Drunken Master

Drunken Master (1978)

Dir. Yuen Woo-ping

Written by: Lung Hsiao, Ng See-yuen, Yuen Woo-ping

Starring: Jackie Chan, Yuen Siu-tien, Hwang Jang-lee

 

Drunken Master is one of the seminal classics of the kung fu genre. I didn’t see the movie until after I had already become enamored with Hong Kong martial arts films and decided to trace the lineage back to some of the great films of the early period of the genre, but it’s still a favorite of mine. Like many Americans getting into kung fu movies, my journey began with the films of Bruce Lee, and then jumped forward to the modern kung fu films of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, whose American films were becoming very popular around the time that I started high school. After I tired of their late 1990s and early 2000s era Americanized martial arts films, I started seeking out Chan’s earliest work, and discovered a treasure trove of classic Hong Kong cinema. Jackie Chan has become a household name, and in many ways has come to signify a certain type of martial arts cinema. The roots of his particular blend of slapstick comedy and martial arts can be found on full display in Drunken Master.

The film casts Chan as the folk hero Wong Fei-hung, a revolutionary kung fu master who lived at the turn of the 20th century, and a common figure among popular martial arts media. In the film, young Wong is a troublemaker, who is only beginning his journey towards becoming a hero and martial artist. Wong is more interested in causing mischief with his friends and in picking fights than he is in learning the disciplines of kung fu, so his father, Kei-ying (Lam Kau), recruits the feared and legendary master Su Hua-chi (Yuen Siu-tien) to mentor the boy and mold him into a kung fu master. Master Su introduces Wong Fei-hung to a rigorous training regimen, meant to strengthen the pupil’s mind and body in preparation for his learning of Master Su’s secret style of kung fu, “drunken boxing.” Though he initially bristles at the torturous training, Wong eventually falls in line after suffering an embarrassing thrashing from Thunderleg (Hwang Jang-lee), a local contract killer and bully. Wong masters drunken boxing just in time to save his father from Thunderleg, who has been hired to kill him by a business rival to whom the elder Wong will not sell his land.

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Drunken Master wasn’t Jackie Chan’s first hit in Hong Kong, but it, along with its predecessor Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow, also directed by Yuen Woo-ping, were Chan’s true breakthroughs. The films established the comedic style of kung fu that the actor would become synonymous with, and ushered in a sea change in the genre. The films also helped Chan to step out from Bruce Lee’s shadow, as he had been groomed as a potential successor to Lee as the next big star of Hong Kong action cinema. While Chan would go on to experience major success both at home and internationally, likely earning a place on the Mount Rushmore of modern action stars, he would do it through establishing a potent blend of comedy and action. Chan’s unique style of martial arts, acrobatic and lithe, is on full display in Drunken Master, and his comedic timing is enhanced by the film’s plot device that drunken boxing can only be optimally performed when under the influence of alcohol. Throughout the film, Chan glides through his fight scenes, displaying an oxymoronic graceful clumsiness and the sort of effortless physical timing that denotes a master. He nails his spots and his stunts, while maintaining the engagingly charismatic persona that makes him a star. Though the film doesn’t feature the daredevil stunts that would become Chan’s calling card later in his career, the seeds of his slapstick style of action comedy are clearly already on display.

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Chan isn’t the only engaging martial artist in the film, however. Drunken Master is full of great fight scenes that are entertaining, exciting, and funny. Yuen Woo-ping began his career with Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and used that film and this one to cement his style, going on to further his credentials by working with several legendary martial arts actors and further the blend of comedy and martial arts. Though much of his cast in Drunken Master is not as famous or accomplished as the actors who he would make his name with, Yuen helps his performers stand out in unique ways during their fight scenes. Hwang is the perfect villain in the film as Thunderleg, and Yuen uses the actor’s physicality perfectly, crafting him as a traditionally one-dimensional, cruel and punishing villain. Though the Korean actor would continue to work in Korea and Hong Kong into the 1990s, Thunderleg is probably his signature role, and his unique fighting style in the film is memorable. Dean Shek, who had already been making films for Shaw Brothers Studios for a decade, stands out as Kai-hsien the assistant instructor at Wong Kei-ying’s school, whom Wong Fei-hung and his friends bully early in the film. He provides a lot of comic relief early on and is a good foil for Jackie Chan. Yuen Siu-tien, Woo-ping’s father and an established martial arts star, steals several scenes as Master Su. He plays the role of the drunk and the warrior equally well, snapping into action in the film’s fight scenes, while he dodders around, casually abusing Wong, during its many training montages. The many different styles of kung fu on display, and Yuen Woo-ping’s ability to excellently choreograph fight scenes that highlight those stylistic differences, make for a varied fight-fest that doesn’t get bogged down in the repetition that can befall some lesser martial arts films.

The film is, admittedly, fairly light on plot, but I don’t think that that is necessarily a bad thing. I don’t really watch kung fu movies looking for intricately plotted narratives, and Drunken Master delivers on the promise of a fun, action-packed two hours of entertainment. The film’s plot will be familiar to anyone who is familiar with the archetypal narrative of the hero’s journey, generally, and intimately familiar to anyone who is familiar with kung fu films. It uses the traditional narrative of some outside force threatening the protagonist’s village/family/martial arts school, and the protagonist having to train to defeat that outside force, and becoming a kung fu master in the process. While some of the specifics of this narrative are unique to Asian cultures, the narrative itself is universal and bears a great deal of similarity to the classic American Western. I have always felt that the Western and the Asian action genres of martial arts and samurai films have had a great deal in common and have regularly been in cinematic dialogue with one another. There are obvious examples of crossover with The Magnificent Seven being a direct adaptation of Seven Samurai, and with A Fistful of Dollars being adapted from Yojimbo, but I think that overall the genres are constantly influencing and informing one another. Specifically in Drunken Master, I think that Yuen Woo-ping shows the influence of Sergio Leone early in the film, particularly in the way he has characterized and chooses to frame Thunderleg.  The sort of primal, direct narratives that Westerns and martial arts films traffic in are cut from the same cloth, despite cultural specificity, and the focus on “men of action,” while perhaps outmoded, is certainly familiar. I guess it isn’t surprising that these two genres are among my favorites, and that I’ll generally be pretty satisfied to watch any Western or martial arts film.

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Drunken Master is the sort of genre cornerstone that anyone who is interested in getting into kung fu movies, or Hong Kong cinema generally, should see. It is an early career classic from some of the central players in the New Hong Kong Cinema that would emerge in the 1980s, and its influence on the modern martial arts genre should not be understated. I don’t know that I personally love the slapstick style of Jackie Chan and the extreme emphasis on comedy in his early kung fu films as much as the traditional wu xia inspired kung fu films of the Shaw Brothers, but Drunken Master is too fun not to enjoy. The film’s fight choreography stands up to modern films, even 40 years after its release, thanks to the work of Chan and Yuen Woo-ping, both legends in the world of martial arts cinema. The film’s injection of humor makes it a perfect starting point for people looking to start watching more kung fu movies, and the presence of a mega-star like Jackie Chan make it fairly easily accessible, as well. Martial arts films had already reached a high level of artistic accomplishment by the release of Drunken Master, but the film’s success helped to reinvigorate the genre after the death of Bruce Lee, and helped to keep it relevant, if somewhat disregarded as “low art,” with international audiences. The film’s innovations wouldn’t be fully realized until Chan broke through as a star in Hollywood in the early 1990s, bringing along with him a wave of Hong Kong action stars and American releases of their films, but without Drunken Master, it’s arguable that this boom period for martial arts cinema wouldn’t have happened. If you’re only going to watch one kung fu movie, this might not be the Platonic ideal to choose, but if you want to explore the genre and seek out some of the more unique entries to its canon, Drunken Master can’t be missed.

Drug War

Drug War (2013)

Dir. Johnnie To

Written by: Ka-Fai Wai and Nai-Hoi Yau

Starring: Honglei Sun and Louis Koo

 

Drug War is the perfect action thriller to follow up last week’s movie, Don’t Say A Word, and to help wash that viewing experience out of my consciousness. Drug War is a great action movie, suspenseful, stylish and original, perfectly paced and shot. I’ve written before about my fondness for Hong Kong action cinema developing early in my teens when my friends and I would borrow tapes from one of their fathers. During those early years, I associated Hong Kong cinema, and Asian action cinema, in general, with the kung fu movies of Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, and Jet Li. It wasn’t until college that I discovered the wide array of films that were common in Hong Kong cinema tradition, including beautiful ghost stories informed by Chinese mystic traditions, the aforementioned kung fu classics and wuxia epics, and, of course, gritty police procedurals, which became some of my favorites. Over the last decade, or so, my appreciation for Asian action cinema, in general, hasn’t waned, with some of my favorite recent action films emerging from Hong Kong and Korea. I’ve found these imports to routinely be more unique and of a higher quality than the Hollywood action fare that is currently clogging the multiplex from April to October, and Drug War is certainly no exception.

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Drug War is something of a hybrid of a procedural and action film, exploring both the tedious minutiae of day-to-day vice investigations, as well as the explosively dangerous situations that drug enforcement officers in China find themselves in when attempting to apprehend drug traffickers. The film opens with Timmy Choi (Koo), a drug manufacturer and trafficker, crashing his sports car into a shop window while fleeing from an explosion at his methamphetamine factory. Simultaneously, we witness a sting operation led by Captain Zhang (Sun), a vice cop, in which a busload of drug mules are apprehended. Choi is brought to the same hospital that is treating the mules, and Zhang realizes that the man is connected to the trafficking ring, and though he attempts an escape from the hospital, Choi is apprehended and offers to trade information in exchange for his life. With Choi’s help, Zhang goes undercover, impersonating two different figures in the Chinese drug underground, and working his way into the organization. He is introduced to all facets of the drug trade, from manufacturing to distribution and trafficking, and he is gradually introduced to the major players of Choi’s syndicate. Zhang sets up a deal, posing as “Haha” a drug trafficker who operates a port and is looking to ship the syndicate’s drugs across the sea to Korea and Japan, but when it’s time for the deal to go down, the gangsters discover that there’s a rat in their midst, which prompts an epic battle in the streets between the police and the gangsters.

I think what I like the most about Drug War is that it feels authentic. Nothing about is glossy or over the top, and there’s not an attempt to glorify either side of the conflict. The drug dealers aren’t, for the most part, monsters, nor are the police shining white knights. Instead, both groups are depicted, realistically, as two sides of the same coin, having to come to unsteady alliances with one another in order to operate. Though Zhang isn’t sure if he should fully trust Choi, he knows that he needs him for the access that he can provide to higher ups in the drug trade, and though Choi can’t fully trust Zhang, he has to try to keep him happy or he’ll face the death penalty. The pair’s tenuous symbiosis is at the center of the film and it stands in for the larger parasite/host relationship that the drug traffickers share with society generally, as well as the predator/prey relationship that the police and the drug dealers share.

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The film is also realistic in its depiction of police work. I’m a sucker for a good, slow-moving procedural, and though Drug War is a bit too action oriented to be a true procedural, I appreciate the fact that To chooses to slow the pace and put a damper on his typically bombastic brand of action cinema. Drug War takes special time to show the surveillance teams tensely listening in as Zhang goes undercover in a room full of dangerous criminals. It highlights the technology that the police rely on to gain information about their targets, as well as the planning and precision timing that are required to execute a successful raid or sting operation. We see teams of officers working in tandem, as a finely-oiled machine or a single-brained organism. This slow pace not only allows the audience to appreciate the complexity of the work that the officers are doing, it also creates a great deal of suspense throughout the film. Early in the film, To chooses to drag out several sequences, ratcheting up the tension as the audience shifts to the front of their collective seats, teasing a disastrous outcome for our protagonists, only to rectify the situation at the last minute, easing the tension and letting everyone take a quick breath. As Zhang gets closer and closer to the top of the Chinese drug underground, the stakes, and the suspense, only raise higher. The film, generally, is a slow build towards its ultimate violent denouement, punctuated throughout by short bursts of action, and the tension/release formula that To has mastered.

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The payoff for all of that suspense is the film’s explosively violent conclusion. To is known for his stylish depictions of violence, and the conclusion of Drug War doesn’t disappoint on that front. To makes his film’s big shootout poetic, capturing some two dozen players firing wildly in the street outside of a primary school, ducking in and out of cover, while his camera does the same, zooming in and out of the action, reframing the shots quickly to mimic the disorienting feeling of an extreme adrenaline rush. The camera often tracks out from the scene, affording the audience a glimpse of the whole street, which resembles a battlefield or chess board, reinforcing the idea that the individual players, be they cop or criminal, are the chess pieces in a larger game. Though this climactic gun battle is the film’s most virtuosic set piece, it still maintains the overall gritty, realistic aesthetic of the film. There is none of John Woo’s gun ballet on display here. In fact, To’s decision to shoot on location gives the scene an eerie, news-like quality that drives home its realism. Simply put, the scene is a great action set piece.

Drug War is full of memorable scenes, but one that sticks out especially for me, is the extended scene early in the film in which we see Zhang go undercover as two different underworld figures, “Haha” and Li Shuchang, who couldn’t be further apart in mannerism and personality. In the scene, Sun is asked to play three different characters, and he nails each one of them. Sun slides effortlessly from persona to persona, fooling the characters in the film as well as the audience. He first meets with Haha, where he must impersonate the stone faced Li Shuchang, saying very little, not allowing a glimpse into his internal processing. The scene then requires Sun to flip characters and impersonate Haha while meeting with the real Li, so he completely changes his physicality, loosening his gait and adopting Haha’s gregarious carefree style of conversation. The meetings are all incredibly suspenseful, as the audience waits to see if Zhang’s cover will be blown, but with Sun’s perfect mimicry, there’s never any real doubt. He doesn’t break until after the deal between Haha and Li has been secured, and only then does Sun return to the Zhang character. He’s taken too much cocaine, in order to sell his performance as Haha, and Sun enacts Zhang’s panic and fear of an overdose perfectly. As soon as the real Li exits their meeting room, he drops the pretense of being Haha and collapses to the floor, writhing and screaming. The layers of this performance, with Sun playing Captain Zhang, who is in turn playing two roles in his undercover meetings, always stands out to me. The three performances are all markedly different, and they are all realized in about five minutes of screen time.

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I don’t typically go for action movies or thrillers much anymore, because they’re often so derivative and one note, but movies like Drug War remind me that the genre is still quite fresh if you look beyond the scope of the Hollywood mainstream. It was on my top ten list in 2013, and it’s still a pleasure to watch a few years later. Even though I know how the story unfolds and when the action set pieces fall, To’s suspenseful film doesn’t lose any of its effect. Drug War is an expertly timed and acted slow burn, and To’s visual style keeps the audience immersed in the world of the film, typically hanging on the edge of their seats. The payoffs at the film’s end are even more satisfying because the tension has been ratcheted so high throughout the earlier parts of the film, providing an appropriate give and take between the film’s contrasting styles. When the violence does finally erupt in Drug War, it has a more cathartic effect than in a mindless action blockbuster because the film has taken the time to properly set the stage by developing its characters and their relationships to one another. It’s a highly satisfying thrill ride and one that I’ll be signing up for again many times in the years to come.

Don’t Say A Word

Don’t Say a Word (2001)

Dir. Gary Fleder

Written by: Anthony Peckham & Patrick Smith Kelley (from the novel by Andrew Klavan)

Starring: Michael Douglas, Brittany Murphy, Sean Bean

 

I had to write my review of Don’t Say a Word almost immediately after screening the movie, because it is a truly unremarkable and unmemorable film. The movie is the type of paint-by-numbers studio fare that I typically avoid, but somehow this disc ended up in my collection. It isn’t really my movie, having gotten mixed into my DVDs at some point when, I assume, a friend let one of my roommates borrow it sometime. The case has sat on my shelf for over a decade, mixed in among other movies that I’ve loved and watched many times over the years, and I’ve never had the impulse to take it out of the case and watch it until this morning. I have to say that my reticence to watch Don’t Say a Word was probably wise, as it provided an entertaining enough, though thoroughly uninspired couple of hours. Don’t Say a Word isn’t a terrible movie, but its familiar plot has been spun out in better, more original ways more than once.

Don’t Say a Word opens in 1991, with an exciting bank robbery scene, in which a gang makes off with a rare $10 million dollar ruby. However, in the chaos of the aftermath of the robbery, two members of the gang are able to double cross their leader, Patrick (Bean), and make off with the precious jewel, leaving him holding a worthless bracelet. The film then jumps forward ten years, introducing Dr. Nathan Conrad, a child psychologist who has been asked to work with a disturbed teenage girl, Elisabeth (Murphy), who witnessed her father’s murder as a child. Meanwhile, Patrick and his gang are released from jail, and are hell bent on finding the stolen ruby. The gang set up shop in an apartment above Dr. Conrad’s apartment, and proceed to surveille him and his family, before abducting his daughter. Patrick contacts Dr. Conrad and informs him that he has little time to save his daughter’s life, and that the only way to do so is to extract a six digit number that Elisabeth has locked in her repressed memories. It is subsequently revealed that Elisabeth’s murdered father was the member of Patrick’s gang who double crossed him, and that he hid the ruby in Elisabeth’s favorite doll for safe keeping. While Dr. Conrad attempts to crack the safe that is Elisabeth’s mind, a police detective (Jennifer Esposito) is tracking Patrick in connection with a string of grisly murders. Their trails all dovetail at the film’s climax, which occurs in a pauper’s graveyard on Hart Island.

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The film starts out promisingly enough. The opening heist scene is exciting, and though its rather conventionally blocked out and shot, it still provides an initial rush that propels the first quarter of the movie. However, when the film starts to downshift and introduce its psychological thriller components, it becomes a bogged down game of cat and mouse. Fleder tries to use dark settings-cemeteries, crumbling state-run mental hospitals-to give the film an eerie undercurrent, but these window dressings rarely serve to distract from the fact that what he’s presenting is largely a cookie cutter ransom film, with few points of specificity to set it aside from the rest of its ilk. The film takes very predictable courses to bringing Conrad and Patrick together for a confrontation, and hits on all the familiar tropes along the way. Even the film’s supposed twists, whether it be the fact that the kidnappers were in the apartment building all along or that Elisabeth’s murdered father was a member of Patrick’s gang, are easy to see coming a mile away. The film features a handful of action set pieces that should help to break up the monotony of its cardboard plot, but none of them are particularly memorable.

The performances are workmanlike throughout, with a pretty good cast having been assembled. No one is doing his or her best work in Don’t Say a Word, but the film doesn’t suffer from poor performances in any way. Douglas is fine as the distressed father, but his performance lacks any sort of immediacy. I felt that he was far more hell bent on getting to work in Falling Down than he ever was on rescuing his young daughter in this film. Bean is probably the star of the show, using his minimal screen time to great effect. He’s particularly effective as a chillingly calm and menacing voice over the phone, giving both Conrad and his wife, Aggie (Famke Janssen), cold instruction.

I do think that the film is to be credited for featuring several strong performances by women and giving its female characters prominent roles. Aggie is bedridden for much of the film, suffering a broken leg in a skiing accident, but when she does get the opportunity to rise and get involved in the action, Janssen delivers ably. She has one of the film’s best fight scenes, viciously dispatching of one of the kidnappers who attempts to snuff her out. Jennifer Esposito does the best that she can with the little amount of screen time and exposition afforded to her character. She plays Detective Cassidy as a tough, no-nonsense cop, and even though her character is an obvious caricature, Detective Cassidy is presented in a more positive light than her male counterparts, who are shown to ineffective, lazy, or both. Finally, Brittany Murphy shines in the movie in a role that she was likely pigeonholed into. Though she spent much of her too short career being typecast in just these sorts of roles, women with psychological issues in crisis, she never failed to deliver compelling, nuanced performances. As might be expected, much of her work in Don’t Say a Word is nonverbal, and she builds a performance on the tics and physical compulsions that drive her character. The film doesn’t have the most progressive view of mental illness, but Murphy’s performance does a lot to soften its rough edges. Her gentleness and longing help to humanize her character and give the film what emotional depth it does have.

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Overall, Don’t Say a Word isn’t a bad movie. It’s serviceable in all the ways that it should be, but it lacks any real dynamism, and it’s far too predictable to stand out in a crowded field of similar thrillers. In fact, it serves as a good reminder for me of why I tend to avoid these types of mainstream thrillers. They’re often so derivative that it’s difficult to distinguish one from another. The film’s cast does what they can to elevate the material, but the talented actors just aren’t given a great deal to work with. Fleder shows some flashes of compelling action filmmaking throughout, but rarely carries these over to the film as a whole, leaving the project feeling uninspired. This is probably the first unequivocally negative review that I’ve written so far for this project, and it likely isn’t a surprise that the first film that I’m reviewing that isn’t actually “mine,” in the sense that I didn’t purchase it or choose it to be a part of my collection. I was hoping that I would be pleasantly surprised by Don’t Say a Word, but there just isn’t enough there to make me desire a second viewing. If you’re in the mood for a psychological thriller, there are plenty of better choices.

Dogville

Dogville (2003)

Dir. Lars von Trier

Written by: Lars von Trier

Starring: Nicole Kidman, Paul Bettany

 

Dogville, in which a stranger named Grace (Kidman), stumbles into a remote town in the mountains of Colorado, where she is reluctantly accepted into a cloistered society and discovers that behind many acts of human kindness there lies an avaricious motive, may be Lars von Trier’s defining masterpiece. The film marries the Danish auteur’s dark thematic explorations with the most radical example of his challenging and ever-evolving visual style. It’s a film that has challenged me since I first viewed it shortly after its release, sometime during my freshman year of college. Like the other von Trier films that I’ve written about, Dogville is a difficult film to “enjoy,” due to its dark and depressing subject matter, but it stands out as a startling and immediate piece of art. The film strips away the artifices of traditional cinema, replacing them with a starkly minimalist visual aesthetic that utilizes chalk outlines on a soundstage to block out its only setting. This extreme minimalism allows von Trier to focus in on the film’s narrative and dig deep into the roots of human nature, revealing a pessimistic, challenging world view that shouldn’t be surprising to anyone who is familiar with the director’s oeuvre. Dogville is a profound film, seeking to explore aspects of the human condition rarely considered, and despite its barren aesthetic, it’s often a beautiful film. It’s an emotionally taxing, mentally exhausting experience to watch, but its host of strong performances and von Trier’s artful directorial choices make for an engaging, unforgettable film.

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Dogville is a tale told in nine elliptical chapters and a prologue, in which we are first introduced to the residents of Dogville, Colorado, a mining town hard hit by the Great Depression. Our guide to the town is young Tom Edison (Bettany), a self-styled writer who has rarely put pen to paper, but who doesn’t shy away from trying to inflict his own morality and high-mindedness on the often resistant townsfolk of Dogville. Early in the film, Tom is walking the town’s main street at night when he comes upon a stranger, Grace, who is on the run from a gang that Tom had previously heard firing shots in the valley below the town. Tom agrees to shelter her, but he must first convince the rest of Dogville’s residents to keep Grace secreted away from harm in their village, and many of them are less than eager to put their own safety and tranquility on the line to harbor a stranger, particularly one who may be dangerous herself. However, they eventually consent to offer Grace a trial period, provided that she earn her keep in the town by doing housework and chores for each of its residents. This arrangement continues well for some time, as Grace proves herself to be an asset to the town, and nearly all of the townsfolk begin to warm to her presence, particularly Tom with whom Grace begins a tentative romance. However, the situation begins to become more tenuous and dissolve when Grace’s pursuers, as well as the local police who are in the pocket of the gang, come sniffing around town, raising the stakes for the people of Dogville. Their initial welcoming attitude begins to gradually turn to resentment and suspicion of Grace, as the townsfolk’s true nature starts to reveal itself as they inflict an escalating series of cruelties on the stranger.

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This is von Trier at his most radically experimental, as he’s fully abandoned the realist tendencies of the Dogme 95 movement that he helped to spark nearly a decade earlier, creating a fully stylized and symbolic, if completely minimalist, visual aesthetic. Von Trier has mentioned that his choice to adopt such radical and theatrical staging for his film was an attempt to strip away the distractions of setting so that audiences would focus on the characters, the narrative, and the performances. Another side effect of this chosen visual aesthetic is that it makes the film immediately engaging because it is such a radical departure from the visual presentation of any sort of traditional narrative film. Taking a page from famed theatrical provocateur Bertolt Brecht’s playbook, and staying true to his own theory that cinema should be “as a rock in your shoe,” von Trier presents the audience with a set of distancing effects that counter-intuitively work to foster audience engagement and identification. As there is little to recognize about the physical setting of the film, audiences have no choice but to deeply and personally invest themselves in the characters and their highly-charged chamber dramas. In Brechtian theory, this would then cause the audience member to internalize the performances and undergo a sort of self-reflection, unearthing heretofore unknown truths. As a highly analytical and critical filmmaker, von Trier no doubt is seeking the same sort of agitation and self-examination in his audience, and if they take the lessons and attitudes of the characters in Dogville to heart, the truths that they find reflected may be challenging, to say the least.

Perhaps this is why Dogville is such a difficult and divisive film, appearing on many best and worst films of the year lists when it was released. The suppositions that it makes about human nature, and in particular, about the American national spirit, are confrontational and challenging, if not down-right appalling. Dogville finds von Trier at perhaps his most misanthropic, sometimes giving the impression that he sees the characters (and perhaps even the actors portraying them) in this morality fable as specimens to be studied, rather than humanistic equals. The coldness that he shows towards his subjects is reflected in the coldness that is revealed to be at the core of their beings. Dogville is a film without any “good guys,” where no good deed goes unpunished, and the strong ultimately lord over the weak and powerless. The quickness with which the townsfolk turn to abusing, and taking advantage of Grace is horrifying, and the savagery to which they descend is shocking, but to von Trier, those traits are true to the selfish, rapacious nature of the human animal. We have seen before in his films that his worldview is bleak and uncompromising, but in Dogville there are no pure souls, no Selma or Bess, to point towards the existence of decency or goodness in the world. When Grace finally gains her comeuppance on the townsfolk and watches them murdered and the town burned, there’s little satisfaction in the revenge for the audience, because it is we that she is dispatching of, at the same time that it is we who are gleeful in the killing. Audiences are indicted as killers regardless of whom they choose to identify with, and are left with a preponderance of difficult questions about their own position on the nature of human kindness and charity.

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Even in a film so bleak, however, and so coldly antihuman, there are many moments of warmth, primarily supplied by the excellent performances of the cast. Although there are several great performances in Dogville, Nicole Kidman owns this movie with her performance as Grace. Released at the same time that she was starring in prestige period films such as Cold Mountain and The Hours, for which she won an Academy Award, Kidman’s performance in Dogville seems to sometimes get overlooked. Perhaps it is the film’s overall divisiveness that led to Kidman not receiving much mainstream consideration for awards or commendations, but what vibrancy there is in the film is directly related to her performance. Kidman is radiant in the film, both in her performance and physically, as she is often shot in golden light that reflects in her red hair and seems to make her personage glow. Early in the film, her kindness is palpable and it begins to seep into the dark crevices of Dogville, inflicting itself onto the town’s hardened residents. The film also requires Kidman to demonstrate extreme range as an actor, as her character is taken on an extreme emotional journey over the course of the film, experiencing and embodying fear, happiness, humble service, love, distress, resignation, shame, and moral vengefulness, among many other complex and difficult to convey emotional states. Though the performance may not be as singularly memorable as Bjork’s in Dancer in the Dark, Kidman’s Grace is equally as impressive. The performance is less outwardly expressive and showy, more inwardly-focused and nuanced.

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Kidman headlines an impressive assemblage of talent, with several other standouts in supporting roles. Von Trier is often able to find himself working with some of Europe and America’s finest actors, and though they don’t always find the experience of working with the famously irritable and demanding director to be a pleasant one, he usually draws great performances out of already talented actors. Dogville is no exception, with famous character actors such as Ben Gazzara and Philip Baker Hall turning in great performances as lonely, but ultimately reprehensible, older men, alongside film legend Lauren Bacall whose Ma Ginger at first seems to be a sweet, if reclusive, matriarch, but whose vitriol becomes evident by the film’s end. Of course von Trier regular, Stellan Skarsgård, makes an appearance as Chuck, a hard working father who resents Grace for what she represents as an outsider who had previously enjoyed a life of luxury. Chuck is the member of the town who harbors the most outward animosity towards Grace, and Skarsgård plays him terrifyingly well, embodying seething resentment and a physical type of malice. John Hurt’s familiar, soothing voice is used to great effect as the film’s narrator, helping to set the scene, and providing near-ironic counterpoint through his calm voiceover narration of events that are rapidly descending into cruelty. In fact, nearly all of the film’s supporting cast stand out in some way, with Kidman’s co-lead, Paul Bettany, being one of the more forgettable aspects of the film. He is fine as the naïve, moralizing Tom, but he doesn’t really add much to the film through his performance. I don’t say that to diminish Bettany’s performance, but more to point out how difficult it is to stand out among a field of such accomplished actors.

Von Trier handles the ensemble cast masterfully, though. His earlier films were often focused on highly intimate and personal narratives that centered on a dynamic female protagonist, and though Dogville certainly is that, the film sees von Trier expanding that focus to provide the sort of character depth and interiority that he previously explored on the individual level to a society. He allows the audience to get to know the citizens of Dogville gradually, affording each one enough screen time to develop their own personality, and to properly inform their motivations and behaviors. He’s brought in actors intuitive enough to make the most of small gestures or bits of terse dialogue, and the result is a town that actually feels as if it could exist. In spite of its lack of visual specificity, Dogville is clearly mapped out, quite literally, and the interactions and relationships existing between its residents feel true to life. Their petty disputes, and their over-familiarity with one another will ring true to anyone who has spent time living in a small town, and perhaps this is what makes their monstrous turn in the film’s second half all the more disturbing. The people of Dogville are people that we, the audience, know. Again, they are us. Dogville is a studied portrait of the callousness of modern human society, from the perspective of a filmmaker who often doesn’t include himself in the larger strictures of human society, and though its scope may be played out on a more violent and even Biblical scale, it hits the nail on the head at the rottenness that is often at the core of people’s petty slights and swipes at their neighbors.

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Dogville is not a film for most people. It’s too avant-garde, too pretentious, too graphic, too nihilistic and misanthropic, to really cater to many audiences. Obviously, I am in the camp that considers it a masterpiece, which really shouldn’t be surprising given my affinity for von Trier’s other films. I don’t necessarily agree with the film’s totally bleak take on human nature and society, but I appreciate its provocative stance and von Trier’s willingness to be totally unrelenting in his vision, both aesthetically and in terms of his presented worldview. I enjoy films like this, ones that force their spectators to question aspects of their own identity or their own nature. I think that for every film that celebrates the beauty of life or of art, there should be another artfully challenging those assumptions and presenting necessary counterpoint. Life certainly isn’t all sunshine and flowers, and neither should our art be. Though I don’t recommend that anyone, myself included, watch Dogville often, I do think that it’s a film that people should at least try to engage with once in their life. It’s a stylistically audacious work of art that seeks to shake viewers out of their complacency and challenge their core beliefs. It’s a good thing to be shaken up from time to time.

Dogma

Dogma (1999)

Dir. Kevin Smith

Written by: Kevin Smith

Starring: Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, Linda Fiorentino, Chris Rock

 

Dogma was the most recently released film in Kevin Smith’s View Askewniverse when my friends and I discovered the director. Coming on the heels of the critical success of Chasing Amy, Dogma represents a huge step forward for Smith and his brand of comedy. It is his first foray into bigger budget filmmaking, and it also shifts the focus largely away from the established world of his first three films, only tangentially tying back into them through the presence of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Smith), this time cast as unlikely prophets. However, Dogma also represents a return to his past for Smith, as he wrote a draft of the screenplay before he filmed his debut Clerks, and only returned to the passion project when he felt that he had garnered enough technical know-how and industry clout to produce the film with the proper budget and production value. The final result is something of a mixed bag, not totally fitting in with Smith’s brand of lo-fi humor but also not divorcing itself enough from that milieu to be the successful action-comedy film that it wants to be. When reflected on in relation to the rest of Smith’s filmography, particularly his first five features and Clerks II, the movies that make up the accepted View Askewniverse, Dogma feels like an aborted foray down an unfamiliar, and possibly wrong, path.

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Dogma opens with fallen angels Bartleby (Affleck) and Loki (Damon) plotting a way to return to their home in Heaven, which they may have discovered after they are tipped off to the planned rededication of a New Jersey church by Cardinal Glick (George Carlin) as part of his new, image-conscious marketing campaign for the Catholic Church, Catholicism Wow! Through a loophole in Catholic dogma, the angels can enter the church in Red Bank, New Jersey on the day of its rededication and be forgiven of their sins, allowing them to re-enter Heaven, thus proving God fallible, and rending the fabric of the Universe and all existence therein. In order to prevent this cataclysm, Heavenly forces recruit Bethany (Fiorentino), a reluctant Catholic who works at an abortion clinic, to travel to New Jersey and stop the angels from reentering the church. Assisting Bethany in her journey are two prophets, the aforementioned Jay and Silent Bob, who serve as her guides from Illinois to their native Jersey, Rufus (Rock), the 13th apostle who was written out of the Bible, and who reveals to Bethany her true identity as a descendant of Jesus Christ’s family lineage, and several other Spiritual entities. They’re opposed by the demon Azrael (Jason Lee) and his trio of devilish hockey playing lackeys, who have secretly been guiding Bartleby and Loki all along for their own nefarious purposes. When all of the disparate parties arrive in Red Bank, a scene unfolds not unlike Armageddon and as the last scion of Christ, Bethany is the only one who has the power to save the Universe.

If the movie sounds ambitious, that’s because it is. As I mentioned, it was far and away the biggest project that Smith had tackled to that point in his career, with a larger cast, longer runtime, more locations, and more indirect approach to comedy than anything that had preceded it. However, rather than feeling like a culmination of everything that Smith had learned while working on his first three features, Dogma often feels like a rejection of those lessons. Smith has jettisoned his penchant for smaller indies in favor of action/comedy bombast, and the transition isn’t exactly smooth. Despite the personal nature of the project, and its lengthy gestation period, Dogma feels somewhat thrown together. It lacks the passion exhibited by the guerrilla filmmaking of Clerks and it doesn’t continue an exploration of the kinds of personal, emotional territory that Smith began to traverse with Chasing Amy. While that film found Smith beginning to peak as a screenwriter, with Dogma, he seems to have bitten off more than he can chew. There are too many characters involved in the film for the audience to become personally invested in any of them, and Smith doesn’t always do a great job of juggling the film’s multiple storylines and locations. Still though, I don’t think that tightening up the narrative would have improved Dogma, as it went through at least eight different variations before Smith settled on the final screenplay. The audacious scope of the film is part of its appeal, and it’s interesting to see the results of Smith’s first attempt to break out from his established niche. The fix for this film might have been in the works all along, however, as Smith reportedly shopped the film to other directors, including Robert Rodriguez, who turned it down citing Smith’s personal connection to the project as a reservation. I would be very interested in seeing what he would have done with this script, coming off of the schlocky, horror-action hybrid From Dusk Til Dawn.

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As intriguing as the prospect of a director slightly more suited to delivering on the promise of Dogma’s complex narrative and genre hybridity, I don’t know that it would have made up for some of the other major flaws that the film has. Overall, my biggest gripe with Dogma is that its cast is star-studded, but the big names are rarely used to their full potential. It may be the fault of the material that they were given to work with, but very few members of the cast are doing anything close to their best work in Dogma. Fiorentino is solid as the doubting, searching Bethany, but her performance isn’t memorable or dynamic. She gets a few scenes that indicate some depth as an actor, but overall her emotional and psychological journey are overshadowed by the mugging and zaniness that surround her character. Rock’s character, Rufus, is underdeveloped and doesn’t rise much above the level of a token black character, and his performance carries about as much enthusiasm as you might expect from the last sketch of the night on an episode of SNL. Rock isn’t the greatest traditional actor, but he is a gifted comedian, and it’s disappointing to see him fall as flat as he does delivering Smith’s dialogue. Selma Hayek appears half way through the film as a muse, Serendipity, whose role is to help provide Bethany with important information about her true identity, but again, she falls victim to underdevelopment. Her character is introduced in a strip club, and she’s largely used as eye candy throughout her brief appearances in the film. Mewes and Smith have a bigger part to play in this film than in the earlier View Askewniverse movies, but they don’t really bring anything new to their trademark roles.

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There are a few bright spots from a performance perspective. Alan Rickman is predictably great as the Metatron, God’s angelic messenger. His trademark sullen expression and exasperation are on full display as a condescending angel forced to deal with inferior humans. He brings a natural grace and poise to his performance that seems fitting for an angel. Conversely, Jason Lee is perfectly smarmy and calculating as the film’s primary villain, Azrael, a demon escaped from Hell with a penchant for central air and seer sucker suits. Lee again shows his ability to master Smith’s dialogue, and his performance as Azrael is my favorite in the film. He plays Azrael as sinister, but also charming, providing a much more nuanced character than do some of his more accomplished counterparts. This is one of the first films that I can remember seeing Lee in that really indicated he was able to craft a character, and that he would have a future as a mainstream actor outside of his collaborations with Smith. George Carlin’s Cardinal Glick is one of the film’s funniest characters, and even though Carlin isn’t stepping far afield from his stand-up routine, I could have used more of his character. Unfortunately, the most interesting characters in the film, including Azrael who should definitely be a more major presence, cede a great deal of screen time to the lesser developed and less dynamic characters. This imbalance is largely what I was referring to earlier when I mentioned that Smith has trouble juggling the film’s multiple storylines.

Affleck and Damon are enjoyable and multifaceted in their performances as the film’s main antagonists, but they’re both asked to do too much in carrying a film that just isn’t that good. I like Affleck a good deal in most of his performances, and he is pretty good here as Bartleby. Initially, Bartleby is the more level headed of the pair, attempting to reign in Loki’s murderous tendencies and keep him focuses on their mission. By film’s end though, the angels have switched moral positions, and Bartleby becomes obsessed with doling out lethal justice to sinning humans. Affleck handles this transition well, and his Bartleby is actually fearsome in the film’s climax, descending from the sky in golden armor, plucking up frightened humans and casually tossing them earthbound to an explosive and bloody end. Affleck had developed an edge to his performance style by this time, but unfortunately, Damon is less adept in the scenes that require him to play dark and villainous. Damon’s smirking visage is appropriate for Loki’s mischievous, trickster qualities, but when he actually follows through on the threats of his violence, the result is shocking but not quite believable. Still, the two have an obvious and natural chemistry, and their overall charm and ability to riff off of one another is a source of much of the film’s comedy.

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Unfortunately, outside of the relationship between Bartleby and Loki, and a few other standout instances that hit the nail on the head in their humorous critique of religion, Dogma just isn’t a particularly funny movie. Despite the assemblage of talent, Smith’s script doesn’t deliver on the comedy end. He attempts to balance high-minded satire with his standard verbose, crass dialogical humor and situational comedy. The results are disastrous, with the film’s satirical elements often feeling over-serious and obvious, and its gross out comedy descending to the levels of actual toilet humor and simply missing the mark. The film suffers from an overreliance on dick and fart jokes, and Mewes is too heavily featured for the first time in the View Askewniverse. I don’t think that my opinions on Dogma’s humor are the results of my maturity since first enjoying it, because I don’t remember ever thinking that the movie was particularly funny, as I did and do about Smith’s other 1990s movies. What has changed is my inability to excuse the movie for not being as funny as it could be, simply because watching Dogma as an adult it isn’t nearly as insightful, profound, or sharply satirical as I thought that it was when I was younger. Smith would later prove himself capable of creating a darkly effective satire in Red State, but Dogma is clearly the work of a younger and less experienced filmmaker.

On the whole, I was disappointed that I didn’t find more to like about Dogma on this rewatch. It’s probably pretty obvious that it was never among my very favorite Smith movies, but I did like it a good bit when I was younger. It still walks a fine line between being critical and reverent of organized religion, and Catholicism, in particular, but as I’ve matured in my own opinions about religion, the film’s tone doesn’t work as well for me as it once did. The film does have its bright spots, but Smith wastes the assembled talent of the cast, and doesn’t have the wherewithal to properly helm a narrative of the scope of Dogma. It isn’t a bad movie, per se, but it’s one that I think might have benefitted from a bit more collaboration and editorial guidance. Though I’ve seen nearly all of Smith’s films, Dogma was really where I stopped being a true fan of the director, and while it used to be in the rotation with relative frequency, I never had the affinity for it that I held for Smith’s first three features. Unfortunately, Dogma’s flaws have only become more apparent with time, and it will likely be a good while before I decide to revisit it, if I do at all.

Dog Day Afternoon

Dog Day Afternoon (1975)

Dir. Sidney Lumet

Written by: Frank Pierson (from the magazine article by P.F. Kluge and Thomas Moore)

Starring: Al Pacino, John Cazale, Penelope Allen, Charles Durning

 

Dog Day Afternoon is one of the oldest DVDs in my collection, both in terms of its place on my shelf and in terms of the actual production of the disc. I would imagine I purchased it sometime in the early 2000s, shortly after buying the Playstation 2 that my family used to play DVDs, probably on a whim based on my affinity for Al Pacino at the time. I know that I hadn’t seen the movie before owning it, and I’m fairly certain that I was only tangentially familiar with it and its subject matter. As a crime movie from the 1970s, with a highly pedigreed cast and director, Dog Day Afternoon fit squarely into my wheelhouse during my teens, and it became one of my favorite movies during that time. It’s a classic crime movie that I don’t think gets enough credit today for being as interesting and influential as it really was. Though I don’t watch Dog Day Afternoon with any regularity anymore, I think that some of its subject matter has only become more relevant in the 21st century with the advent of reality television and social media.

The film is based on the real-life robbery of a Chase Manhattan Bank branch in Brooklyn in 1972. In the film version, the robbers are Sonny (Pacino) and Sal (Cazale), who are woefully unprepared and ill-equipped to pull off the heist. The inept robbers have arrived after the bank’s deposit has already been collected for the day, so there is just over $1,000 left in cash in the bank. To make up for his miscalculation, Sonny decides to steal traveler’s checks and prevent them from being traced by burning the bank’s check register. However, the bank’s neighbors see the billowing smoke coming from the building and call the police, prompting the robbery to turn into a true hostage situation, as Sonny and Sal barricade themselves inside the bank with the employees. What follows is a tense standoff between Sonny and police Sergeant Moretti (Durning), in which Sonny attempts to negotiate a way out of the situation for he and Sal, while Moretti tries to ensure the safety of the hostages in the bank. A huge civilian crowd starts to form, as the situation devolves into a circus, with Sonny repeatedly attempting to incite the crowd and the police, clearly enjoying his brief moment of notoriety. Though he feels that he has total control of the situation, and that he will be able to extricate himself and Sal from the bank safely, it becomes clear as the hostage situation extends further and further into the night that there likely won’t be a happy ending.

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The thing that’s immediately fascinating to me when watching Dog Day Afternoon in 2018 is how prescient and immediate the movie feels. Though perhaps not as much as Lumet’s next feature, Network, this film feels like, with very few alterations, it could have been made today. Though it’s been a feature of news media since the advent and proliferation of cable news, the type of instant celebrity embodied by Sonny in Dog Day Afternoon feels like a very modern phenomenon. Social media and the constant news cycle keep viral stories, such as the one presented in the film, in the public eye much more easily, and they allow for access to breaking news as it happens. It would be very easy to imagine a remake of the film in which the crowd doesn’t gather around the bank, but rather engages with the hostage situation via a Twitter feed, with the police not having to worry about the opinions of just New Yorkers, but of people around the world. It would be a more cynical type of film, but, were it made today, I can envision Sonny planning out the heist to further his YouTube brand. The bank robbery and subsequent circus scene that develops surrounding it have the perfect making of a viral marketing stunt, and, knowing Lumet’s other films, I have to imagine that he had at least some inkling of the watered down celebrity culture that was coming in the near future. While Warhol predicted that everyone would have 15 minutes of fame, I think that in modern culture that brief moment can be distilled down even further, and Sonny’s “Attica!” scene is a perfect example of the sort of brief video clip that has come to define viral stardom in the modern age. Lumet was often an acerbic critic of the media, and Dog Day Afternoon needs little creative interpretation to fall in line with some of his other cynical, satirical films.

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Of course the other aspect of the film that helps it to feel modern and alive is Pacino’s electric performance as Sonny. Delivered at the height of Pacino’s rise to fame, immediately after his star turn in the first two Godfather films, Sonny is my personal favorite Pacino performance of all time. The character is at the same time wired and exhausted, bursting with kinetic energy and mania, but always threatening to collapse in a heap from the stresses his life and his situation have foisted upon him. Pacino gets a (mostly) undeserved reputation for being bombastic and over the top in his performance style, but he plays Sonny to the hilt in this movie, and it absolutely works. He’s physical, he’s histrionic, he certainly gives evidence for some of the more overt tics that would emerge in his style in his later years, but he wraps it all in a believable and effective package, giving Sonny enough nuance to fill in the gaps between his outbursts. He balances his shouting, gestural performance style when hamming it up for the crowd and the police with the quieter moments that he shares with the bank tellers and with Sal, his accomplice. I had forgotten some of the truly touching interactions that Pacino and Cazale share in the film, seeming to genuinely care for one another as friends, and even more so I had forgotten about some of the great moments that Pacino shares with Penelope Allen, who plays the bank’s head teller.

Allen is great in her supporting role as a tough, no-nonsense bank teller who refuses to extricate herself from the hostage situation because she’d rather stay with “her girls,” and ensure their safety. She brings a matriarchal air to the film, but she’s also hardened in a way. She isn’t intimidated by either the robbers or the police, taking ownership of her role as pack leader among the bank’s employees. In many ways, she and Cazale’s Sal are the film’s stabilizing forces. Cazale provides an important foil to Pacino, as he did in the Godfather films. In Dog Day Afternoon, Cazale gets to show off his quiet, stoic side, much different form his better known role as Fredo Corleone. Although he doesn’t have much dialogue, allowing Pacino to do more of the verbose scenery chewing, Cazale’s reserved performance tells the audience everything they need to know about Sal. He’s maybe a bit dim, but he’s loyal and competent, and he’s able to keep a level head as the bank robbery continues to spiral out of control. Though his emotional register remains fairly neutral throughout the film, I always get a bit sad when Sal admits to being afraid to take the jet that Sonny has arranged for them to escape on as he’s never flown before. That extremely human admission, in a very small moment of the film, sells his performance for me entirely.

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The dynamic between Sonny and Sal is an important one in the film, and their opposing demeanors are borne out thematically throughout. Most obviously, the performance styles of the two actors vary wildly, with Pacino’s Sonny more outwardly expressive, performative, and rambunctious, while Cazale plays Sal with a restrained, calm efficiency. Lumet continues this dichotomy through his treatment of the film’s two primary locations, the interior and exterior of the bank. The bank’s interior becomes a still oasis, where Sonny retreats to think and plan his moves, while the exterior becomes increasingly raucous as the crowd of onlookers and police grows throughout the film. The film’s only moments of true physical violence all occur outside of the bank, with Sonny being attacked on the sidewalk by one of the teller’s boyfriends, and of course with Sal being shot at the film’s end. Although this doesn’t take place directly outside of the bank, it still happens outdoors. The bank’s interior, however, is home to moments of emotional authenticity and vulnerability, the vault becoming an important visual reminder of security and refuge. Sal’s aforementioned fear of flying is an example of this vulnerability, as is the bank manager’s (Sully Boyer) admission to Sonny that he has two children at home whom he would like to see again. But the film’s most immediate moment of emotional vulnerability is the scene late in the film in which Sonny finally speaks to his wife, Leon (Chris Sarandon), on the phone. By now, it’s been revealed that Sonny’s motive for robbing the bank was to pay for Leon’s sex change, and though their relationship seems to be contentious at best, it’s clear that the two really love one another. During this brief scene, you can see the realization that he’ll never see his lover again wash over Sonny’s face as Pacino physically slumps, weighed down by the reality of the predicament he’s put himself and everyone he knows in. The quiet resignation in his brief conversation with Leon stands in stark contrast to the bellicosity that Sonny has shown up to that point, and indicates a further layer of the film’s operative dichotomy of wild abandon and homebound safety playing out within his own character.

In Dog Day Afternoon, Lumet hews fairly close to the reality of the event that he’s depicting, with him and screenwriter Frank Pierson knowing a juicy story when they see one ready to be ripped from the headlines. It would be hard not to make the spectacular bank robbery into a good movie, but Lumet’s wry sensibilities and eye for capturing authenticity elevate the film beyond its already intriguing subject matter. He encouraged his actors to largely improvise their dialogue, allowing them the freedom to turn in personal, memorable performances. His sense of pace and of location tighten the film’s narrative and focus. As in any very good thriller, there’s no fat to be trimmed, and the tension is ratcheted up and released at just the right moments. The film strikes a delicate balance as individual scenes are allowed to play out with their natural ebb and flow while the overall work continues its propulsive momentum towards its ultimate, inevitable finale. It’s a slow burn that’s also allowed to crackle and pop from time to time. In short, it’s one of the better thrillers of all time.

District 9

District 9 (2009)

Dir. Neill Blomkamp

Written by: Neill Blomkamp, Terri Tatchell

Starring: Sharlto Copley, Jason Cope, David James

 

District 9 is a film that I don’t watch particularly often, but every time I do watch it, I find myself wondering why it’s been so long since my last viewing. It’s a thoughtful, stylish exploration of social themes wrapped up in the guise of a sci-fi action film. It was an instant addition to the sci-fi canon upon its release, loved by critics and audiences alike. It was also one of the few movies that I saw in 2009, a year when I was almost completely disengaged from the cinema after having dropped out of graduate school. After some subsequent legal issues, I found myself changing jobs, fighting with severe depression, and I simply lost interest in going to the movies because they seemed so ancillary to the issues that I was dealing with in my own life. District 9 didn’t entirely reawaken my serious interest in movies, but seeing it on Christmas day that year did remind me that watching a good movie can be a soothing and restorative experience. Spending a couple of hours in this alternate version of South Africa, one which is inhabited by strange space aliens, was just what I needed at the time, and I find a similar sense of comfort every time I watch this movie.

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In the film, an alien spacecraft arrives on Earth in 1982, and begins hovering over the city of Johannesburg, South Africa. After some time with no successful attempts to communicate with the spaceship, and with the world’s population fervently awaiting first contact, an investigation team cracks the ship’s hull, revealing a crew of sick and dying alien lifeforms. These aliens, derisively called “prawns,” are corralled by the South African government into a slum outside of Johannesburg, referred to as District 9, where they live in an uneasy and tenuous peace with their terrestrial neighbors. After nearly 30 years of this uncomfortable arrangement, the South African government hires a private security corporation, Multinational United, to relocate the aliens to a different internment camp, further away from human civilization. Leading up the relocation effort is Wikus van de Merwe (Copley), a bumbling bureaucrat placed into a job he’s totally unsuited for by his father-in-law, who happens to be the head of MNU. During the relocation effort, Wikus meets Christopher James (Cope), an alien who, along with his young son and friend, has been stashing away alien technology for 20 years, hoping to one day repair the mothership and return to his home planet to lead a rescue mission for the rest of his kind stranded on Earth. During a search of Christopher’s home, Wikus finds a canister of fuel that Christopher and his friend have been distilling from their scavenged materials, which he confiscates. However, when trying to open the canister, Wikus accidentally sprays himself in the face with the fuel, which immediately begins to have a violent effect on his physical person. Wikus quickly realizes that his exposure to the black liquid is causing his human tissue to be replaced by alien tissue, and that he is gradually transforming into a prawn. When his condition becomes public, Wikus becomes a figure of universal scorn, while also being hunted by MNU mercenaries, who are hoping to capture him and study the only existing human/prawn hybrid. Wikus is forced to return to District 9 and seek out Christopher, hoping to find answers about his condition.

I think that my favorite thing about District 9 is Blomkamp’s choice to present his story in a pseudo-documentary style. This grounds the film’s fantasy premise in a realistic setting, giving us all the tropes of a nonfiction film, and also allows an unfettered amount of access to the few central characters in the film. By framing the narrative as a documentary, we get early moments of Wikus performing for the documentary camera crew, revealing key pieces of the character’s personality. The style makes the film feel ripped from the headlines while it’s obviously dealing with a farfetched science fiction premise. This verisimilitude is reinforced because not only is there a documentary crew filming the process of the relocation of the prawns outside of District 9, but several later developments in the film are revealed through news broadcasts, screens, and security camera footage. I’m often skeptical of films that try to bridge the gap between found footage, documentary, and narrative filmmaking, because often the narrative device is stretched beyond the point of plausibility or just used as a gimmick, but Blomkamp does a great job of walking the tight rope and meshing the film’s disparate styles together.

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The other aspect of District 9 that keeps me wanting to watch it over and over again are the great performances by Copley and Cope as Wikus and Christopher, respectively. The movie was Copley’s feature debut, and his performance as Wikus catapulted him into international stardom. As the film’s only non-alien protagonist, and as the subject of the faux-documentary that is being shot, Wikus is in nearly every scene in the film, and Copley rises to the occasion admirably. He is at times funny, pitiful, sad, and fearsome, as he turns himself into a reluctant warrior by the film’s end. The range that he shows in the film is impressive, providing genuine humor with the early portions of the film requiring a slapstick type of performance while later scenes find Copley evoking deep pathos as he portrays Wikus’s gradual understanding of the plight of the aliens whom he had never considered before. Copley became the film’s breakout star, but I think that Cope’s performance as Christopher is equally as memorable, in a much different way. Cope did the voice work for all of the prawns in the film, and the series of clicks, whistles, and skittering noises that they produce is actually emotive, even divorced from the context of the film’s subtitles. His performance as Christopher Johnson is the film’s emotional center for me, and it’s impressive that an actor can convey that level of emotional commitment while performing as a CGI character. Christopher Johnson feels every bit as real, and deserves every bit of pathos and sympathy that Wikus does, and Cope’s mostly improvised performance is to credit for that.

I think that District 9 is one of the more emotionally resonant science fiction movies I’ve ever seen, and I imagine that that is likely due to its obvious close association with the actual political history of South Africa. The film is a clear allegory for Apartheid, the legislated, state-sanctioned brand of segregation that was law in South Africa for much of the latter half of the 20th century. The prawns are very obviously stand ins for black South Africans, who were subjugated under minority rule by white South Africans until the early 1990s. The political practice had its roots in Dutch colonial rule of South Africa, and the descendants of the colonizers simply continued enforcing this form of white supremacy through legal actions and force, when necessary. Blomkamp’s personal history growing up in the final years of Apartheid undoubtedly had an influence on District 9. Though they’re shown to be mistreated by both white and black characters alike, the othering of the prawns has a distinctly racial feel to it, and though the film’s message could be applied generally and broadly to any class or racial divisions among society, its context as the work of a South African filmmaker make its cultural allusions obvious. While it would stand out as a great modern sci-fi film based on its intriguing premise, great effects and action sequences, and memorable aliens alone, the real world resonance of District 9’s narrative with the recent history of South Africa gives the work that much more artistic integrity, and pushes it over the top into “great film” territory.

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While Neill Blomkamp’s stock may not be as high now as it was after the release of District 9, with his proposed Alien spinoff series never coming to fruition and his subsequent films suffering both critical and commercial failure, District 9 still stands out as one of the early 21st century’s great films. Its successes have bought Blomkamp enough good will with me that I’ll consider his next film or two must see material unless they disappoint me as much as Chappie did. I’m even still holding out some hope that the sequel to District 9 that Blomkamp has teased at various times may eventually appear. But even if it doesn’t, and if Blomkamp doesn’t fulfill on the promise of his debut, nothing can diminish the initial rush that I felt on first seeing District 9. It was such a fun and original premise, presented in an action style that seemed both over the top and practical. The film’s world was engaging, both familiar and alien, but overall wholly formed. It arrived at my life at a perfect time, when I needed to remember the entertainment and distraction that a really good movie can provide, and I’m reminded of that every time I pull it off the shelf for a rewatch.

Dirty Work

Dirty Work (1998)

Dir. Bob Saget

Written by: Frank Sebastiano, Norm Macdonald, Fred Wolf

Starring: Norm Macdonald, Artie Lange, Traylor Howard, Christopher McDonald

 

Early on in this project while writing about Belly, I called it “probably the worst movie, objectively speaking,” that I had reviewed to that point in this project. If you go back and read the review, however, you’ll find that Belly is actually a film that I genuinely enjoy and watch often, and that in spite of some of its cinematic shortcomings, I found some interesting things throughout the film to write about. While Belly looks more like an auspicious debut that hinted at great promise never really fulfilled by its director, Hype Williams, Dirty Work could be viewed more as the hacky, sophomoric comedy that it really is. It is definitely the worst movie that I’ve written about for this project, displaying none of the artistic flair of some of the other “bad” movies that I’ve reviewed. However, Dirty Work will always have a place in my heart. It is truly one of my favorite movies, and I don’t even classify it as a guilty pleasure, because I enjoy it fully, without irony, and without shame. Dirty Work is a bad movie, but, to me, it’s endlessly quotable and rewatchable. In a way, it’s the perfect movie to close out the first year of this project on, because I’m fairly certain that I’ll be one of a very select few to have written a gushing, unabashedly positive review of this much-maligned, oft-forgotten, footnote of cinematic comedy.

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Dirty Work tells the story of Mitch (Macdonald) and Sam (Lange), two underachievers who have been friends since childhood. Growing up, the pair are taught by Sam’s father, Pops (Jack Warden), to not take crap off of anybody. Taking that lesson to heart, as children they make it their mission to serve comeuppance to anyone who wrongs them, child and adult alike. However, when they grow up, they find themselves too often on the receiving end of the comeuppance. Mitch in particular has a difficult time fitting into society, losing 14 jobs and his girlfriend in a matter of three months. Down and out, Mitch asks to move in with Sam and Pops, and shortly thereafter, Pops suffers a severe heart attack. When the two friends are faced with raising $50,000 to secure Pops a heart transplant, they first try their hands at a series of odd jobs, but soon realize that the key to raising the money to save Pops is by returning to their roots as revenge artists. They open up a revenge-for-hire business and offer to do other people’s dirty work for them, all the while saving up money to save Pops. Along the way, Mitch meets a woman whom he falls in love with, Kathy (Traylor), and ends up running afoul of the town’s most powerful citizen, Travis Cole (McDonald). Cole tries to trick Mitch and Sam into helping him condemn a build that he owns, but they eventually turn the tables on Cole and end up getting the last laugh. In the end of the film, Pops gets his heart transplant, Mitch gets the girl, and Cole is railroaded out of town after being exposed for the fraud that he is.

Dirty Work was added to my collection in the summer of 2002. That year, I spent about two weeks cooped up inside the house recovering from a bout of mononucleosis. As such, my mother picked up a few inexpensive DVDs to keep me occupied while I was homebound. One of these bargain bin finds was Dirty Work, and I probably watched the film a half dozen times in those two weeks. I had already seen it in the movie theater with some friends when I was about 13 years old, but it didn’t really stick out to me at that time. I was a latchkey kid back then, and I would often come home from elementary and middle school and watch reruns of “Saturday Night Live” on cable while I waiting for my parents to get home from work. I had gotten introduced to Norm Macdonald’s wry, dry sense of humor through these afternoon television watching sessions, and, as a result, I was a member of the small demographic that was actually interested in Dirty Work when it was released. The movie didn’t make a huge impression on me, but I can remember enjoying it a good bit. I loved the callbacks that Norm did to his Weekend Update persona, pulling out a Dictaphone and recording “notes to self,” and my friends and I were all fans of Chris Farley’s performance as Jimmy, Mitch and Sam’s bar buddy who had his nose bitten off by a Saigon whore, but overall the movie didn’t really stick with me after that initial viewing. Since receiving it on DVD, however, Dirty Work has been a staple of my viewing schedule for the past 15+ years. I don’t know if its offbeat, mocking style of humor needed some time to grow on me, or if part of the joy of the movie lies in repetition, but the older I get and the more times I watch Dirty Work, the more I want to watch and enjoy it again and again.

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I think the common line of thought on Dirty Work, if the film is even thought of at all, is that it is a simple, sophomoric comedy, loosely and conveniently plotted, and filled with gross-out humor. On the surface, this is an absolutely accurate description of Dirty Work, but after nearly 100 viewings, I’ve come away with a much different reading of the film. Sure, Dirty Work is a “bad” movie, but I think that it is intentionally so. It’s a nudging, winking meta-film, poking fun at the cookie cutter studio comedies of the time, and standing as a prime example of anti-comedy, much like Saget’s and Macdonald’s other work. These are two master comedians, with a great understanding of and appreciation for the history of the medium, and the nature of humor, in general, and I simply find it hard to believe that they combined to create a movie that is crass for the sake of being crass. Though it features many alumni of the institution in cameo roles, Dirty Work is something of a send up of the morass that Saturday Night Live-inspired movies had become by the late 1990s. Similarly to an SNL film, the central conceit of a revenge-for-hire business feels like a sketch that has been pushed beyond its boundaries, but rather than relying on catch phrases or recurring oddball characters for a nostalgic sort of humor, Saget and Macdonald rely on escalating levels of absurdity, cringe-inducing anti-humor, and a defining performance from Macdonald, one of SNL’s most maligned cast members of the 90s. They combine these elements to create a chaotic comedic maelstrom that certainly isn’t for everyone, but which fully hits home with me.

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Of course I realize that a viewer’s enjoyment of Dirty Work is going to be directly related to their enjoyment of Norm MacDonald’s particular brand of wry, winking humor. MacDonald, something of a “comedian’s comedian” and certainly an acquired taste when it comes to mainstream comedians, is essentially playing a version of himself in the film, imbuing Mitch’s character with all of his trademark quirks and mannerisms, familiar from his stint behind the anchor desk at SNL’s Weekend Update. MacDonald does try to act in the film, although he’s best when he isn’t trying to force himself into a character and is instead allowing Mitch and the film, in general, to be a vehicle for his comedic stylings. To say that Norm MacDonald is a bad actor isn’t a hot take or a novel idea, but his brand of monotone non-acting is perfect in this film that he co-wrote for himself. The film’s humor largely stems from MacDonald’s deadpan line delivery, and his presence as a straight man in a very zany world. He also proves himself adept at physical comedy, not something that he was normally associated with, through a very funny running gag that sees Mitch being physically tossed through a series of windows. I can understand that MacDonald’s presence in the film on its own might serve as a stumbling block for the uninitiated, but I can’t picture another comedian or actor delivering some of the lines that he wrote, much less with a completely straight face. He anchors the film, not necessarily with a great performance, but with a certain comedic sensibility that is necessary for the rest of the film’s antics to revolve around.

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The rest of the stars orbiting MacDonald do so admirably. The film’s true supporting actors, Artie Lange as Sam and Traylor Howard as Kathy, don’t really stand out much, but Dirty Work is full of excellent cameos from some big name comedians. I mentioned him already, but Chris Farley’s role in Dirty Work is one of my favorite of his. He only has a few scenes, but he makes the most of them, and leaves a memorable impression in what would be the final film he worked on before his death. His character, Jimmy, is one note, a barfly who has sworn revenge on the Saigon whore who bit off his nose, but Farley brings his irrepressible physicality and charm to the role, playing against type as a somewhat villainous maniac. The scene, early in the film, where he confidently queues of the Rolling Stones classic, “Street Fighting Man,” on the bar jukebox before Mitch and Sam get in a brawl, only to push the wrong button and underscore the fight with Rupert Holmes’s “Pina Colada Song,” is one of my favorites in all of film comedy. Chevy Chase also shines as the degenerate gambler physician who offers to bump Pops’s transplant up on the list if Mitch and Sam can raise enough cash to help him pay off his bookies. Like Farley, Chase makes the most of his limited screen time, providing classic one-liners that feel improvised. His comedic timing is as excellent as always, and he has mastered the understated delivery that can drive a joke home before the audience even realizes it has been uttered. Don Rickles delivers some devastating insult comedy in a brief appearance that really served as my introduction to his brand of acerbic, vitriolic comedy. He debases Sam and Mitch, as well as the other employees at the movie theater where they are briefly employed, with such cutting quips. The scene leaves me laughing out loud no matter how many times I see it.

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I could be wrong. Dirty Work could be just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill bad movie. It certainly seems to be that way on first blush. Saget’s direction in the film would be most generously described as competent. The script is both outlandish and simplistic, often settling for lowest common denominator punchlines and toilet humor. The film’s lead actor turns in a performance that seems almost determinedly wooden. However, despite all that, I honestly feel that the film is a twisted work of comedic genius. I really think that it was a movie ahead of its time, engaging in the type of anti-comedy that would become popular a decade later, at least in underground comedy scenes. It isn’t the type of movie that could ever become a classic, even of the cult variety, but I have rarely found a person who I’ve showed the film to or reminisced about it with who doesn’t find something about it to enjoy. I don’t know if my lionizing of the film is a sort of justification, but I also don’t feel that my outright admiration for Dirty Work is something that needs to really be justified. I’ve rarely subscribed to perceived dichotomies between high and low culture, and I’ve been even more reluctant to cast my lot with existing cultural values when it comes to art. I believe that, increasingly so, great art can come from any number of sources, and that beauty is often in the eye of the beholder. Writing about 50 different movies from my own personal collection this year has reminded that there’s really no accounting for personal taste. People should like what they like, and watch what they want to watch. If a movie makes you happy or gives you some relief or distraction from life’s many problems, even for just a couple of hours, enjoy the hell out of it. Happy New Year.

Dirty Harry

Dirty Harry (1971)

Dir. Don Siegel

Written by: Harry Julian Fink, Rita M. Fink, and Dean Riesner

Starring: Clint Eastwood, Andy Robinson, Reni Santoni

 

Clint Eastwood was one of my cinematic heroes when I was growing up. I came of age watching his films and modeling my impressions of cinematic masculinity on his stoic, skillful, ruthless archetypal characters. Whether he was the Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s famous trilogy of Spaghetti Westerns, or William Munny in Unforgiven, or Inspector Harry Callahan in the Dirty Harry films, Eastwood stood out to me as an example of American cinematic machismo. Throughout his career, he embodied so many famous characters and character types that it was easy for me to pick an Eastwood film for every mood. Sometime in my early 20s, that started to change, as I became more aware of Eastwood’s personal politics, and as he began to age, publically, and ungracefully. Though Unforgiven will likely always have a spot in my personal top ten films of all time, Clint Eastwood and his films became an early lesson for me in learning to appreciate and separate an artist’s output from his or her personal politics or persona. While I found little common ground with Eastwood as his politics became publicly more and more reactionary and right wing, I still found myself appreciating of many of the films that he directed and starred in as works of art. However, I found other films of his to fall into a grey area, where their content seemed too influenced by Eastwood for me to feel totally comfortable enjoying them. Dirty Harry, unfortunately, falls somewhere in this category.

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My reservations about the film aside, Dirty Harry is considered one of the definitive action films of its time, and deservedly so. The film, which would be followed up by four sequels of varying quality, introduced the world to Inspector Harry Callahan (Eastwood), a hard-boiled, no-rules San Francisco police detective who believes in bringing in his man at any cost. In Dirty Harry, Callahan is tasked with tracking down and apprehending Scorpio (Robinson), a serial killer who is threatening to murder one San Franciscan every day until the city obliges to pay him a ransom of $100,000. Callahan and his partner Chico (Santoni) track Scorpio across the city, nearly catching him several times, but the killer manages to elude apprehension over and over again. Scorpio teases the police department and mayor’s office with another threat, this time telling them that he’s buried a teenage girl alive and they have just a few hours to meet his demands before she suffocates. Callahan finally manages to track Scorpio to Kezar Stadium, where Scorpio hands out programs for the 49ers games, and confronts him on the football field. Harry shoots Scorpio, and tortures him by stepping on his wound until Scorpio gives up the location of the girl. However, when the police check the location, they find the girl already dead, and Scorpio is released from custody because Harry violated his civil rights. Scorpio continues his crime spree, hijacking a school bus and demanding a plane ticket out of California, but Harry is quick to cut him off. The two square off in an abandoned quarry, where Harry is quicker on the draw and manages to shoot Scorpio down. After killing Scorpio, Harry tosses his badge into a lake, unwilling to be a member of a police force upon which he cannot shoot first and ask questions later.

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I can assume, based on my editorials in that plot synopsis, that you can gather my attitude towards some of the more political or socio-political content in Dirty Harry. Dirty Harry is the story of a rogue cop who flaunts departmental procedures and scoffs in the face of citizens’ civil rights, ruling over a city with an iron fist and a .45 Magnum, daring criminals to test his authority. Of course, on the other hand, Dirty Harry is the story of a crazed serial murderer who would hold a major city hostage were it not for the endeavors of one cop, willing to make the sacrifices that others aren’t. Where your sympathies tend to fall when watching Dirty Harry is largely dependent on your existing worldview and political stance. I certainly don’t mean that anyone watching the film would necessarily be drawn to rooting for Scorpio, but that the extent to which a viewer can sympathize and root for Harry is largely dependent on their own views on authority. Clearly, the audience is intended to root for Harry Callahan, as he’s the hero of the action movie, but I personally find it really difficult to reconcile my anti-authoritarian stance with a film that asks me to root for a renegade cop. I hate cops. Always have, always will. I do understand the need for law enforcement in a society, but the brand of highly militarized law enforcement practiced currently in America is antithetical to my worldview of treating other with dignity and respecting their rights as human beings with agency. To me, Harry is just as much a psycho killer as Scorpio, and his refusal of the badge and the moniker of official power at the film’s end isn’t something to be celebrated, because Harry’s lust for power and violence doesn’t stem from his position as an authority figure, but from some deep-seeded defect inside of the character. Harry will continue his brand of vigilante justice (in no fewer than four sequels) whether he has the backing of the badge or not.

Dirty Harry is a particularly difficult film for me to watch in 2017 in light of the ongoing revelation of widespread and heinous abuses of power by police officers across America. Institutional and individual abuses of power on the part of law enforcement are certainly nothing new, but the existence of cell phone video technology and the prevalence of social media have shed a light on what I feel is the most important news story happening in America today. Every week, a new video surfaces of a cop somewhere gunning down a citizen, who is often unarmed, and almost always hasn’t committed a capital offense. Police in America have taken to playing judge, jury, and executioner in the street and on the beat, and too often the targets of their ire are young black men. Seeing Harry Callahan pointing a massive pistol in the face of a black man who is cowering on the ground, and teasing him with the famous catchphrase, “Do you feel lucky? Well do you, punk,” is simply too disturbing to me. The actions that Dirty Harry takes throughout the film and his casually bigoted attitude towards any nonwhite characters in the film are beyond the pale. While Siegel crafts an engaging and original action film around his rogue inspector, Harry Callahan simply isn’t a character that I can stomach spending any time with. His reckless, sadistic behaviors simply hit too close to home after seeing dozens of examples of modern day cops acting out their own vigilante fantasies on grainy cell phone video. As engaging and groundbreaking as the film might have been for its time, its current relevance really sours me on it.

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As I mentioned, there is an important lesson for me to learn in the films of Clint Eastwood, both those that feature him as an actor and the films that he has directed, about separating a work of art from its creator. In Dirty Harry, in particular, there’s a micro lesson that I can glean about admiring aspects of a work of art while being uncomfortable with or out of step with its overall message or presentation. I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the many positive aspects that do exist throughout the film. One of the things that jumps to my mind immediately when I think of Dirty Harry is the film’s unique score, composed by Lalo Schiffrin. The soundtrack to the film is a psychedelic jazzscape, featuring unusually syncopated rhythms and atonal melodies. The acid jazz underscores the film’s many chase scenes and heightens the tension of the images, creating a natural sense of unease in the viewer through its use of dissonance. The film is also well shot, its rapid zooms and quick cuts became genre staples throughout the 1970s. Dirty Harry stands as a massively influential film, not just in its own time period, but into the present day. Unfortunately, its influence doesn’t seem totally limited to the cinema. In the film, we have examples of a rogue cop who wantonly acts out street justice, and of a psychotic killer who would, almost certainly, be one of today’s mass shooters who have utilized easy access to high-powered, military-style weapons to enact their terroristic fantasies, killing hundreds. I’m not suggesting that the current state of police/citizen relations is in any way impacted by a 45-year-old film, but that the culture of American hyper-masculinity that lionized a vigilante cop in Dirty Harry has evolved and mutated to such a degree that our society is beset with an epidemic of gun violence and of institutionalized, state-sanctioned murder of citizenry. Dirty Harry is a well-made action movie, but because of its inherent conservatism, it isn’t any fun. The film’s current relevance saps it of any of its levity for me, and it isn’t a film that I’ll likely be watching again.

The Dirty Dozen

The Dirty Dozen (1967)

Dir. Robert Aldrich

Written by: Nunnally Johnson, Lukas Heller (from the novel by E.M. Nathanson)

Starring: Lee Marvin, Ernest Borgnine, John Cassevetes

 

I don’t really have a whole lot to say about The Dirty Dozen. It’s a classic war picture that’s been sitting on my shelf for probably the last 15 years. I have no idea what spurred me to pick this DVD up when I was a teen, but I remember watching and enjoying it a few times before it got shelved for good. It’s the kind of big studio blockbuster that was common during the 1960s, before a wave of more independently-minded, modernist filmmakers took American cinemas by storm. Although it feels a bit antiquated by today’s standards, The Dirty Dozen was a hit in its day, and it remains an influential film. Watching it for this post, I realized I had forgotten quite a bit about the beginning of the film, remembering only the climactic assault on the German chateau. On the whole, the film was a lot funnier and more entertaining than I had remembered, and it was a pretty pleasant rewatch.

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The film concerns itself with 12 convicts who are either sentenced to death or to lengthy prison terms who are selected by the Army to carry out an incredibly dangerous top secret mission behind enemy lines. In exchange for their completion of this mission, which is to infiltrate a German officers’ chateau in France and kill as many Nazis as possible, disrupting the chain of command in preparation for the D-Day invasion, the convicts will have their sentences commuted, records erased, and will be reinstated into the Army at their former ranks. The man charged with training this ragtag group of murderers and thieves is Major John Reisman (Marvin), a career military man who has grown disenchanted with the institutions that he has come to represent. The film’s first two thirds consist primarily of training montages which help to introduce the audience to the members of the Dirty Dozen and to their unique personalities. Notable here are Privates Victor Franko (Cassavetes), Archer Maggot (Telly Savalas), R.T. Jefferson (Jim Brown), and Joseph Wladislaw (Charles Bronson), all of whom are sentenced to death, and all of whom represent the scope of personality types embodied by the Dirty Dozen. Their training complete, the Dirty Dozen set off for France and their mission. The assault on the chateau is a success, and though only one member of the team survives the mission, the rest are remembered as heroes who lost their lives in the line of duty.

I love movies in which a team is assembled to perform a mission or job. These types of “professional” films, such as The Magnificent Seven, The Wild Bunch, or Ocean’s 11 often combine genres and feature broad casts of disparate actors who each bring a different focus to their role. In this respect, The Dirty Dozen doesn’t disappoint, with almost every member of the team providing a memorable moment or signature line. Cassavetes and Savalas shine as the anti-authoritarian and unpredictable members of the team, with Savalas’s Maggot nearly compromising the mission when he snaps and begins shooting everything in sight after breaking into the chateau. Bronson’s Wladislaw is the strong, silent member of the team, and is the only one to be confirmed to have escaped alive after the mission. Jim Brown puts a face to the plight of Black soldiers in the military with his performance as the oft-disrespected Jefferson. His death scene after bombing the German officers’ basement bunker, ensuring the success of the mission, is a memorable one, and a moment that brings to mind his punishing running style as one of the original stars of the NFL. Even the lesser members of the Dirty Dozen, such as Donald Sutherland’s Private Vernon Pinkley, are given their moments to shine. Pinkley’s impersonation of a General inspecting the troops of a rival Colonel is one of the film’s signature moments of comic relief. The film’s chief strength comes from balancing these various performances and making sure that each character gets his signature moment.

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Of course, even the most balanced ensemble film needs a lead, and Lee Marvin is clearly the star of The Dirty Dozen, although it nearly wasn’t so. John Wayne was the original choice to play Major Reisman, and I’m glad that he backed out of the film over concerns with the character’s morality, because I don’t think that he would have been able to convey some of the nuance that Marvin does in the film. Marvin’s performance in this film would catapult him into a higher echelon of stardom, although it would also continue his career down the path of playing similar roles. His Major Reisman is a tough, no-nonsense leader, but he is also shown to have a sensitive side through his obvious devotion to his team of castoffs. Marvin, who served in the military during World War II, along with many members of the cast, exudes authority and calm command. He cuts the sort of figure that demands respect and he’s an instantly recognizable presence in any film. A hard boiled legend, Marvin’s career was largely built on his rigid physical presence and booming voice, and he utilizes both here to great effect. Pigeonholing Marvin as a character actor, however, would be doing his career a great disservice, and in The Dirty Dozen he subtly displays the chops that earned him an Oscar just two years prior. He’s equally as effective in the scenes in which he has to display the bluster befitting of a military officer as in the quieter scenes in which he attempts to connect with the members of his team. Clearly, Reisman sees these men as misunderstood characters who have been failed by the institutions of the military and who can still be of service to the rest of the team and to their country, and Marvin expresses this care through the unusually gentle way that he guides them through their training, molding them into a capable unit. Marvin’s performance provides a grounding counterbalance to the more expressive performances from the members of the Dirty Dozen, and a stable center around which the rest of the cast can orbit.

In addition to having a strong and diverse cast, The Dirty Dozen also features some pretty shocking content and potentially progressive politics for a film of the time. Although the film’s violence seems very tame by today’s standards, it was uproarious at the time of its release. It certainly wasn’t the first film that asked its audience to sympathize with violent criminals, but The Dirty Dozen does little to normalize their criminal behavior, or to offer much redemption for the worst of its characters. The frank vileness of Savalas’s Maggot must have been a shock to audiences in the late 1960s, with the characters unrepentant racism, crudeness, and violence (both physical and sexual in nature), on full display. Maggot is a bad apple, and remains such until the end, having to be shot by Jefferson when he snaps and nearly botches the whole mission. A psychologist would likely label Maggot some sort of nihilist, and his nihilism is largely evident throughout the film. The Dirty Dozen is a film that sets itself and its characters against every institution that might stand in their way. Though it’s a war picture, I think that the film is clearly anti-military in its politics, showing the larger institutions of the military and the government to be cruel, outdated, and farcical. This is a film that, through its championing of Major Reisman and the Dirty Dozen, favors the individual over the institution. The Dirty Dozen are honor-bound to fight for one another, but there’s little indication that they feel the need to serve a larger master. This anti-authoritarian stance must have been exceedingly rare at the time, particularly in a mainstream war film.

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Through several decades-later sequels, including a short-lived television show, The Dirty Dozen has become a brand, representative of a style of late-1960s era filmmaking. It certainly isn’t the first film in which a ragtag group of misfits is assembled and turned into an elite team, but it has become one of the most recognizable and influential. I’ve been guilty myself of shortchanging the film, of assuming its generic faithfulness and its paint by numbers premise. The performances from the film’s ensemble cast are worth the price of admission, but diving a little deeper into the curiousness of the film’s politics and its attitude towards military customs and institutions reveals a film that is worth more than just a cursory glance or a nostalgic revisit. The Dirty Dozen isn’t my favorite film by any means, but watching it again revealed a depth that I hadn’t previously ascribed to it. One of the best experiences in working on this project has been the times that a film that I had perhaps undervalued takes me by surprise. It doesn’t happen too often, although my reactions to all but my very favorite and most familiar films in my collection are frequently altered by the time spent away from them and the ways that I’ve changed as a person in that interim, but when I’m truly able to see a film I thought I knew in a different light I’m reminded why I set out on this lengthy project in the first place.