Tag Archives: Crime

171. SIN CITY (2005)

“It’s pretty damn weird to eat people.”–Marv, Sin City

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: , , (“special guest director”)

FEATURING: , , , , Nick Stahl, Jaime King, , , , Brittany Murphy,

PLOT: The movie tells three stories (with some common characters) set in the mythical Basin City: in one, a police detective risks his life to stop a child-killer. In a second, a brutal, mentally ill criminal hunts down the men he believes killed the only woman who ever showed kindness to him. A final strand tells of a suave assassin who attempts to prevent someone else’s accidental killing from turning into an all-out war between the cops, the mafia, and the self-governing prostitutes of Old Town.

Still from Sin City (2005)
BACKGROUND:

  • A fan of Frank Miller’s original series of Sin City comics, Robert Rodriguez wanted to make the movie as true to the book as possible: “a translation, not an adaptation.” The actual comics were used as the storyboards. The stories selected were “The Hard Goodbye,” “The Big Fat Kill,” and “That Yellow Bastard” as well as the short “The Customer is Always Right.”
  • Rodriguez shot the opening segment, “The Customer is Always Right,” in one day as a proof-of-concept to convince Miller that he could do justice to the art style. He then used that clip to convince actors such as Bruce Willis and Benicio Del Toro to sign on to the project.
  • Rodriguez insisted that Miller receive a co-director credit on the film, but the Directors Guild of America objected to the credit (they do not allow co-directing). He then decided to give Miller full credit, but Miller refused. Rodriguez then resigned from the Guild so the co-directing credit could remain.
  • Quentin Tarantino directed a single scene in the movie (a segment from “The Big Fat Kill” involving a conversation between the severed head of Del Toro’s “Jackie-Boy” and Clive Owen’s “Dwight”). Tarantino directed for a salary of $1 as a way to repay Rodriguez for composing music for Kill Bill: Vol. 2 for $1.
  • The movie was entirely shot on Rodriguez’s “digital backlot” (green screen studio) near his home in Austin, Texas.
  • Sin City screened in competition at Cannes and won the Technical Grand Prize.
  • Plans for a sequel (based on Miller’s “A Dame to Kill For“) were announced immediately after the film was completed; the followup feature was delayed until 2014, however.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: From the very first frame—a woman in a blood-red backless cocktail dress on a balcony staring out over a steel-grey city—Sin City‘s pulp Expressionism is consistently startling and poetic. Since we’re fascinated by the weird, we’ll select the first sight of the Yellow Bastard, the bald, satellite dish-eared pedophile killer dyed the color of French’s mustard, as our unforgettable take-home image from the movie.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: A marriage between the mythologies of film noir and violent comics, Sin City‘s bloody tales are set in an abstract urban hellscape inhabited by invulnerable tough guys and rough sexy dames. They play like the lost works of Raymond Chandler’s alternate universe grandson, written to scrape up a few bucks for a bottle of booze while he was down and out in Gotham City. With a cast of cannibal serial killers, jaundiced pedophiles and ninja hookers, the adventures of the hard-boiled demigods of Sin City are as fantastical as its random splotches of color in a monochrome landscape are visually unreal.


Original trailer for Sin City

COMMENTS: Sin City earns its “recommended” label almost solely on the basis of its visuals (bolstered by some finely weird touches), and not for its Continue reading 171. SIN CITY (2005)

366 UNDERGROUND – RACE WAR: THE REMAKE (2011)

366 Underground is an occasional feature that looks at the weird world of contemporary low- and micro-budget cinema, the underbelly of independent film.

DIRECTED BY: Tom Martino

FEATURING: Howard Calvert, Jamelle Kent, Matt Rogers, Kerryn Ledet, Danny McCarty, Joe Grisaffi

PLOT: Baking Soda & G.E.D., a pair of misguided drug dealers, find themselves out of

Still from Race War: The Remake (2011)

customers when a new group of traffickers invade their hood with an alien form of smack. With only their friend “Kreech Da Black Kreecha from a Lagoon” at their side, the two crack heads—armed and ready—must fight their way back to the top.

COMMENTS: When I first saw the poster for Race War: The Remake, my first thought was that it was probably going to be the best part of the movie… your opinion may well vary.  But, if your taste runs towards Tromaesque spectacle and you have an ample supply of beer and bongloads to get you through the running time, then this will definitely make your weekend!

There’s some talent floating around in this bowl: Calvert and Kent make a decent pair of stoner badass heroes (with Calvert radiating a Rudy Ray Moore vibe), and the effects are decent.  Most of the other cast members hide under masks or disguises so embarrassment is not an issue here. What works against the film is mostly the past 30 years or so of Troma-type grossout humor and movies that a good portion of the audience has been exposed to.  There’s nothing new here. Which, if you’re calling your film Race War, means that a good opportunity has largely been wasted.  There’s still room for some biting racial comedy with no limits to step up and become the modern day equivalent of a Blazing Saddles or even a Darktown Strutters.

But this ain’t it.  At best, this is a group of friends screwing around on several weekends to make a party film… which, for some, ain’t bad, if there’s enough alcohol and weed around.  For others, it’s more like, ‘been there, done that”.

DWN Productions – Official site

WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

Wallace Worsley made five films with silent movie icon . Lamentably, two of those, Voices of the City (1921) and The Blind Bargain (1922), are lost. The Ace of Hearts (1921) survives, but their most famous collaborations remain The Penalty (1920) and the epic Hunchback of Notre Dame (1923).  It is for these two films Worsley, an otherwise undistinguished commission director, will be remembered, if at all.  The Penalty was Chaney’s first starring role, and the film justifiably made him a major star.

The plot of The Penalty is beautifully absurd, operatic, and addictive.  An injured young boy has been unnecessarily mutilated by a young Dr. Ferris (Charles Clary).  A seasoned colleague arrives and tells Dr. Ferris that amputating the boy’s legs was not at all necessary, but the veteran promises to remain silent about the malpractice.  The bed-ridden boy hears the conversation and tells his parents what has transpired.  However, the boy’s revelation is dismissed as delirium cause by a contusion.

Twenty seven years later, the boy has become Frisco’s criminal master-mind, nicknamed the Blizzard.  Chaney’s performance as the Blizzard is a tour-de-force that was achieved through a painful pulleys, belts, leather stumps, and a harness which strapped his legs behind him.  Because of the extreme contortion and discomfort to the actor, Chaney’s scenes were filmed in short takes.  His performance is amazing.  He swings, pulls, and climbs with such robust, Tex Avery-like vigor that the illusion is feverishly complete.  Only Douglas Fairbanks could exude as much screen energy, but while Fairbanks grinned his way through elaborate stunts, Chaney invited you to see him sweat and even laugh with him through his pain.

Still from The Penalty (1920)The Blizzard runs a complex syndicate which local law enforcement cannot penetrate.  Desperate, officials send an undercover agent, Rose (Ethel Gray Terry) into Chaney’s lair.  The criminal is abusive, misogynist, seedy, and initially lacking in sympathy.  There is a dark, latent sexual undercurrent between the Blizzard and Rose.  Only music calms the Blizzard, and Rose serves as his feet, pushing the pedals of his piano while he plays.

The Blizzard is part Ahab and part Dr. Mabuse, plotting an elaborate (and far-fetched) revenge against the entire city (which involves utilizing the straw man communist menace.  The fifties was not the first Red Scare era, and Worsley’s earlier Ace of Hearts projected a similar paranoia).  Continue reading WALLACE WORSLEY’S THE PENALTY (1920) STARRING LON CHANEY

TOD BROWNING’S OUTSIDE THE LAW (1920)

Although Lon Chaney has two roles in Outside the Law (1920), he is not the star; rather, the film features early Tod Browning favorite Priscilla Dean.  Dean plays Silky Moll, daughter of mobster Silent Madden (Ralph Lewis), and both are attempting to reform under the guidance of Confucian Master Chang Lo (E. Alyn Warren).

Black Mike Sylva (Chaney) interrupts the reformation by framing Silent Madden for murder, so that Silky Moll, like Lorraine Lavond in The Devil Doll (1939), now has a wrongly imprisoned father.  Silky and Dapper Bill Ballard plan a jewel heist with Black Mike.  Unknown to Mike, Silky is aware of his betrayal of her father and, with Bill, she double-crosses Mike.

Escaping with the heisted jewels, Silky and Bill hole up in an apartment.  The time the criminals spend holed up in a claustrophobic setting  is awash with religious symbolism that points to transformation.  Browning, a Mason, repeatedly used religious  imagery and themes.  In West of Zanzibar (1928) Phroso stands in for the self-martyred Christ and calls upon divine justice under the image of the Virgin.  In The Show (1927), the sadomasochistic drama of Salome is reenacted and almost played out in the actors lives (Martinu’s opera ‘The Greek Passion’ would explore that possibility in a much more sophisticated, and jarring, degree). Where East is East (1929) utilizes Buddhist and Catholic symbology.  Priests and crucifixes play important parts in The Unholy Three (1925), Road to Mandalay (1926), Dracula (1931- possibly the most religious of the Universal Horror films) and Mark of the Vampire (1935).

Poster for Outside the LawHere, Bill tries to convince Silky that they can have a normal life.  Puppy dogs and small boys begin to have effect on Silky, but it is not until she sees the shadow of the cross in her apartment that her tough facade gives way.  Browning is not one to allow for a genuinely supernatural mode of transformation and reveals that the cross shadow is merely a broken kite, but its psychological effect on Silky is manifested in her actions, and her beauty.  Bill notices the origin of the cross shadow and, realizing that Silky’s  naive interpretation of that image has inspired her to renounce her crimes, Bill allows her to continue in her naivete.  He draws the blind so she cannot see that her inspiration comes from a child’s kite.  As Silky begins to drift away from a life of bitterness and crime, towards redemption, she physically grows more beautiful (a transformation achieved through soft lighting and composition).  It is not the inspired symbology of the cross alone, but the prophecy of Chang Lo that frames the outcome.  Chang Lo has been consistent in his belief that Silky will reform and he strikes a deal with the investigating constable that, should Silky return the jewels, all charges have to be dropped.  Here again, Browning’s heart is too much with the criminal to allow for a full-blown punishment, something that later Hays Code Hollywood would demand.

Chaney’s small bit as Ah Wing is so subtle and so effective as to almost be unnoticeable.  Browning remade Outside the Law in 1930.  The remake starred Edward G. Robinson and received comparatively poor reviews.  While the remake is not available on DVD, this original is.  Kino Video has done a good job in its presentation, but the last quarter of the film is marred by nitrate deterioration, which is not altogether intrusive to viewing.

TOD BROWNING’S THE BLACKBIRD (1926)

The Blackbird (1926) is a typically deranged underworld melodrama from the Tod Browning/Lon Chaney canon. It has, lamentably, never been made available to the home video market, even though the restored print shown on TCM is in quite good condition and, surprisingly, is missing no footage. The Blackbird is also one of the most visually arresting of Browning’s films, which makes its official unavailability doubly unfortunate.

Still from The Blackbird (1926)Browning opens the film authoritatively with close-ups of Limehouse derelicts fading in and out of the foggy London setting. Lon Chaney plays dual roles, of a sort. He is the debilitated cripple Bishop who runs a charitable mission in the squalid Limehouse district. Bishop’s twin brother is Dan Tate, better known as the vile thief The Blackbird. Actually, in this highly improbable (and typical, for Browning) scenario, Bishop and the Blackbird are one and the same. The Blackbird feigns the role of his own twin brother as a front, which means contorting his body as he acts as if he’s in excruciating pain (shades of Chaney, behind the scenes).

The Limehouse district unanimously loves the Bishop and dreads the Blackbird, save for the Blackbird’s ex-wife, Limehouse Polly (Doris Lloyd, the only one of the principals players who did not die young). Polly inexplicably still loves and believes in Dan. In a vignette, Browning does not hesitate to show the ugliness of the Blackbird’s racist side (an extreme rarity for the time), but the Blackbird has a slither of a soft spot himself for French patroness and music hall marionette performer Fifi (Renee Adore).

Dan is competing for Fifi’s attention with his partner in crime, West End Bertie (the amazingly prolific silent actor Owen Moore). At times, Bertie resembles a virile, monocled Bond villain. The suave Moore makes a worthwhile nemesis for the grimy Chaney. Unlike the Blackbird, Bertie is willing to convert from the dark side, for the love of a classy woman. Of course, this turn of events arouses jealousy and leads to intensified competition between the former partners, a frame-up job, and an ironic twist of fate when the two “brothers” will merge into a third, ill-fated persona.

The scenes of Chaney frantically changing identities with constables from Scotland Yard waiting below are deliriously incredible. The constables buy it, and so does an audience open to allowing the capered stream to wash over it.

Browning spins his elastic yarn a bit like Albert Finney’s Ed Bloom in Big Fish (2003). Aided enormously by Chaney’s energetic conviction, and with his penchant for a tenebrous, commanding climate, Browning pulls the ultimate con job on his audience. During its running time we are so drawn into the commanding perversity of  Browning’s fable that the inherent haziness of the narrative’s essence rarely obscures his inclusive vision.

53. BRONSON (2008)

Must See

“I always wanted to make a Kenneth Anger movie, and I wanted to combine great theatrical tradition and British pop cinema of the 60s, which was very psychedelic, and at the same time, to make a movie about a man who creates his own mythology. It had to be surreal in order to pay off.”–Director Refn on Bronson

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING:

PLOT: Narrated from a theater inside his own mind by Michael Peterson (later to rechristen himself Charles Bronson, his “fighting name” ), the movie is an aggressively stylized account of the true story of Britain’s most notorious prisoner, who spent 30 years of his 34 year sentence in solitary confinement for his violent behavior.  Peterson knocks over a post office with a sawed-off shotgun and receives a seven year penitentiary sentence; inside, he finds he has a natural affinity for institutional life as he nurtures a burgeoning passion for taking hostages and picking fights with prison guards.  Shuffled from prison to prison, and serving a brief stint in a hospital for the criminally insane, Peterson is furloughed, becomes a bare-knuckle boxer and adopts the name Bronson, and lasts a few months in the outside world before finding himself reincarcerated, at home once more.

Still from Bronson (2008)

BACKGROUND:

  • The movie stays true to the spirit of the real life Michael Peterson/Charlie Bronson, while omitting many facts and inventing others. The real Charlie Bronson has won several awards in prison-sponsored contests for his artwork and poetry and has published several books, including a fitness guide and an autobiography titled “Loonyology.” In one of his hostage-taking escapades, he demanded an inflatable doll, a helicopter and a cup of tea as ransom.
  • Before incarceration Michael Peterson actually worked as a circus strongman, which may be where he developed his distinctive trademark handlebar mustache and shaved pate.
  • Danish director Refn was previously best known for the gritty, documentary style Pusher trilogy, a look at the criminal drug dealing subculture in Copenhagen.
  • Some of the paintings appearing in the film and in the animated sequences are actual drawings by the real life Bronson. Examples of Bronson’s artwork can be found here.
  • Actor Tom Hardy put on about 40 pounds of muscle for the role. Previously best known as “Handsome Bob” in Guy Ricthie’s RocknRolla, Hardy is poised to become a breakout star, slated to replace Mel Gibson in the new “Mad Max” series.
  • Cinematographer Larry Smith began his career with Stanley Kubrick, working as an electrician on Barry Lyndon and a gaffer on The Shining before graduating to  assistant cameraman for Eyes Wide Shut.
  • At the film’s London premiere, a tape recording of Bronson’s voice was played, stating, “I’m proud of this film, because if I drop dead tonight, then I live on. As long as my mother enjoys the film, I’m happy… I make no bones about it, I really was… a horrible, violent, nasty man. I’m not proud of it, but I’m not ashamed of it either, because every punch I’ve ever flung in my life I’ve taken 21 back.” This incident caused the Prison Officers’ Association to complain, because it is illegal to record a prisoner in a British prison without authorization. The Association also accused the film of “glorifying violence.”

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Bronson turning himself and his art teacher into living paintings in the very strange finale.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Hyperstylized to the point of surreality, Bronson is biopic as mythology, an appropriate tack when dealing with a self-deluded, self-promoting subject. The portrait that emerges is not so much of a fascinating but essentially unknowable real-life sociopath as it is a portrait of Bronson’s pseudo-artistic attempt to create a public image as an antihero, with notes of humanizing sympathy but also with plenty of knowing irony added to deglamorize its subject.


Original trailer for Bronson

COMMENTS: Tom Hardy’s performance in Bronson undercuts my theory of acting. I Continue reading 53. BRONSON (2008)

RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: WINTER OF FROZEN DREAMS (2009)

DIRECTED BY:  Eric Mandelbaum

FEATURING: Thora Birch, , Brendan Sexton III, Leo Fitzpatrick, Dean Winters

PLOT: An unambitious young man balances uneasy alliances with the authorities and his psychopathic girlfriend when she involves him in a meretricious murder case.

Still from Winter of Frozen Dreams (2009)

WHY IT SHOULD MAKE THE LIST:  Non linear story telling, oddball characters and incomprehensible motivations combine to weave a tapestry of weirdness in this contemporary film noir mystery.

COMMENTS:  Some movies don’t have to be garishly bizarre to be weird.  Winter of Frozen Dreams employs a soft, almost poetic production style to tell a tawdry tale of twisted topics set down as causally as if the story were an episode of the Donna Reed Show.  The nonlinear plot is partially presented through the flashbacks and subjective impressions of a cast of oddball, unsavory characters whose disorganized, irrational lives inexplicably intersect in a convoluted morass of lies, depravity, deceit and murder.

Set in 1977 Madison, Wisconsin, Winter of Frozen Dreams relates the events of the notorious Hoffman murder case.  On Christmas day, Gerald Davies walked into the police department and announced that he had helped his girlfriend dispose of a bloodied, battered corpse at the Blackhawk Ski jump park near Middleton.  Police accompanied him to retrieve the body of Harry Berge and a series of perplexing events began to unfold that led to the arrest of Barbara Hoffman.  The case drew a great deal of attention because it was the first televised murder trial in the state.

Of even greater interest to the public was the fact that the accused was a beautiful girl with an IQ over 140 who led a triple life.  In addition to being a straight ‘A’ biochemistry student at the University of Wisconsin, Barbara Hoffman was a psychopathic whore and Continue reading RECOMMENDED AS WEIRD: WINTER OF FROZEN DREAMS (2009)