Monthly Archives: March 2016

Fight Scenes by Mike Baron

FIGHT SCENES

Fight scenes are important. They are the raison d’etre of the martial arts film. Prior to the kung fu invasion, the John Wayne-style slugfest was a Western staple. A John Wayne fight involves the leisurely cocking of Wayne’s humongous fist followed by an enormous round house punch that sends the recipient ass-over-teakettle, knocking down chairs and smashing tables.

Real fight scenes are messy, incoherent affairs that usually end with the protagonists rolling on the ground. John Huston understood this. The barroom brawl in Treasure of the Sierra Madre is one of the most realistic fight scenes ever filmed. When Humphrey Bogart and Tim Holt confront crooked jobber Barton MacLane, MacLane lulls them into a false sense of security before sucker-clobbering Holt with a liquor bottle. It’s a knock-down, drag-out fight with the protagonists rolling on the floor.

Audiences crave action, not necessarily verisimilitude. Thus, when the kung fu invasion began with Five Fingers of Death, the American audience was gobsmacked by the elegant fight choreography. It may not have been realistic but it was certainly entertaining. When Bruce Lee hit a few years later, the audience instinctively sensed that this was the real deal and a thousand dojos bloomed. Bruce Lee’s fighting technique looked brutally realistic and elegant. Of course Bruce tailored his fights for the camera and would not have used such showy techniques in real life, but people have used them, to good effect.

Steven Seagal has also developed a unique cinematic style based on aikido. A Seagal fight looks brutal, elegant, and realistic. Before Seagal became a star, he served as fight choreographer on John Frankenheimer’s overlooked masterpiece, The Challenge, starring Scott Glenn and Toshiro Mifune. The Challenge has finally been issued on DVD.

There have always been martial arts films, including a long tradition of Japanese samurai movies going back to the twenties. James Cagney was a black belt in judo which he showcases in Blood on the Sun, perhaps the first American martial arts film. But film being film, fights appeared that are impossible in real life. Look at the Matrix. Kung fu films split between the realistic fighting of Bruce Lee and Chuck Norris, and fanciful “wire fu,” in which the actors hang from wires to give the illusion of flight. Nothing wrong with it. Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon is an excellent example.

Jackie Chan developed his own style using found objects and slapstick humor. His fights are the result of hours of preparation and endless rehearsal. Don’t try this at home, folks! Of course you can always pick up a chair and brain your opponent.

Robert Clouse, who directed Enter the Dragon, got the job largely because of his work on Darker Than Amber, based on John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee novel. When  Terry (William Smith) attacks Travis (Rod Taylor,) the fight is spontaneous. Clouse told the actors to make it brutal, and he filmed it. It is among the most realistic fights on film.

The audience does not want to see extreme close-ups of a hand hitting a jaw. Not in movies, not in comics. The audience wants to see the action unfold in a dynamic and realistic manner. The story-teller must hold his camera steady and let the figures move

The Films of William Peter Blatty by Mike Baron

THE FILMS OF WILLIAM PETER BLATTY

Blatty wrote The Exorcist, which remains the greatest horror film of all time. The Exorcist lays its chilly finger on our spines by successfully conjuring belief in supernatural evil. All good supernatural horror films do this, including The Haunting, The Orphanage, and Sinister. There are hundreds of failures such as The Gate or Drag Me To Hell.

The Exorcist was such a hit, Warner Brothers sought to cash in with the vomitous Exorcist II, about which less said the better. Blatty insisted on writing and directing Exorcist III, based on his novel Legion. Exorcist III  finds DC Detective Kinderman (George C. Scott replacing Lee J. Cobb) investigating a series of grisly murders that bear the hallmark of the Gemini Killer, who died fifteen years ago (when The Exorcist took place.)

This is a genuinely creepy film with a few hair-raising minutes, that successfully recreates the atmosphere of the original. Blatty knows how to raise a hackle, and his team of players is superb. Brad Dourif executes a monologue in his padded cell that is both funny and terrifying. Dourif should have got an Oscar nod. Jason Miller returns as the tormented Father Karras, but you have to see the film to understand.

Years later, Warner’s went rooting about in their midden heap and produced two sequels, Renny Harlin’s ridiculous Exorcist: The Beginning, and Paul Schrader’s Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist. Eh! Who needs them?

The Ninth Configuration is based on Blatty’s “Twinkle, Twinkle, Killer Kane,” and concerns a group of disturbed veterans sequestered in a Gothic castle deep in the Oregon woods. “In an experimental government center for troubled Vietnam veterans, the inmates run the asylum. One works on an adaptation of Shakespeare…for dogs. Another fancies himself a caped superhero. Still others masquerade as frogmen, nurses, nuns, pirates, doctors. Yet the psychiatrist in charge eyes all with a stoic reserve. Maybe too stoic: there’s a mystery here. And its final resolution is like a thunderclap”

One of the reasons I like it is because it most closely resembles a Badger movie (about which more anon.) Blatty’s stock group, including Jason Miller, Ed Flanders, Scott Wilson, Moses Gunn and Robert Loggia, are mesmerizing. Stacey Keach plays the new CO who threatens to explode. My friends, although I hesitate to shove my secret love into the spotlight, there it is.

Existential Thrillers by Mike Baron

EXISTENTIAL THRILLERS

An existential thriller is a story in which the protagonist is doomed from the git-go, but struggles to survive with ingenuity and an indomitable spirit. The two greatest examples are Henri-Georges Clouzot’s The Wages of Fear, and William Friedkin’s remake, Sorcerer.

The Wages of Fear is a 1953 French-Italian drama film directed by Henri-Georges Clouzot, starring Yves Montand, and based on the 1950 French novel “The Salary of Fear” by Georges Arnaud. When a Mexican oil well owned by an American company catches fire, the company hires four European men, down on their luck, to drive two trucks over mountain dirt roads, loaded with niotroglycerine needed to extinguish the flames.

Sorcerer is the same story, bookended by Roy Scheider’s criminal mastermind stealing mob money, which sends him into exile in an unnamed South American hellhole where he rots for years, until the oil company makes its desperate offer. Wanted: four brave men to pilot two dilapidated trucks across hundreds of miles of impassable terrain, carrying loads of nitroglycerin. After The Exorcist, Friedkin could do anything. He chose to do this. It is mesmerizing, but because of the subject matter it was not a hit.

Sam Peckinpah directed two of the greatest existential thrillers, The Wild Bunch and Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia. The Wild Bunch needs no introduction, but alas, many young film goers have never heard of it. A gang of aging outlaws, led by William Holden and Ernest Borgnine, hold one last heist in hopes of retiring to Mexico. The heist goes wrong and they flee, an army of Pinkertons on their trail. The Pinkertons L.Q. Jones and Strother Martin at their most scrofulous. “Gutter trash!” in the words of Robert Ryan, who leads them. The Wild Bunch itself includes Lyle and Tector Gorch, played by Warren Oates and Ben Johnson.

The gang ends up hijacking a load of weapons for a Mexican warlord, but the warlord, played by Emilio Fernandez, cruelly executes one of the Bunch’s own. The Bunch has already collected their money and realized their dream. But in an explosion of nihilistic rage, they choose to go down shooting, killing half the warlord’s army. The Wild Bunch redefined cinematic violence with its slo-mo shoot-outs and the incredible body count. It is one of the greatest Westerns ever made.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia is sui generis, a thriller unlike anything you’ve ever seen. Warren Oates is Benny, a down-at-his-heels lounge pianist scraping by in some Mexican hell-hole, when he gets words that El Jefe (Emilio Fernandez again,) will pay one million dollars for the head of Alfredo Garcia, who impregnated his teen-age daughter. The scum of the earth, including Gig Young and Robert Wenner, crawl out of their holes to claim the prize.

Benny sets out with girlfriend Elita (Isele Vega.) A couple of low-lifes bushwhack them. The biker (Kris Kristofferson!) rapes Elita while the other covers Benny. Benny brains the guy with a cast-iron skillet and shoots the biker. Benny delivers Garcia’s head to El Jefe, gets his money, and is free to go. But once again, overcome with grief and an existential madness, he chooses to go down blazing, taking half El Jefe’s army with him.

Among modern existential thrillers, there are none better than The Grey, starring Liam Neeson as an oil-company roughneck whose plane crashes in the Alaskan wilderness, leaving six men alive. Their struggle to survive a pack of hungry wolves is as grim and absorbing as The Revenant.

In Runaway Train, conceived by Akira Kurosawa, two cons escape from a maximum-security Alaskan prison and inadvertently stow away on a train with no conductor. Jon Voight, coming off Midnight Cowboy, went in the opposite direction. His Oscar Manheim is a terrifying lifer who has been welded in his cell for three years. He takes along irritating sycophant Buck (Eric Roberts,) dispensing hard-won con wisdom. Director Andre Konchalovsky ratchets tension to the max, and the final scene will chill you to the bone.

Cornel Wilde’s The Naked Prey deviates from the template in that his nameless white hunter lives, but not after one of the most harrowing and brutal chases in cinema history. You will not believe Wilde’s depiction of Africans in the opening sequence. He would never be able to get away with this today.