicious. Peterson is a tank that takes multiple men to take down, and just watching Hardy’s performance as he goes into a sort of berserk mode is just too awesome. It’s bloody as a pulp, and the sounds of flesh being his and bones being broken is sickeningly fantastic. This movie certainly isn’t lacking style, that’s for sure.

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Bronson isn’t for everyone. It has often been called A Clockwork Orange of the 21st century, and we all know how a lot of people feel about A Clockwork Orange. It’s a stylish trip into the mind of one of the most notorious criminals in history. It’s easy to love the character and hate him at the same time. So, it is fun and stylish, but it’s pretentious as all hell. I can live with that though. Bronson is an awesome movie.