Sunday, January 23, 2011

The Two Chat(t)os

There's an opinion that's often expressed when comparing film actors which is that no one can really judge their performances against each other unless they play the same role. So unfortunately, if we wanted to fairly compare Henry Silva to Charles Bronson we couldn't, because they have never played the same role. Or have they?

In 1970's Five Savage Men, Henry Silva plays an Apache named Chatto who's out for revenge for the rape of his woman by a group of white men. In 1972's Chato's Land, Charles Bronson plays an Apache named Chato who's out for revenge for the rape of his woman by a group of white men. Looks like it's time for a throw-down!

Chato's Land                                                      Five Savage Men

Story concept - It's simple and straightforward, a posse comes for Chato after his altercation with the local sheriff. Chato lures them onto his home turf in the desert and then it's game on. A somewhat predictable, but still effective idea. 
Story concept - A woman is attacked and left for dead by outlaws, but is rescued by Chatto who nurses her back to health and trains her for revenge. A great concept that sounds like a really good Asian cinema film. There's room for both action and a love story. Win.
Cast - Bronson aside, the film sports several strong character actors, very much on their game, including Jack Palance, Simon Oakland, Richard Jordan, James Whitmore, Richard Basehart and Ralph Waite. The casting was critical as these characters have a lot more screen time than Bronson who is hiding out and fighting guerilla-style for most of the film. Win.
Cast - Besides Silva, the only cast members of note are Keenan Wynn, John Anderson and Michele Carey. Wynn is decent as a slimy bad guy, and Anderson is good as the head of the posse, but Carey is awful as the heroine. I can't believe this is the same woman that shot John Wayne out of his saddle, bitch-slapped James Caan and wanted to put a cap in Edward Asner's ass in El Dorado. In this movie, she looks like she's spending the summer at Camp Totonka doing arts and crafts, and her acting is atrocious.
Atmosphere - Solid, mostly due to the nice wide open and long range camera shots by director Michael Winner which show the desert setting to be an enemy to the posse and an ally to Chato. Good cinematography by Robert Paynter also helps attain a gritty look. The downside is an overcooked musical score by Jerry Fielding which seems way to epic for this small haunting story. Win.

Atmosphere - Very uneven due to a variety of factors. The biggest offender is the bad editing which uses a variety of cheap tricks in an attempt to make the film more suspenseful and lurid. The worst of which is the repeated use of the insert POV rape shots. All I could think about during these was that some of the guys needed to trim their nose hairs. The music is bottom of the barrel and features a ridiculously out-of-place pop song during a training montage.
Bronson/Chato - Despite his rather eastern European look, Charles Bronson really pulls off playing a Native American. He has the leathery and sinewy look of someone who has spent their life in the desert. His taciturn acting style really helps sell the role as well. Bronson is so believable and bad-ass in the film that even when he shows up in a loincloth, I didn't crack a smile. I don't think any other non-Native American actor could have pulled this role off so well. Win.
Silva/Chatto - Like Bronson, Silva also has a naturally still and quiet acting style which lent itself quite well to the Apache character he played. He resembles a southwest Native American much more than Bronson and was fairly believable in the role. Unlike Bronson, however, Silva was pretty much on his own as far as supporting talent and crew. Even his wardrobe and wig looked pretty weak, which meant he had to supply all the authenticity himself.

There is a very cool last shot in Five Savage Men that bumps it up a notch for me, but Chato's Land has a very 70's-style ending to it that was strong as well. I'd even go a step further with Chato's Land and say, although it's not a great film it's definitely in the top 5 of Michael Winner's efforts, well worth checking out even for non-Bronson fans. Five Savage Men can be enjoyed by Silva fans since he has a prominent part, but it's so uneven, and at times amateurish, I wouldn't recommend it to anyone else.

Even though I love Silva more than Bronson, in this case, I have to say Chato's Land is a far superior picture in almost every respect to Five Savage Men. It's no fault of Silva's, he just was not surrounded with the caliber of professional talent Bronson had in his film. In the end, I guess you can't really judge actors against each other, even in the same roll, if they don't have the same team supporting them. 

Overall Scores

Chato's Land 7.5                        Five Savage Men 5.5


Monday, January 17, 2011

Wes' Blessing

Deadly Blessing (1981)

Synopsis - Strange things are afoot in a Hittite community, but that doesn't mean the ladies can't be stylish.

In the excellent director's commentary track to Deadly Blessing, Wes Craven says he doesn't get asked about this particular film. I find that odd since it is a film whose plot alone raises a lot of questions. And as Craven's first big budget crack at horror, it would seem there would be more historical interest in it. There are definitely unintentional call-backs to The Hills Have Eyes and The Last House on the Left, and one scene in particular that would later be echoed in A Nightmare on Elm Street:  

Deadly Blessing is at its core, however, a slasher/mystery set in a fictional, uber conservative religious community which beat both Stephen King's Children of the Corn and X-Files' Kindred characters to the ulra-zealot horror punch. While the film is much milder horror than its predecessors from Craven, it does have some interesting, campy and downright loopy things going for it such as:

  • The Hittites themselves, who make Southern Baptists look like Delta House frat boys.

  • The Lisa Hartman teen-aged character's warped perspective paintings which are a cry for mental health help.
  • Michael Berryman in full pseudo-Amish garb chasing Lisa Hartman and peeping Maren Jensen.

  • Sharon Stone's designer nightgowns which are apparently worn when a friend is in mourning.

  • A Lawrence Montaigne sighting. (His character of Stonn cuckolded Spock with T'Pring in the Amok Time episode of Star Trek TOS. Montaigne was a ubiquitous background player in 60's TV and movies and for some strange reason, me and my family have a weird tradition wherein we are compelled to yell out "Montaigne!" upon seeing him in anything).

  • Ernest Borgnine's glowering, cockblocking, Quaker Oats beard wearing, paternal head of the Hittites character is wonderfully over the top.

  • Jeff East's blond haired, blue-balled, boy-next-door Hittite, who not only has the misfortune of having Borgnine's buzzkill character as a father, but the four hottest babes on the planet in Maren Jensen, Susan Buckner, Sharon Stone and Lisa Hartman living in the neighborhood and sporting Victoria's Secret apparel half the time. I can only imagine the frequency and intensity of the East character's late night whack sessions, especially since his fiancee looks like a prudish cross between Anita Bryant and a young Betty Crocker.

  • Maren Jensen's strong, pimp-like, swing-from-the heels, backhanded bitch-slap of Sharon Stone to snap her out of her hysteria was worthy of Maurizio Merli, and solidified my life-long adoration for Jensen.

    • The last act, non-sequitur reveal of the killer puts most crazy giallo endings to shame (but actually mirrors one!).
    • The crazy and confusing final 15 minutes of the film pays off like a broken one-armed bandit. I think I said "Wait…What?" No less than three times on my initial viewing. The final act is a rollicking barrel of WTF-ness.

    Despite the nuttiness of the movie, and a final ending that Craven himself confirmed was tacked on, I still really enjoyed the film. It does have a genuinely solid music soundtrack complete with spooky religious chanting by legendary composer James Horner. The Texas location made a nice stand-in for Pennsylvania with its wide open vistas and flatlands. And lastly, Craven was able to put a little more production value into this film for a change, and he took advantage to get something classier looking.

    Overall, Deadly Blessing has just enough of an atmosphere to be an effective horror film, and just enough camp to keep it fun. I can't quite give it a "good" rating due to it's flaws, but it is an above average, entertaining popcorn movie that anyone interested in Craven's work should see. 

    Score 6.5

    Monday, January 10, 2011

    2 Chick Flick

    Most males tend to go in kicking and screaming when it comes to attending the standard romantic film. It usually becomes a UN type negotiation wherein their ladies' promise one mindless action or horror movie in exchange for one "chick flick". I know, I've been bargaining ever since I was 10 when I promised my sister Ryan's Daughter for Tora, Tora, Tora. But arm-twisting men into the "chick flick" is nothing compared to getting them to watch some lesbian cinema (and no, I don't mean Where the Boys Aren't 16). If one gooey, lovelorn chick is icky, two are really over the top and unacceptable to the intimacy avoiding, red meat eating male fan. But there are some surprisingly top shelf finds, in what is a relatively new genre, that would entertain even though most squeamish, romance dodging, male film fan: There's true crime like Butterfly Kiss; neo-noir like Bound; goofy comedies like Better Than Chocolate and even period piece mini-series like Tipping the Velvet.  The best film of the genre however, is one of the earliest entries...   

    August 1986 - I was headed over to my girlfriend's parent's house in north Fresno as they had recently bought one of those sweet video projector TVs, and I wanted to check out my buddies' copy of Return of the Living Dead. When I arrived, my girlfriend was already watching something on cable that she said would be over in a minute. Turned out she was intentionally scamming me, because the movie went on for another 80 minutes. At first, I heaved loud, put-out, sighs of frustration, but I had to admit, the film was well made, well acted, plus it had Mrs Roper from Three's Company in it. I was soon pulled in completely and won over by all the outstanding aspects of the film.

    Desert Hearts

    "I don't act this way to change the world. I act this way so that the goddamn world won't change me!" 
    -Cay Rivvers

    Synopsis: A reserved, east coast college, English professor travels to Reno circa 1959 to seek a divorce from her husband. While staying at a dude ranch, she befriends the wild daughter of the proprietor. Sparks ensue.

    Director Donna Deitch absolutely knocks it out of the ball park with her first directorial effort which she also went to great lengths to produce. The production value is amazing considering the paltry $350,000 budget, and taking into account the period, the look, the soundtrack, and the talent engaged. That Deitch was able to shoot a convincing period piece drama at all on that budget is remarkable. That it turned out to be not only one of the all time best films in its genre, but a romantic film that can hold its own with the greatest of them, is an even more stunning accomplishment.

    The look of the film is accomplished by a one-two punch of Nevada's natural beauty, and 9-time Oscar winner Robert Elswit's skilled cinematography. Fans of Paul Thomas Anderson will recognize Elswit's name. He's also worked as the DoP for the recently released Salt and The Town, in addition to There Will Be Blood and my all time favorite baseball movie Long Gone. He makes good use of the wide open, empty, but still gorgeous, country side in this film, and also does some very impressive interior work in the ranchhouse and at the casino.

    The simple, straight-forward story with complex three dimensional characters is accomplished by a sharp script from Natalie Cooper which is based on the novel Desert of the Heart by Jane Rule. Each of the lead characters in the film have what Yogi Berra would call 'deep depth'. Many of them bring personal baggage into the story which effects their behavior throughout the film. The viewer really gets a sense that these characters existed long before the film and will go on in their world long after it ends. In addition, there are no simple answers, there are no epiphanies and the script never cheats the characters of their beliefs or emotions with easy resolutions. As a result, I wound up liking all the characters, even if I felt they were sometimes wrong-headed in their decisions.

    Whether it was smart choices or serendipity, Deitch really got her money's worth from the cast. The acting is truly superb, especially by the leads Helen Shaver and Patricia Charbonneau who have great chemistry together. Shaver's character Vivian is emotionally wrung out by her divorce, and ill prepared and resistant to enter another relationship, especially an unconventional one. Charbonneau's character of Cay is a bit wild considering the era, but is immediately taken by the conservative Vivian. Watching Vivian attempting to keep Cay at arms length is one of the highlights of the film and a tribute to Shaver's acting skills. Audra Lindley puts in a fine performance also as Cay's stepmother, who disapproves of her daughter's lifestyle, yet is still very much attached to her. The complex dynamic between the two is another highlite. Finally, Andra Akers plays Silver, Cay's co-worker at the casino and close friend. Her character also adds color and depth to the story. There are several other interesting characters and actors like Alex McArthur and Denise Crosby that add to the richness of the film and really help create a believable fleshed out environment. Again, Deitch was either brilliant or lucky when it came to the casting. When Jeffrey Tambor is one of your uncredited extras, you've done a superlative job or hit the jackpot.

    Last, but far from least, is the musical choices, which frame the era perfectly. Patsy Cline, Elvis Presley, Gene Vincent, Ferlin Husky and Buddy Holly are all featured on the soundtrack which I would rate as one of the all time best. The only other films I can think of that used so many pop hits so well to establish time, place and tone would be American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused.

    The film ultimately went on to win three awards at various venues including Sundance. Had the film been released ten years later, I suspect that total would have gone up dramatically. In any event, Deitch made a film that was ahead of its time, iconic in the genre, and just a great romantic film that fires on all cylinders. I can't stand most chick flicks, but I love this two chick flick a lot.

    Score 9/10

    Very Cool - Shaver has an impressive resume including a guest appearance on an excellent episode of The L Word titled Liberally. She plays a very believable, and even sympathetic, religious whacko.

    Not so Much - Although Charbonneau was nominated for an Independent Spirit Award for her role in Desert Hearts, Shaver was slighted. Someone must have flipped a coin to determine the nomination as both performances are worthy.

    WTF! Charbonneau was pregnant for the duration of the film's shooting time! 

    Monday, January 3, 2011

    très bien

    There was no culturally dorkier time in America during my life than the 80's. Graduating high school in 1979, I believed the culture had bottomed out with the disco era. I felt confident that in the 80's, the pendulum would swing back to hip, and all would be righteous and cool like a blaxploitation flick starring Pam Grier. Pondering the decade after graduation, I would be in full agreement with Marissa Ribisi's character Cynthia in Dazed and Confused, and nearly echoed her dialogue years before she said: "Maybe the 80s will be like radical or something. I figure we'll be in our 20s and it can't get worse."  Bzzzzzt, wrong again, it got worse, especially in American, especially in film. 

    The French, being ever the contrarians, got real cool, at least cinematically, and started a second mini-new wave of chic, stylish Cinéma du look movies that put our 80's cinema to shame both aesthetically and coolness-wise. With directors like Beineix, Besson and Carax they were stylistically kicking American cooky-cutter, big budget movies all over the multiplex. If there were any cooler American movies in the 80's than Diva, Betty Blue, Boy Meets Girl and Subway, I must have missed them.

     And there is another strong entry, that despite recognition at Caan, gets overlooked when discussing this period in film…
    Invitation au voyage  (1982) 

    Synopsis: A young man and his pop star, twin sister travel around France together in the early 80's.

    Despite its pedigree, this is a very accessible road picture that has a pretty straightforward subtext about obsessive love and loneliness. That's not to say it isn't strange, atmospheric and distinctly French. Director Peter Del Monte does a fine job at creating an otherworldly feel with the film's look and music, as the main character Lucien drifts around France meeting a variety of people along the way. There's an odd, deserted quality to most of the sets which reinforces the general sense of loneliness that permeates the film. Cinematographer Bruno Nuytten, who has done work on such films as Manon of the Spring, Jean de Florette, Possession and the infamous Zoo Zero does another exceptional job on the photography in this film. The music, which also helps greatly in setting the tone, is a combination of synth, orchestral strings and straight up pop/rock. It sounds like a discordant mix of styles, but it really works well, especially the haunting string piece by Gabriel Yared, and the Nina Scott song Don't Follow Me, that are played repeatedly in the latter half of the film. 

    The story itself is edited out of sequence so the viewer finds out backstory as the road trip progresses. This makes the somewhat leisurely pace of the film easier to take and also saves the dramatic punch for after the characters have been established. Laurent Malet plays the sad and enigmatic Lucien whom the film is centered around. Corinne Reynaud, in her only film role to date, plays his twin, the successful, up and coming pop star, Nina Scott. Her character looks more than a little like Martha Davis of the Motels and even sounds like her a bit. Other actors of note are Aurore Clement as a stranded, love-lorn motorist, Raymond Bussieres as an old man stowaway with solid musical taste, and the great Mario Adorf, in a very subdued performance, as a Turkish sailor named Timour. None of the characters overstay their welcome and many of them, although not quirky, come with light, comic qualities.

    I don't know if anyone has ever included Del Monte in with the Cinéma du look crowd, but his film definitely fits in as a successful exercise in style. However, it also has substance to it, unlike Besson's Subway for example, which is nothing but style and quirky characters. There are some shocking aspects to the film, which are mostly downplayed, and you may never want to drink milk again, but for fans of French cinema especially during this period of the 80's, this is one solid, cool film that will haunt long after viewing.

    Score 8/10

    Very cool - This movie

    Not so much - Unavailable on DVD

    WTF! - Drinking bath milk - blech!