Archive for category 1976

Assault on Precinct 13

Assault_on_Precinct_13_Mondo_Poster_2011

“Rio Bravo” via a gristly a 1970s crime thriller.

There is a moment more than halfway through this film, when the beleaguered survivors inside an understaffed police station are besieged by seemingly endless waves of a progressive multicultural youth gang, which exemplifies what is great about “Assault on Precinct 13.” The sequence is a cacophony of broken glass, bullets, and dead bodies, as the motley crew of police, administrators, and convicts desperately try to fend off their attackers, who at times almost leap into their line of fire. Suddenly, the invasion stops. The bodies disappear. This sudden quiet and stillness becomes deafening and oppressive, which more frightening than the siege itself. The film is a gnarly mixture of ¬†frenetic, grimy, chaotic action and stunning moments of anticipatory, dread-building ambiance.

Like most successful action films, “Assault” strips its narrative of everything but the bare essentials, focusing instead on mood and visceral thrills. Essentially “Rio Bravo” placed in the decaying urban sprawl of 1976 Los Angeles, several people find themselves held-up in a nearly-defunct police precinct by a nebulous and expansive gang of hell-raisers called “Street Thunder” that are intent on murdering them all. Ostensibly the attack is retribution for the deaths of six of their brethren that were killed the previous night while robbing a shipment of automatic weapons, but their motivations are more amorphous and abstract than simple revenge. Their bizarre tactics suggestion something more symbolic.

“Assault” doesn’t waste much time on character study either. There is just enough screen-time invested in this rag-tag assortment of characters to give them basic definition and personality, without wasting it on frivolous backstory and nuance. There is the newly-promoted police lieutenant Ethan Bishop (Austin Stoker) who has been given the task of overseeing the final night of a soon-to-be-closed police precinct in the middle of a Los Angeles ghetto, a couple of secretaries played by Nancy Loomis and Laurie Zimmer, a prison warden named Starker (Charles Cyphers) transporting prisoners to a state correctional facility but who is forced to make an emergency pit stop when one of his charges gets sick, prisoner Wells (Tony Burton) and Napoleon Wilson (Darwin Josten,) and a man named Lawson who directs Street Thunder’s attention towards the precinct when he enters the building after killing one of their own members, which was itself a retaliatory killing on behalf of his daughter.

These are characters almost exclusively defined by their situation, because nothing creates tight emotional bonds like bullets being shot at you, but that doesn’t make the performances any less compelling. In particular, despite the fact that ones a cop and the other is a convicted murderer, the brilliantly named Bishop andNapoleon become the best of buddies and carry the film with their love of sardonic humor and mutual respect for one another. Collectively they are mystified by the strange behavior of the Street Thunder gang, which seems to have an infinite supply of members and supernatural abilities. When they aren’t attacking in droves like a zombie hoard, a thick ominous cloud of mystery and portentousness lingers in the air. There is probably a compelling metaphor to be had from this metaphysical take on a gang ¬†problem(perhaps representing the insipid and incessant nature of the gang situation in L.A.) but for the purposes of this film, it is very effective.

“Assault” is John Carpenter’s second film as director, and at times it feels like it. The film is rough, raw, and unpolished, but I mean that in the best way possible. When ice cream truck drivers and little girls are getting shot in broad daylight by a gang that seems to have thousands of member, it isn’t the kind of film which should have airtight direction. This is a nasty, pulpy, 1970s action at its gritty finest.

4/5

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The Killing of a Chinese Bookie

I don’t know where John Cassavettes finds these characters. They seem to live in the dingy corners of society, amidst a world of dimly-lit cafes, bars, and back room poker games. Were these people a part of his life somewhere along the line? I can’t say that I’ve ever encountered anyone like Cosmo Vitelli, but he reeks of authenticity, as if Cassavettes plopped him right out off of the streets and into this film.

In terms of the Cassavettes films I have seen, this is his most plot-driven. This isn’t saying very much, as the narrative moves at the pace of a motorboat putzing its way around a lake. Thank goodness Cassavettes had the strength of his convictions to create the film that way. I can only imagine some modern advertising executive desperately trying to market this as some sort of action-thriller. As it is, the film meanders along, allowing the story to grow organically out of the plight of the films’ eccentric and isolated protagonist, Cosmo Vitelli (Ben Gazzara).

After paying off a gambling debt, Cosmo celebrates with a heavy round of drinking followed by a trip to his strip club, The Crazy Horse West. I call it a strip club, but in essence it is more a cabaret or burlesque show. The bits of nudity take place during flighty musical numbers and offbeat skits, with a bizarre emcee called Mr. Sophistication (Meade Roberts) tentatively in charge while on stage. Cosmo writes and choreographs the numbers, and dates one of the strippers. Cosmo seems to see himself as both an artist and a savvy businessman, which he may be, but he also has a major gambling problem.

In one brief card game, Cosmo racks up $23,000 in debt with the wrong people. Instead of paying them back, these local mobsters want Cosmo to, yes, kill a Chinese bookie for them. While the mobsters’ plan is allegedly sound, as inexperienced in these matters as Cosmo is, there is little hope for him to come out of this alive. No one is more shocked when Cosmo succeeds, and survives, then Cosmo. Despite a potentially fatal wound and some unfinished business with the mobsters, Cosmo finds himself back at his club, buying the customers a round of drinks, mediating an argument between Mr. Sophistication and the dancers, and introducing a new song.

The film’s measured pace is so crucial in large part because of what it allows Ben Gazzara to do in the role of Cosmo. It takes its time getting to the killing, affording Gazzara the opportunity to inflect Cosmo with all kinds of depth, humanity, and pathos. Whatever his faults may be, Cosmo is a man that takes pride in his business and cares for his employees. He takes time out of his assassination attempt to call the club and ask what musical number is being performed. It may just be his love for that place that gives him the willpower to go through with it. Gazzara has very little dialogue and he confides in no one about the dire nature of his situation. This frees up his face to convey fear, desperation, elation, anger and irritation, all mushed together in a complex array of twitches, shrugs, scowls, and scoffs.

The scenes in which Cosmo commits the murder of the titular bookie absolutely have to work, and boy do they. The sequence leading up to, through, and immediately after he shoots the bookie is one of the most chilling, desperate, and visceral killings I have ever seen on film. For nearly the entire sequence, the camera is glued to Cosmo, who both looks and feels like a man unaccustomed to killing and is experiencing emotions he has never fathomed. Wherever Cassavettes finds these characters, he puts them in interesting films which are unlike other film experience. Between the delightful, idiosyncratic, and oddly joyful scenes at the strip club, to the painful, heart-thumping realism of the murder, I can’t conceive a film quite like it being made today.

4.5/5

4.5/5

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Network

This film is so brutal, so cynical, and at times, so completely spot-on. The brilliant screenplay by Paddy Chayefsky is at times nothing short of prophetic and Sidney Lumet’s crisp direction maintains focus amidst the chaotic world of network television and weaves together several excellent performances from his cast. While a few bits feel dated, by and large this film is every bit as poignant as it was in 1976, if not more so.

The film begins and ends with four television sets aligned in a two by two grid, spewing images and sounds that mush together. From this muck of sense data is pulled the story of Howard Beale (Peter Finch). Beale is an alcoholic late middle-aged widowed news anchor for a network called UBS who, after being forced into retirement, declares on national television that he will commit suicide on air in one week. This naturally causes an uproar, but Beale nevertheless manages to talk his way onto the air the next night for one last broadcast and promptly goes on another unprofessional rant. By the third night Diana, an ambitious programing director played by Faye Dunaway, sees the potential for a new hit show based on Beale’s bitter ramblings.

Diana is truly a piece of work. As another character explains, she has learned everything about life from the television. Virtually everything she says in the film comes from somewhere else, as if a template for every conversation that she could possibly have exists in television somewhere. Even political views are simply character traits. At one point in the film, Diana enters into contract negotiations over a show created by the leader of a communist terrorist group, who sadly does not see the irony in her arguments over distribution charges. Diana becomes romantically involved with Howard’s friend Max (William Holden) who is fired from his job as head of the news division but nevertheless provides the emotional center of the film.

The performance by Peter Finch is truly fantastic. Aside from the “I’m Mad as Hell!” bit, which feels quite corny and out-of-place, his tirades as a humanist televangelist are priceless. He berates his audience for their lack of literacy, for letting television shape their realities and their all-around complacency. In the age of realty television, twitter, ever shorter soundbites, and the death of Newspapers, this film is extremely prescient. It is as if Chayefsky knew that someday Jersey Shore would be among the most popular television shows. A couple of other performances merit mentioning. Robert Duvall plays Frank Hackett, a corporate head in charge of CCA’s corporate takeover of UBS, and Ned Beatty as Arthur Jensen, the head of CCA’s board of directors. Duvall performance is rather bland as simply a greedy corporate type, but Beatty gives a fantastic speech about globalization and macroeconomics which comes out of nowhere but is utterly devastating. It adds a whole other level of satire and foreboding.

Much of the doom and gloom predicted in this film has come true. We have become ever more de-sensitized towards violence and reality. Television bleeds inane real life into fiction while desperately trying to evoke shock and spectacle at every turn. Attention spans are at an all-time low. Lumet deftly maneuvers a brilliant script and several great performances into a biting and unforgiving look at the desperate status of television and its dangerous effect on society and indeed, even democracy itself. Decide for yourself how accurate you think this film was at predicting the future. That there is a television show called “Toddlers in Tiaras” tells me all I need to know.

4.5/5

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Heart of Glass

Heart of Glass is the most experimental of Herzog’s films that I have seen. Mixing poetry linked with visual imagery and a traditional (traditional for Herzog) narrative, Heart of Glass delves into into the superstition and hysteria that desperation can induce. I am not sure this film is among the very best of Herzog’s, but it is a fine film nonetheless.

The film begins by showing a man sitting in the forest, looking contemplative. The film then cuts to images of nature in its powerful glory, accompanied by apocalyptic poetry. This sets the tone for the shadow of doom that will hang over the film. From here, the film cuts to a man, who we will learn, is a prophet named Hias. When a man claims he has seen a giant, Hias explains that it was merely the shadow of a dwarf enlarged by the particular direction of the sun. Hias then predicts that two men, and thief and liar, will cross paths on a bridge, with the camera showing us two men running across the bridge. This will be the first of many predictions that Hias will make throughout the film. These predictions will nearly all be ominous and surround the members of a small Bavarian town.

That this town is doomed, there is little doubt. The town’s soul source of production is its ruby glass. However, the master blower dies before the film begins, and he took the secret to making the glass with him to his grave. There is effort to attempt to discover the secret, either by finding it in the master blower’s home or in attempting to discover the technique by practice. These attempts fail. The town slowly slips into madness.

Hias is constantly having premonitions about the unfortunate future. However, these visions are very vague and it is not clear whether the predictions result from vision or from the members of the town choosing to make them happen. Without their glass, the townspeople seek myth and despair. Everyone in the town is overcome with insanity. I found out after the film that Herzog hypnotized the entire cast, with the exception of Hias and the glassblowers. It works to great effect here. Everyone is off, bizarre, tripped out. An excellent, if not brilliant film.

4/5

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