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Review of Capone (1975)

18 Mar

caponeCapone (1975) is a crime/drama/biographical film, loosely based on the life of Al Capone.

Directed by Steve Carver (Lone Wolf McQuade (1983), Big Bad Mama (1974)).

Written by Howard Browne (The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre (1967), Mission: Impossible (1966 TV)).

Starring: Ben Gazzara, Susan Blakely, Harry Guardino, Sylvester Stallone, Harry Guardino, John Cassavetes and others.

So here’s a Roger Corman produced Al Capone biopic. It is about as accurate as Death Race 2000 was a prediction of the year 2000.

Doesn’t happen so often with American movies, I was pleasantly surprised to see Vilis Lapenieks, a director of photography from my small home country, Latvia, appear in the opening credits. Had it been the closing credits, I would be unpleasantly surprised, because the movie excels at looking totally bland.

In the first scene I noticed that the sound editing was not so great, often the background noise cuts with the shots, it is a bit jarring, but it either improved later or I got used to it, so I wasn’t that bothered by it. It’s far from Birdemic levels of sound direction incompetence.

It sort of is a biopic, but it explores Al Capone’s life as much as the original Scarface. I would have liked if they had spent a little time developing and showing more Capone’s backstory and character, instead of instantly throwing him in to rapidly climb the mobster career ladder by punching and shooting select people.

Also there’s very little sense of passing time because they don’t really manage to make Ben Gazzara look much younger in the earlier scenes.That is not to say Gazzara is bad here. For this larger than life portrayal of the person he is ok. He achieves a convincingly menacing performance, selling the simmering anger even when he is smiling and being polite. Since he’s not provided with any redeeming qualities, he serves not as a complex anti-hero, but a one-note villain pushed into the protagonist’s position.

At times he seems to be drifting through the movie only to engage in instances of outbursts of rage, otherwise taking a step back to various mob dealings, that I failed to care about. Some of the scenes are delivered just as plot progressions being explained, leaving the viewer uninterested and distanced.

If you, like me, decide to watch this because Sylvester Stallone is in it, be aware, he appears pretty late into the movie and is not featured as prominently as you might imagine. He briefly manages to breathe some life into the movies, but it’s pretty much a lost cause.

"Wow, Stallone playing Al Capone? That should be interesting!"

“Wow, Stallone playing Al Capone? That should be interesting!”

 

However this is not at all surprising because it is after all a Corman movie and could be classified as exploitation (mobsploitation, if you will), than an actual historical retelling. But the problem is that it takes itself too seriously, no doubt inspired by The Godfather films.

So it’s not cheesy enough to be entertaining as a B-grade gangster flick. I kept tuning out during the dull dialogue scenes and not getting excited at the repetitive drive-by shootouts. At some points even using footage from another movie, which is of obviously lower, both sound and image quality.

Overall, this is a shitty gangster flick, that except for Sly being in it, fails to have anything remarkable about it to make it worth watching. Not recommended.

"That's right, smile, Ben. One day, I'm going to be the reason people watch this movie."

“That’s right, smile, Ben. One day, I’m going to be the reason people watch this movie.”

Review of Damien: Omen II (1978)

11 Nov

Damien: Omen II (1978) is a horror/thriller film, it is a sequel to The Omen, set seven years after it.

Directed by Don Taylor (The Final Countdown (1980), Escape from the Planet of the Apes (1971)).

Written by Stanley Mann (Conan the Destroyer (1984), The Mouse That Roared (1959)) and Mike Hodges (Get Carter (1971), Pulp (1972)).

Starring: William Holden, Lee Grant, Jonathan Scott-Taylor, Lance Henriksen, Robert Foxworth, Nicholas Pryor, Lucas Donat and others.

They know how to make us remember the first movie. We start with the over-the-top score blasting, we’re on a beautiful location and you think that this might be more of the same arguably good movie.

Seven years have passed between the first movie and this, so Damien isn’t just a grumpy tyke. Now he’s a frustrated teenager, living with his adoptive family and trying to act as a real boy. You’re not fooling anyone, Pinocchio. Ok, actually Damien is fooling everyone, except his aunt, who’s making a fuss about it, so she’s put down by the dark forces. With dark forces I mean a crow looking at her ominously.

Damien goes to some kind of military academy with his cousin/brother. There they meet a new platoon officer played by Lance Henriksen. He doesn’t get to do much with the role, but it’s at least nice to see him. Later on he informs Damien of his destiny.

Jonathan Scott-Taylor plays Damien quite well, both managing to make him intimidating and tragically frustrated. He really doesn’t seem to have a solid understanding of his abilities for most of the movie and acts evil more instinctly than consciously. When Damien realises his purpose in life, he is quite distraught and it makes you feel sympathetic. I wouldn’t really want to find out I am the antichrist, seems like a lot of responsibility.

If someone is closing in on Damien’s dirty little secret, they can expect a visit from the friendly neighbourhood hell-crow pretty soon. But don’t let the death of suspicious aunt fool you. He doesn’t just stare at everyone. As we learn from his next attack, he’s going to actively try to harm you, leaving his staring contests exclusively for old ladies.

The crow-attack effects are quite well done, it’s no Birdemic: Shock and Terror, though. The problem is that after a nicely done crow pecking a woman’s eyes out, we see her walk in front of a truck only for us to behold something that suspiciously looks like a „love-doll” dressed in her coat, get run over. It seriously looks like a student film special effect.

Soon another problem becomes apparent with the crow attacks, but actually concerns the movie as a whole. It takes a step back from developing characters and moving the plot along and 40 minutes in, it’s still not clear if the movie is building up to something or are we just going to watch various novelty deaths of people who don’t like Damien, most of the time involving the goddamn crow.

Don’t get me wrong, some of the set-pieces are really cool, like one, that takes place on a frozen lake, but there comes a point, when new characters keep being introduced, just to be killed a couple of minutes later. The movie seems to be just a bunch of death scenes, somehow stringed together by the actual plot.

Yes, the first one had death scenes, but they were inventive, but sparse and mostly happened to characters I cared about. Not to mention that The Omen was a far more intelligent movie, that actually played on the psychological terror, while this is a B-grade exploitation version of the first film, relying on cheap set-ups and impactless pay-offs, pretending to have more substance than it actually does. Also it seems to abandon some of the more interesting ideas of the first one.

Overall, it’s not awful, but it tries to replicate the first one without really understanding what made it good. Using a shitload of death scenes as a safety net. Not recommended.

Pictured: The curiously snake-headed antichrist, looking just like Damien Thorn. Or any other doughy faced innocent looking kid.

Review of Dark Star (1974)

30 Oct

Dark Star (1974) is a comedy/sci-fi/thriller film, which is the feature-length debut of John Carpenter, who is the director, producer and co-writer on the film.

Directed by John Carpenter (Assault On Precinct 13 (1976), Escape from L.A. (1996)).

Written by John Carpenter (The Fog (1980), They Live (1988)) and Dan O’Bannon (Alien (1979), Total Recall (1990)).

Starring: Dan O’Bannon, Brian Narelle, Cal Kuniholm, Dre Pahich and others.

From the first moments it’s apparent that the budget of the movie was extremely low. It is basically a student film stretched to a feature-length. So I feel wrong criticising this kind of movie to harshly, but at the risk of sounding like an asshole, I do think that sometimes if you know you don’t have the budget to pull off your ambitious project, you should consider the possibility of toning down the special effects. It’s better to have one amazing special effects shot than a crapload of shitty ones. Thankfully or sadly, this movie has both.

The outer space scenes look rather jarring, because when the spaceship kind of stops, it just freezes and hangs in the space, so it seems like you’re looking at a freezeframe, which I am not sure that it isn’t. Maybe it’s just my brain that has this standard set-up inside, when I think of spaceship moving through space, I instantly flash back to the opening shot of A New Hope. And that’s an unfair and high standard to judge a pre-Star Wars movie with a way smaller budget.

We are introduced to some astronauts in a spaceship called „Dark Star”. Ka-ching! (That is the sound that plays in my head, whenever I hear the title of a movie appear in the movie) The astronauts banter a bit and then decide to listen to some country music as they look for a star to blow up. Oh, ok. I guess that inspired the movie Space Cowboys.

They reveal that the astronauts have been on a solitary space mission for 30 years. The incoherent banter, country music and a scene with a beach-ball made up to be an alien suddenly make so much more sense. Or does it? Even though they’ve been out there for a while now, they all still look like a bunch of scruffy-bearded 30-year-olds.

The movie hasn’t aged well, it feels incredibly dated, but you can sort of forgive the movie’s silly, cheap effects, sets and props, because it’s all mostly played for laughs. And at times shows genuine inventiveness, like a terrific scene taking place in an elevator shaft, which is obviously shot in just a hallway, yet done cleverly enough to provide enough of the illusion, for us to suspend our disbelief.

The film is basically a comedic portrayal of how boring and with that also insane it would be to be out there alone with a few guys for so long. There’s a scene where they attempt to tell some old stories, but it’s been so long that they fail to both recall them correctly or find a pair of ears that have not heard them before. I’d like to think it’s a completely serious take on what their mission is like, just through their perspective it all seems wacky.

It doesn’t feel like a John Carpenter movie very much, the score is great as is usual for his films, but it invokes a very different feeling. Although this isn’t the most polished movie, but for a shoe-string budget directorial debut from the 70’s it shows a lot of promise, although, I can’t imagine anyone seeing this and then expecting something like Assault On Precinct 13 or Halloween or later on The Thing, but it’s clear that a fair amount of talent and intelligence is present.

Yes, it’s a pretty smart movie, the humor is no slapstick packed gag blast. It’s played on the absurdities the genre’s limitless possibilities present and inserts polar opposites for comedic effect. The ship’s captain has died some time ago, but is still held in a state of suspended animation and the crew is able to communicate with him, which leads to a scene where one of them does this and I thought the scene was kind of creepy. In another instance there’s this intelligent bomb, which itself is pretty silly, but then it has this conversation with a crew member and it goes to either a satire of or an actual philosophy lesson on rationalism and empiricism. The ending is both morbid and funny as well.

Overall, I enjoyed some parts of it, didn’t at all care for others, recommended for those interested in Carpenter’s early stuff, not recommended if you think a guy literally surfing through space isn’t for you. It’s better than that Fantastic Four movie, though.

Pictured: What inspired Alien. I’m not even joking. This is it.

Review of Death Race 2000 (1975)

2 Oct

Death Race 2000 (1975) – is a sci-fi/action/dark comedy film,  based on the short story The Racer by Ib Melchior.

Directed by Paul Bartel (Eating Raoul (1982), Cannonball! (1976)), a moderately successful low-budget director.

Written by Robert Thom (Wild in the Streets (1968), Bloody Mama (1970)) and Charles B. Griffith (The Little Shop of Horrors (1960), The Wild Angels (1966)).

Starring: David Carradine, Sylvester Stallone, Simone Griffeth, Martin Kove, Mary Woronov, John Landis and others.

Essentially the movie is just about this racing event that takes place in a dystopian future (well, not now, because it is set in the year 2000) America, where it is just about the greatest form of entertainment there is and the society has degraded and have so little regard for human life that they watch an event, where contestants are awarded points if they run over people, the more vulnerable the target the better, so you should watch out for people in wheelchairs, they’re the bullseye.

This is basically The Running Man of the 70’s, so yeah, it’s over-the-top and cheesy, but in the good way. It has B-movie cult classic written all over it. It comments on the similar themes about entertainment, the game-show culture, the violence on TV, but it also attacks one specific group of people – the NASCAR fans. I think it’s no secret that a lot of people who watch it, really expect the cars to crash at some point, that has become in some ways  more interesting than the winner of the race, but it’s just human nature, even if we acknowledge it intellectually, there’s something emotionally that wants the thrill of it. It is questionable how surely the movie walks the line of satire without falling into condoning the characters.

Most fun was watching Sylvester Stallone playing a constantly spitting and screaming asshole. He overacts so ridiculously it becomes very entertaining. And then he also ass-rapes a construction worker with a huge sword mounted on his car. And he punches a woman and then strangles a woman and then has his ass handed to him by David Carradine, who despite his comical S&M gimp outfit is still pretty cool. It briefly features a young Martin Kove.

The movie’s low budget is rather apparent, the cars look really cheap and cheesy, there’s almost no attempt to make anything look even slightly futuristic or just not  70’s, TV reporters have microphones, that strongly resemble sex toys, not even slightly realistic matte paintings and so on, but that just adds to the reasons why people enjoy movies like this.

I must give credit to the racing scenes. Those Fast And Furious guys could learn a thing or two about car racing movies, because I was a lot more excited in this than in any of those movies, where Paul Walker refuses to act.

Overall, I found it quite enjoyable. Recommended for B-movie genre fans or if you want to see Sly’s early work as long as you don’t take it seriously, because the filmmakers clearly didn’t.

Sly will tommygun the shit out of you (if you don’t get sword-raped in the ass instead)