Cult Movies: Billy Jack

MV5BMTkwNTg4MDYwNV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwNjIzMTQyMQ@@._V1_SX214_AL_Billy Jack is the story of a half Indian/half white ex-Green Beret hapkido expert (played by Tom Laughlin). He was a war hero in Vietnam, but ultimately turned his back on the war.

As the movie opens, Billy Jack interrupts the slaughter of wild mustangs and runs afoul of the rich-guy-who-actually-runs-the- town and his weak-willed, spoiled-rotten son, Bernard.

Billy Jack also protects the “freedom school” run by Jean Roberts (Laughlin’s real-life wife, Delores Taylor.) It is a school for troubled teens, dropouts, and others who do not fit into normal, polite (read “white”) society. Of course, being hippies, the good, decent (and racist) townsfolk do not like them, and are frightened by their liberal ways.

Billy Jack is very much a movie of its time. Released in 1971 when the Vietnam war was in full swing, the movie deals with pacifism, violence, hippie counter-culture, and social consciousness.  Billy Jack is not a good film; the acting is sub-standard, it is overlong in spots, is preachy and its “peace through violence” message is incongruous. But it is a time capsule; a glimpse into a time of civil unrest and American involvement an unpopular war.

The one thing the movie does well is violence. After Billy Jack has beaten the crap out of Bernard Posner and his gigantic buddy, Dinosaur, Billy is confronted in the town park by Posner’s dad and a bunch of racist rednecks. Billy dispatches dad with a single kick and subsequently takes on the rest of the rednecks. At first Billy holds his own, but eventually is overcome by their sheer numbers. I find this to be very realistic. In most movies with martial arts sequences, the hero is usually untouchable, taking on wave after wave of villains and ultimately dispatching them all (although it would help their odds if the villains would attack more than one at a time, but I digress.) Not so in Billy Jack; Billy is no Superman, and although has expert fighting skill, he does succumb to superior numbers, especially after many attach him at once. Billy is saved only through the intervention of the town sheriff.

The fight scenes were choreographed by Bong Soo Han, a hapkido expert and Laughlin’s real-life martial arts teacher. Han even doubled for Laughlin in some of the fight scenes and can be spotted if you watch carefully enough.

Originally under-promoted by its initial distributor, Warner Studios, Tom Laughlin took matters into his own hands and distributed and promoted the film himself. It later became a cult hit due to its being shown on TV and subsequent VHS and DVD releases.

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Billy Jack

Worth a look if you want a glimpse into the turbulent Vietnam era.

Skip it if you don’t like dated films or movies about dirty hippies.

-Steve

 

 

Fun Movies: Need for Speed

MV5BMTY3NjMyMjc3MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNTE1MzcwMjE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Right up front, let me say that Need for Speed is not a great movie. But it is not a bad one either. It’s not going to get nominated for a best picture Oscar, and neither is any of the cast. But it is a fun movie; the highlights being the racing scenes.

Wrongly convicted and imprisoned for a murder he did not commit, Tobey Marshall (played by Breaking Bad‘s Aaron Paul) gets out of prison and obtains a super-fast Ford Mustang that he and his crew tuned prior to his incarceration. The whole idea is that he will drive the car to California from New York in to compete in an illegal street race against his nemesis, Dino Brewster (played by Dominic Cooper.) The catch is that the race will be in two days, and Marshall needs to drive really fast to get there, avoiding police whenever possible.

The plot, such as it is, is a pretty standard revenge fantasy. There was never any doubt in my mind how the events would unfold.

The real stars of this movie are the cars: there is a “Shelby” Mustang, a Lamborghini Elemento, three Koenigsegg Ageras, and a Bugatti Veyron. The racing is reckless but a whole lot of fun to watch. Apparently, the super car races only used shells, which is nice as I would hate to think they destroyed multimillion dollar cars for movie stunts.

In many ways, the racing is derivative of the Fast & Furious franchise but instead of tuned Asian cars, Euro super cars stand in as substitutes.

Worth a look if you like white-knuckle car races with super-fast cars.

Skip it if you like more cerebral movies.

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Need for Speed

-Steve

Cerebral Movies: Enemy

MV5BMTQ2NzA5NjE4N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMjQ4NzMxMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Enemy, based on the novel The Double by José Saramago, stars Jake Gyllenhaal in a dual role as Adam and Anthony. It is a cerebral movie in that not much is explained. The director, Denis Villeneuve leaves little clues as the film unfolds, but ultimately any meaning is left to the viewer to decipher. It is a compact, dense film and every object, every scene has meaning. However, the meaning is oblique and not fully explained. Careful watching of this film will reveal a story which is much more than it appears to be on the surface.

Adam Bell, a history professor in Toronto, doesn’t seem to be happy. He always has a disheveled appearance, his apartment is unkempt, and his girlfriend Mary (Mélanie Laurent) seems to be unhappy with him. He is in a rut in his classes; we see him delivering the same lecture several times to different students.

He sees his identical twin in a bit part in a movie which was recommended by a co-worker. He tracks down the actor whose stage name is Daniel Saint Claire and whose legal name is Anthony Claire. Adam meets Anthony and things go bad. Anthony seemingly is better off than Adam. Anthony has a beautiful, pregnant wife (Sarah Gadon), dresses well, has a nice apartment, and seems to have a lot of money, despite being a bit-part actor. But he doesn’t appear to be any happier than Adam.

Isabella Rossellini has a small role as Anthony’s mother. Again, careful viewing and listening to the scenes she is in will be rewarding in understanding what the movie is about.

The ending of this movie is confusing if you haven’t been paying attention, but packs a startling punch if you have.

Worth a look if you like cerebral movies which make you think.

Skip it if you like your movies explained and wrapped up in neat packages.

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Enemy

-Steve

 

 

Blue Ruin

MV5BMTY4NTM2MDg5OV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwMDA3OTAwMTE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Blue Ruin is an atypical revenge film. In most revenge films, the protagonist is a highly trained super soldier of some sort. Or maybe a skilled martial arts expert with deadly skills. Not so for the protagonist of Blue Ruin, Dwight (played by Macon Blair.)

Dwight is a shell of a man. He is virtually homeless; living out of his car, sleeping on the beach and eating out of garbage cans. The film alludes to his father’s murder as the cause of this, but never explicitly states it.

Early in the film, the police track Dwight down, informing him of the imminent release of his father’s convicted murder. Dwight cleans himself up, goes to the prison and witnesses the murderer’s release. Dwight follows the murderer and his family to a bar. Dwight goes into the restroom and waits for the murder. On an impulse, Dwight stabs the murderer in the head, killing him.  This sets off a chain of consequences which not only affect Dwight, but the rest of his family as well.

Dwight may have killed his father’s murderer on impulse, but he realizes that he is in way over his head. Dwight soon learns the family of the murdered murderer are coming after his sister and her two kids for revenge. The film explores what would happen to a normal, average (or even less-than-average) person who takes it upon himself to exact revenge. Dwight is not a super soldier, he does not have access to a cache of military-grade weapons and a seemingly endless supply ammunition. He doesn’t have enough money to purchase a firearm and has to settle for knife instead. He doesn’t posses spectacular unarmed or edged weapon fighting skills (or any for that matter, killing the murder was an ostensible stroke of luck.) There are serious consequences for his actions and much of the film derives tension from whether or not Dwight will be able to survive the onslaught of the murdered man’s family and their need to avenge the murder of the murderer.

Look for a cameo from Eve Plumb (Jan from TV’s The Brady Bunch.)

Worth a look if you like believable, gritty, realistic films which deal with the real-world consequences of exacting revenge.

Skip it if you like your revenge films about ‘roided up super soldiers with automatic weapons mowing down a legion of bad guys with little to no consequences for their actions.

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Blue Ruin

-Steve

 

Films Worth a Look: 3 Days to Kill

MV5BMzM0MjE0Nzg1N15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwODA4ODE4MDE@._V1_SY317_CR0,0,214,317_AL_Like many movies, I wasn’t expecting much when I checked it out to watch it. This time I was pleasantly surprised. 3 Days to Kill is an action flick, but with lots of dark humor interspersed to take the edge off. Although the film is rated PG-13 , it is very violent; lots of shooting, car chases, torturing and beatings. Much of the action has a comic edge which makes it easier to watch than if the movie just played it straight.

Kevin Costner plays Ethan Renner, a veteran CIA killer who finds out he has cancer and only a few months to live. He decides to spend his remaining time getting to know his teenage daughter (Hailee Steinfeld), whom he has mostly ignored due to his CIA activities. He also wants to reconcile with his estranged wife (played by Connie Nielsen.) The CIA has other plans for him and sends Vivi Delay (played by Amber Heard) with an experimental drug which will lengthen his life and ostensibly give him more time with his family. But there is a catch, of course. Renner must hunt down a terrorist in exchange for the drug.

The humor really does a lot to lighten the mood. In fact without humor, this movie would be very unpleasant and unappealing. Renner trying to reclaim his humanity by connecting with his family also lightens the mood of this movie. The scenes with him bonding with his daughter are particularly touching. In one scene he beats the crap out of four guys trying to assault her in a night club bathroom. What father wouldn’t want to do that to protect his daughter?

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3 Days to Kill

Worth a look if you like action films with a dash of humor.

Skip it if you don’t like Kevin Costner.

-Steve

 

Films Worth a Look: Wizards

MV5BMjE4OTUyMTQxM15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwOTA0MzUyMQ@@._V1_SY317_CR4,0,214,317_AL_Wizards is a dark animated fantasy in the far-flung future involving the epic struggle of two wizards. Made by animator Ralph Bakshi (of Mighty Mouse and Fritz the Cat fame), the movie was released in 1977. It soon became staple of midnight movies showings. In fact, I first saw it at a midnight movie showing.

Millions of years after an atomic war has wiped out most of the human population, the world is repopulated with elves, fairies, mutants and demons. The elves and fairies live in the light, radiation-free places; the mutants and demons live in the dark, radiation infested places. Two wizards are born into this world: polar opposites, one wizard, Avatar, is good and pure, the other, Blackwolf,  is dark and malevolent. Blackwolf sends his armies of demons and mutants to take over what is left of the world, but the elves and fairies always defeat him. Blackwolf then discovers technology and ancient Nazi propaganda films to spur his demon/mutant armies to victory. Avatar realizes what’s at stake and sets out with an elf warrior, a reprogrammed assassin and the queen of the fairies to stop Blackwolf.

The film is interesting for its use of rotoscoping, an animation technique where live action is shot and is used for the basis of the animation to render realistic motion. Since Wizards was made in the mid 1970s,  Bakshi used the traditional animation technique of the time: each frame of film (or “cell”) was hand-drawn, then hand-painted, finally being photographed by a motion picture camera, one frame at a time. Today,  most animation is digitally rendered using computers; cell animation as an art has been mostly lost.

The film is certainly flawed: over use of narration at the beginning to set the stage. The voice acting is only so-so. There is a tendency to reuse footage. Some of the animation looks kind of cheesy. The film also contains some holdover ideas from hippie culture: violence is always bad, love is all you need to fight evil, etc. The music is kind of cheesy. But these are all artifacts of the time period in which it was made.

Despite being animated, this is not a film for children. It has disturbing, violent images:  cute, Disney-esque characters are slaughtered in a hail of bullets. Elves are slaughtered on the battlefield by hideous, malformed mutants and demons. It makes use of Nazi propaganda films, which always send chills up my spine when watching them.

Wizards works well on an emotional level as it is classic good-versus-evil tale. The protagonist, Avatar while good,  is definitely flawed: he’s old and tired, crotchety, and not sure he wants to save the world.  He is even unsure as the whether the world is worth saving. Blackwolf is an interesting character: while evil, he seems to want what is best for his armies of mutants and demons. He wants to escape the dark which they are all forced to live in and take over the areas of  light where  the elves and fairies live.

Wizards works despite its flaws. It is an emotionally satisfying exploration into the nature of good versus evil. The final showdown between Avatar and Blackwolf packs an emotional wallop and a clever twist.

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Wizards

Worth a look if you like edgy, dark futuristic animated fantasy or if you like the idea of a Saturday morning cartoon gone very wrong.

Skip it if hyper-violent imagery gets to you or you think that all animated films should emulate Disney cartoons.

-Steve

 

 

 

 

Bingeable TV: Orange is the New Black

MV5BMTUyMDA5NTY1M15BMl5BanBnXkFtZTcwMDExODY2OQ@@._V1_SY317_CR6,0,214,317_AL_Orange is the New Black is the story of Piper Chapman (played by Taylor Schilling), an upper middle-class WASP woman convicted of criminal conspiracy and sentenced to Federal prison for a drug-related crime committed a decade earlier. Chapman’s  girlfriend at the time, Alex, convinced her to pick up a suitcase full of drug money from an airport. This one-time bad decision came back to haunt her ten years later just before the statute of limitations ran out.

Chapman is a fish out of water: her privileged upbringing did little  to prepare her for the realities of prison: loss of freedom, loss of privacy, and loss of basic human dignity. She has nothing in common with her fellow convicts; she’s wealthier, better educated, and well traveled.

She doesn’t understand prison dynamics and on her first day she insults the cook who prepares the food. The cook starves her for a while in retribution until Piper makes amends. This illustrates Piper’s main problem: she’s spoiled, selfish, narcissistic and very good at making bad decisions.

I liked the series overall, but with two caveats: initially it was hard for me to get into. The first couple of episodes set the background, but they can only go so far, story wise, so I felt they were kind of boring. But with a little persistence, it paid off. I couldn’t stop watching and binged until the final episode.

The other caveat is that it did become a bit melodramatic. There was a story arc with Piper, Alex, her former lover, and her frustrated fiance.

One interesting point the show keeps making is that many of the women are there because of circumstance. Many are only tangentially involved in criminal activity or in the wrong place at the wrong time. It raises the question of whether the inmates “deserve” their punishment or not. Piper clearly does, she made as stupid mistake and was caught and punished, but with a relatively light sentence due to a plea bargain. For the other women, it is more ambiguous. Flashbacks show how individual characters came to be incarcerated and the circumstances which cause them to make bad decisions and ultimately incarcerated for them. We see that while the criminal justice system is black and white, the circumstances which caused each woman’s incarceration are not.

Another point the show makes is that the correctional officers and other prison officials are committing crimes just as bad, if not worse, and really deserve to be in prison. But due to the warden wanting to avoid scandal, their crimes are overlooked an/or swept under the rug.

This TV series is based on the best-selling book of the same title written by Piper Kerman.

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Orange is the New Black Season One

Worth a look for those interested in compelling look into modern day incarceration.

Skip it if melodrama is not your thing.

-Steve