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Sunday, Sep 2, 2007


Jerry Lewis remains an elusive cinematic figure. For most, he’s a joke, the punchline to a slam on the foolish French, or the kooky caricature of a nerd screeching “HEY LAAAAADY!” at the top of their nasal voice. Others have a more proper perspective, recognizing both his work with former partner Dean Martin (they remain the biggest phenomenon and unquantifiable gold standard in the now dead art of night club entertainment) and his tireless efforts on behalf of muscular dystrophy (summed up by this weekend’s telethon). But when it comes to film, especially those he’s personally written and directed, he stays a fool, a jester as jerk de-evovling the artform into nothing more than senseless silly slapstick. It doesn’t matter that Lewis authored one of the standard textbooks on the craft (The Total Film-Maker, 1971), or conceived technical innovations that revolutionized the production process.


Few see that he’s actually a bridge between the old fashioned chuckles of Hollywood’s Golden Era and the more experimental, existential humor of the post-modern period. Instead, he seems forever fated to be the dopey dude who takes the pratfall and pulls his face like putty – that’s all. Sadly, such a sentiment diminishes a great deal of very good work. While it’s true that Lewis lacks contextual sophistication – especially when it comes to subject matter and storyline – he is a procedural and visionary marvel. Thanks to a famous collaboration with Warner Brothers animator turned director Frank Tashlin (who’s really the aesthetic lynchpin for the look of most Lewis films) and his own turns in the creator’s chair, we can witness the rise, fall, and unjust dismissal of an amazing artist.


We begin by ignoring his first two solo efforts – the oddly dark The Delicate Delinquent (nothing more than a Martin and Lewis project gone sour) and the military farce The Sad Sack (good, but not quite there). After that, we can trace his talent, his tenacity, and his tendency toward self-indulgence. Hopefully, this will paint a better, more believable portrait of Jerry Lewis, an image beyond the frog-mouthed braying and the pantomime typewriter routines. For all his flaws, his hubris and his ego, the man could really make movies. The proof lies in the following list of legitimate cinematic statements, starting with:


Rock-a-Bye Baby (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For many this stands as the first ‘legitimate’ Jerry Lewis film. It’s not a leftover from his partnership with Martin, and marks the moment when Tashlin’s cartoon conceit steps in. It becomes the standard for most of the comedian’s work for the next two decades. While sappy and saccharine, it’s also the start of greater things to come.


The Geisha Boy (1958) (with director Frank Tashlin)
While far from politically correct (watch out for lots of slant eyed Asian awkwardness) and hitting, again, on the “Lewis with a foundling” formula that would guide his initial output, this otherwise ordinary film represents something miserable, not memorable.


The Bellboy (1960)
After the routine returns of Don’t Give Up the Ship and Visit to a Small Planet, Lewis was looking for a way to express himself without the interference of studio stooges who didn’t understand his style. In the meantime, Paramount wanted to save his upcoming Cinderfella for the Fall. So during a nightclub appearance in Miami, he made an agreement with the studio to create this on the fly homage to silent slapstick comedy. It became Lewis’s breakthrough. It also marks the introduction of ‘video assist’ – the use of video playback to allow a director to test how a scene plays and how the compositions work. Yes, Lewis is credited for creating the now-obligatory tool.


Cinderfella (1960) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Tashlin’s take on the classic fairytale is so weepy and maudlin that it’s hard to believe that anyone thought it would be a sizeable hit. But because of his stature as a legitimate solo superstar (eclipsing his previous partner many times over), Lewis’s career in front of the camera was now secured. His next effort would establish his prowess behind the lens as well.


The Ladies Man (1961)
It remains a monumental achievement in set design and art direction. Throwing his weight around as a box office behemoth, Lewis demanded and received an entire Paramount soundstage to create what is, essentially, an entire four story house complete with grand concourse, spiral staircases, open walled bedrooms, and an old fashioned elevator running up the side. It was a massive masterpiece of a playset, and Lewis made the most of it. Visually, Man is amazing. Unfortunately, the comedy is a tad forced, relying more on small moments than the epic environment created.


The Errand Boy (1961)
As a love letter to the studio that stood by him, Lewis made this simplistic silliness. Standing as one of his true classic comedies, this skewering of Hollywood hubris in combination with the filmmaker’s fleet footed physical shtick resulted in a creative combination that would underscore his next few films. Tinsel Town never took such a well-intentioned tweaking.


It’$ Only Money (1962) (with director Frank Tashlin)
Relatively forgotten, even among Lewis fans, this oddball detective farce – Lewis is a TV repairman and alongside a shifty private dick, get caught up in the search for a rich family’s missing heir – is one of the funnyman’s forgotten gems. Tashlin really amplifies his anarchic style, and Lewis looses himself in the relatively low key role. Instead of playing to the audience, he’s playing FOR them.


The Nutty Professor (1963)
Without a doubt, this stands as one of comedy’s major cinematic milestones. By riffing on his relationship with ex-partner Martin (who Buddy Love is obviously mirrored after) and putting to use every kind of cleverness imaginable, we get a wonderful whirlwind of dopiness and deftness. Lewis actually plays CHARACTERS here, not just weird variations of his own stick boy persona, and the emotional underpinning of the relationship with Stella Purdy is heartfelt and very human. Granted, this satiric Jekyll and Hyde has its slack sequences, but if you wonder what keeps Lewis part of the motion picture equation, even four decades later, this fantastic film is the answer.


Who’s Minding the Store? (1963) (with director Frank Tashlin)
After Professor, another go round with Tashlin seemed like a step backward. Still, Store is fun, using the premise (Lewis is a clerk put through the ringer by an owner who doesn’t want him marrying her daughter) to explore some major spectacle set pieces. It’s hit or miss, but there’s more to love than loathe in the end. 


The Patsy (1964)
Often cited as one of Lewis’s more cynical films, this droll look at celebrity and the shallowness of fame is, in reality, on par with Professor as a certifiable sensation. A dynamite combination of silent film gags, pop culture spoof (see Ed Sullivan mock himself!), and insightful evisceration into the cult of personality, it’s a brilliant, brazen farce.


The Disorderly Orderly (1964) (with director Frank Tashlin)
For his last film with Tashlin, Lewis resorts to stereotyping – that is, merely playing a version of the klutzy character he perfected in The Bellboy and The Errand Boy. Still, Disorderly is a surreal bit of insanity. It’s a cookie-cutter confection that only wants to entertain. And it definitely does so in small, sublime doses.


The Family Jewels (1965)
Marking the end of an era in more ways than one, this unfunny flop would represent the last time Lewis worked within such a cartoonish carelessness. Playing seven separate roles (the film focuses on a butler – Lewis – looking to place an orphaned girl with one of six specious Uncles – again, all Lewis). Some may marvel at the extensive use of split screen, and the attempt to distinguish the ridiculous relatives by outrageous make-up and costume conceits, but by going back to the days of fostering wee ones, Lewis seemed to suggest that he needed such a crutch to remain relevant.


Three on a Couch (1966)
Attempting to make the leap into more ‘adult oriented fare’, many feel Lewis succeeded with this sincere psychobabble. Again playing multiple roles (the plot has the clown wooing the man-hating patients of his psychiatrist fiancé so the pair can vacation in Paris), we get the battle of the sexes circa the swinging ‘60s. Unfortunately, the envelope pushing concepts of gender politics and free love are nowhere to be found. In many ways, this film’s view of relationships is so conservative it would make ‘50s suburbanites smile.


The Big Mouth (1967)
Here it is - the last straw in the lumbering Lewis legacy. After the failure of two films made without his direct input – the sci-fi stupidity of Way…Way Out! and the British bunk Don’t Raise the Bridge, Lower the River – Lewis retook the reigns of his motion picture product. The result was this horrendous, mean-spirited mess. Overstuffed with stereotypes (including more mandatory Oriental awfulness) and painfully unfunny, it signaled the final nail on the comedian’s almost closed creative coffin.


Which Way to the Front? (1970)
After once again failing to connect both as an actor (in the mediocre Hook, Line and Sinker) and director for hire (the Peter Lawford,/Sammy Davis Jr. vehicle One More Time), Lewis was desperate to revive his cinematic fortunes. With such war-oriented comedies as The Russians are Coming, The Russians are Coming and Start the Revolution Without Me creating significant buzz, Lewis jumped into the genre with both feet. The plot involved a rich army reject desperate to battle Hitler’s Nazi nogoodniks, and there’s a lot of attempted anarchy here. Most of the movie is inert, however.


Hardly Working (1980)
After his attempt at a semi-serious Holocaust drama was sidetracked by funding issues and a creative concern for the actual material (more on this in a moment), Lewis left filmmaking. He claimed he was angered when he saw one of his films playing on a double bill with the then popular porn film Deep Throat, and announced he was no longer “in tune” with the crass concerns of the industry. After a decade out of the moviemaking limelight, Lewis released this ‘comeback’ effort, a collection of cobbled together vignettes centering on a schlub who just can’t stay employed. Varying wildly between good and grating, the result was deemed a dud by a savvier motion picture marketplace. Lewis again blamed everyone but himself, and regrouped. He still had one more aged Ace up his sleeve.


Cracking Up (1983)
Though he would spend the rest of his career playing character parts (and quite well – his work in both Martin Scorsese’s King of Comedy and the TV series Wiseguy were performance epiphanies), Lewis longed to be a big screen buffoon once again. Hoping to avoid the flaws of Working, he brought in old script collaborator Bill Richmond (who had worked with the actor on several of his seminal hits). The result was a weirdly uneven effort that still manages to be uproariously funny. Though he was about as old as the material he was mining, Lewis proved that no one understood this kind of craziness better than he. Sadly, physical limitations and demographic denial prevented any further films.


The Day the Clown Cried (Unfinished)
For a long time, this rumored fiasco acted as an artistic albatross around Lewis’s neck – and with good reason. As Roberto Benigni proved with his painfully insulting Holocaust comedy Life is Beautiful, some subjects can’t stand up to dimwitted dopiness. Clearly, the killing of six million Jews by Hitler during World War II is one of them. Still, Lewis believed he had stumbled onto something substantive when he discovered Joan O’Brien’s novel about an imprisoned clown employed by the Nazi’s to entertain little children as they were sent off to the gas chambers. True, there is a queasy quality of tastelessness when matched up against Lewis’s love of all things overdone and overbroad, but it’s quite possible that he could have pulled this off. Naturally, those who’ve seen a rough cut have argued for its awfulness, but if a stunted Italian gimmick can get audiences to appreciate his jesting snuff stuff, why couldn’t Lewis? Sadly, it appears this will merely remain fodder for further mythologizing, nothing more. 


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Sunday, Sep 2, 2007

By Chris Justice

There’s nothing new about the news.


Dispatches of doom and gloom about the newspaper industry and its failure to attract young readers in the 18-30-year-old age group are rampant. Consider these headlines: “Newspapers Should Really Worry,” “Young Adults Are Giving Newspapers Scant Notice,” and “Goodbye to Newspapers?”.


Photograph by Zioluc (at Flickr)

Photograph by Zioluc (at Flickr)


A new wave of related articles recently surfaced due to a mid-July report released by The Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. According to The New York Times coverage of that survey, “The results were especially grim for newspapers. Only 16 percent of the young adults surveyed aged 18 to 30 said that they read a newspaper every day and 9 percent of teenagers said that they did. That compared with 35 percent of adults over 30. Furthermore, despite the popular belief that young people are flocking to the Internet, the survey found that teenagers and young adults were twice as likely to get daily news from television than from the Web.”


Is this really news? And more importantly, what does it mean? I sometimes teach journalism courses, and I don’t read a newspaper daily, but I do consume lots of news daily. According to these numbers, only one-third of the adults surveyed read a newspaper daily. That seems exponentially more disturbing and revealing and speaks volumes about the newspapers themselves, not today’s youth. Reports like these also carry a condescending tone that suggests younger people are, subsequently, becoming more illiterate, and that since younger people don’t read newspapers, they probably don’t read much at all. The problem with these claims is that they’re horribly false, and these surveys appear as subjective and arbitrary as some of today’s reporters.


For example, according to this USA Today article, which cited a Newspaper Association of America study and was published when the Harvard study’s data was being compiled, “The average number of monthly visitors to U.S. newspaper websites rose by nearly a third in the first half of 2006…Overall, newspaper websites helped drive a 15-percent increase in the total newspaper audience for 25- to 34-year olds and a 10-percent increase for 18- to 24-year olds.” The Seattle-Post Intelligencer reported in March 2007 that not only are teens nationwide reading more, but the books they’re reading are more sophisticated.


Sure, it’s not a newsflash that younger people are reading fewer print newspapers. That is a nationwide trend consistent with most populations. However, to report the whole story, one must acknowledge the many streams of data indicating that younger people are consuming news and reading more diverse texts including Websites, graphic novels, and blogs. The type of news they’re consuming is changing, but they are consuming it.


Considering that enrollment in the nation’s journalism schools during the past several years continues to grow, one reason why fewer young people are consuming traditional news products is probably because they’re too busy managing and producing their own. And one reason why more 20-somethings are studying journalism is because they’re tired of the status quo in today’s old media: stale technologies; backdoor partisan slants; boring writing; limited minority and female voices, especially in board rooms; and an increasingly more troublesome neglect of youthful topics. 


Commenting on that Harvard study, Larry Atkins in The Christian Science Monitor wrote “Hungry for younger readers, newspapers should embrace their voices,” an editorial that begins with this important question: “Why is it that every time an issue concerning young people arises, the newspaper op-eds commenting on those issues are almost always written by people in their 40s, 50s, or 60s?” Atkins urges, “If newspapers want younger people to read their papers, op-ed editors should actively reach out to college journalism programs and try to develop voices that have the perspective of younger people.” Bravo Larry!


More combatively but no less poignant, John Naughton last November scalped the newspaper industry at a Society of Editors conference for dissin’ today’s youth. In that speech, he stated, “But what one hears - still - from the newspaper industry is that there’s something wrong with the customers. And what one finds, on closer examination, is that the industry seems determined either to insult or to ignore them.” The Observer published this excerpt of his speech.


If newspaper editors spent more time engaging youth instead of counting how many are ignoring their products, those doom and gloom reports would change direction and carry the optimism of a spring bloom. If I’ve learned anything as a college professor, it’s this: if you want to connect with college students, you don’t talk at, to, or over them; you talk with them. And if you want something new about the news these days, ask today’s youth: they’re more than ready to have their voices heard.


+ + +


Chris Justice is the Director of Expository Writing at The University of Baltimore.


Photograph is by Zioluc. Published at Flickr under a Creative Commons Licence.


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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


As part of a new feature here at SE&L, we will be looking at the classic exploitation films of the ‘40s - ‘70s. Many film fans don’t recognize the importance of the genre, and often miss the connection between the post-modern movements like French New Wave and Italian Neo-Realism and the nudist/roughie/softcore efforts of the era. Without the work of directors like Herschell Gordon Lewis, Joe Sarno and Doris Wishman, along with producers such as David F. Friedman and Harry Novak, many of the subjects that set the benchmark for cinema’s startling transformation in the Me Decade would have been impossible to broach. Sure, there are a few dull, derivative drive-in labors to be waded through, movies that barely deserve to stand alongside the mangled masterworks by the format’s addled artists. But they too represent an important element in the overall development of the medium. So grab your trusty raincoat, pull up a chair, and discover what the grindhouse was really all about as we introduce The Beginner’s Guide to Exploitation.


This time out: Texas auteur Larry Buchanan fuels his true crime conspiracy theories with a pair of perplexing efforts.


What if Lee Harvey Oswald hadn’t died at the handgun of Jack Ruby? What if the assassin in one of the most defining moments in US history actually stood trial for his crime, before a jury of his peers? Would the evidence persuade you to convict? Or would you find him not guilty or even more so, innocent by reason of insanity? That is the provocative proposition offered by director and conspiracy theory expert Larry Buchanan as he gives the most infamous killer in American memory his day in court in The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald. Gone are the “grassy knoll” and “military industrial complex” rantings of Olive Stone and in its place are stark, cold facts. For 90 minutes, we hear a string of witnesses for the prosecution and defense, circumstantial evidence versus a plea of psychosis. Then we, the audience as jury, are given the charge and hear impassioned closing remarks from both sides. Was Oswald the President’s killer? Or was he an insane schizoid who failed to know right from wrong?



Having deflated one myth, Buchanan moves onto another, the notorious crime spree of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker. Using newspaper accounts, the still living eyewitness reports, and personal recollections from the family of Texas lawman Frank Hamer, we get the standard slaughter and sin narrative about this deadly duo. Personal details are revealed and sleazy tabloid gossip is fostered. All along, the efforts of Hamer to bring the two to justice are documented in near superhero revelry. It is only at the end, when we witness the death scene and autopsy photos of the craven couple, that we get a sense that these murderous monsters were even close to being human. And Buchanan jacks up the controversy factor further by giving former Barrow boy Floyd Hamilton a polygraph test—onscreen—to debunk some of the folklore surrounding the couple. Gruesome, gripping, and egregious at times, thanks to Buchanan’s digging, displaying, and reenactments, we truly experience The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde.


True Crime titles are probably the most forgotten exploitation genre, along with monster myth bashing (Bigfoot, Loch Ness) and the search for ancient astronauts (the name Sun International Pictures alone will make many a person who grew up in the ‘70s cringe with recognition). Probably no other director within this exclusive arena had more passion for the subject than Texas titan Larry Buchanan. From the assassination of JFK to the death of Marilyn Monroe and rock legends Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix, Buchanan has carved a niche out for himself presenting fact based dramatizations and documentaries attempting to get to the truth of some of the great urban legends of our times.



Of the two films mentioned here, The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde is probably the most cinematically interesting. Utilizing a style that would later be adopted by almost all fact film creators, Buchanan mixes modern interviews, press clippings, dramatic readings, old photos, recreations, scrapbook items, props, and stock footage to paint a low-budget Ken Burns look at rural American crime in the early 1930s. Mostly a pro-police response to the glorification of violence in Arthur Penn’s seminal Warren Beatty/Faye Dunaway drama Bonnie and Clyde, The Other Side focuses on Texas Ranger Frank Hamer, picturing him as a tireless proponent of justice who wouldn’t rest until these abhorrent human abominations faced the wrath of moral society. A good percentage of the time is spent highlighting Hamer’s career and accolades, and it almost overwhelms the real focus of the film. But Bonnie and Clyde are such oddly compelling criminals (he of minimal stature and bisexual tastes, she of near dwarf proportions) that they can’t help but become anti-heroic icons. Buchanan brings a lot of new material to the table (the gay angle, the injury to Bonnie in a fire that left her crippled), but the main reason for this film is the final few minutes. Here we see vintage movie footage of the dead duo in their death car, some rather morbid morgue photos, and, most compelling, a lie detector test interview with an ex-member of the Barrow gang. Under the polygraph’s watchful needle, we learn new (and supposedly) true facts about these criminals and their crimes. The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde delivers on its title’s promise and will linger in your imagination for days.



The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald, on the other hand, is a rather dry, non-dramatic courtroom recreation of an imaginary trial of the dead assassin of President Kennedy. So close to the event that it caused a stir upon first release, this movie supports the “single killer” theory forwarded by the Warren Commission and makes a fairly convincing case for Oswald’s lone involvement in the crime. Using actors as witnesses (many of who read their “testimony” off cue cards or lap notes), we get a standard prosecution of the case, complete with all the evidence that we have heard debated and berated for the last forty years: the rifle ordered by Oswald, the FBI marksman who recreated the killer’s rapid fire assault on the President with similar timing and accuracy, the Marxist agenda, and the hatred for Kennedy’s Cuba policy. Missing are any references to a second assassin, the grassy knoll, the Zapruder film (there is a mention of a “movie” to be placed into evidence, but it is quickly dismissed and we move on), or any Oswald/Ruby connection. It’s fairly clear that Oswald would have had a hard time defending himself against the mountain of circumstantial evidence and we really learn nothing new. And oddly, there is very little fire in this film about the greatest tragedy (after the 9/11 attack) to befall this nation. Except for the final moments where we get the closing arguments and a few words from the technical consultant on the film, the rest of the film is interesting, if not very compelling or exciting. Like most real life courtroom dramas, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald is a rote retelling of somewhat compelling facts and that is all.


Though biased and skewed and definitely lacking in gore or girlies, The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald and The Other Side of Bonnie and Clyde are still wonderfully sensational stories of crime and punishment. History (or at least one version of history) comes alive thanks to Larry Buchanan’s passion for their truth (or at least his concept of it).


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Saturday, Sep 1, 2007


In a society spinning out of control, vigilantism is the public’s panacea. It provides control – no matter how corrupt – within a schism of moral decay, and offers that most fleeting cure-alls - self-described justice and decency. Those without perspective tend to question the police’s problem with citizens taking the law into their own hands, yet what these action apologists tend to forget is that it’s rules and regulations that keep a community contained. Allow those boundaries to be dismissed, or ever controverted, and the result is chaos, the exact opposite of the crime and punishment paradigm you seek to establish with your vengeance. It’s a burden carried by Kevin Bacon in his latest film, Death Sentence. Based on a novel by Death Wish author Brian Garfield, it explores the notion of going numb over the seemingly endless cycle of criminality endured as part of everyday existence, and how it turns one man into a monster.


Nick Hume (Bacon) leads a rather idyllic life. His eldest boy Brendan is a talented high school hokey star with dreams of attending college in Canada. His youngest, Lucas, is the exact opposite – bright and sensitive, and slightly out of place in the family dynamic. Nick loves his wife Helen (Kelly Preston), adores his kids, and sees himself as a happy, settled man. All of that is shattered one night when a gang initiation brings death to the Humes. Grief stricken, Nick hopes the legal system will provide the punishment he seeks. But when he learns that lawyers are merely mechanisms in a quasi-corrupt system more interested in plea deals than maximum prison time, our devastated Dad decides to take matters into his own hands. What he doesn’t know is that his intended victim is part of the deadly Darley gang. Papa Bones (John Goodman) sells illegal guns, while oldest Billy brews dope in an abandoned asylum. They’re the kind of clan that don’t take kindly to having one of their own pushing up the daises. Because of his actions, Nick now faces a Death Sentence from these ruthless murderers.


Death Sentence is a wonderfully tight little thriller, the kind of statement cinema an up and coming filmmaker needs to establish his overall eagerness to achieve. It’s clear that, after only three films, Saw savant James Wan is becoming a compelling cinematic presence. While the gimmicks of his now seminal first film still stand out, the controlled visual splendor he showed in the horribly underrated Dead Silence shows up here as well. If Saw was a film soaked in slimy greens, and Silence shades of gray, then Sentence is steeped in gritty urban blues. Even the bloodshed – and there is plenty – is toned down, tweaked to maintain an aura of desperation and dread. Wan wants to establish his own aesthetic goals, reasons why his movies matter more than other game genre selections. While there are those who dismiss practically everything he does, this is one novice filmmaker who has made finding his way a compelling cinematic exercise.


As with any story of revenge, everything rests of the reaction of the victim and the reasons for retribution. This means our characters must be clear and the acting on target. Luckily, Death Sentence contains both. Nick Hume, while slightly self-absorbed, does come across as a sympathetic subject. He’s helpful at work – though a little to concerned about balance and “everything lining up” in perfect little rows – and loving to his family. While he does miss the disconnected dimension in youngest boy Lucas, he’s a fine father figure. Kevin Bacon, whose been expanding his range as of recently, deserves a lot of credit for bringing Nick to life, and for being so vulnerable onscreen. While he’s stoic throughout most of the set-up, there are several sequences post-premise where he’s devastating. Ghostly white (again, part of Wan’s weird paradigm) and gaunt, he’s a stick of drained domesticated dynamite just waiting for the proper fuse to set him off.


Enter the Darley Gang. Filled with archetypes instead of actual characters (the doubter, the wisenheimer, the bad ass black dude, etc.) and an inconclusive criminal intent (while the initial act is part of an initiation, everything else they do seems open to conjecture), they’re nothing but manufactured evil. The notion that such blatant, bullish hoods actually exist in a world filled with sting operations, neighborhood watches, and politically mandated task forces is not totally far fetched, but it does cause one to question the competency of the movie’s example of law enforcement. Aisha Tyler is Detective Wallis, a woman who seemingly knows everything the Darleys do, but apparently doesn’t bother to prosecute them. It’s a plot hole that’s never filled. The confrontation between Bacon and the direct DA is also a little forced. While it is a State mandate to settle criminal cases vs. taking them to trial, they’d never be so open about their strategy to a grieving victim.


Since the need for payback is obvious, but the attending consequences unclear, it’s up to the performances and the presentation to get us over the narrative divides. Thankfully, Wan wastes no time in establishing main bad boy Billy as an unfiltered psychopath, a chip off of the old engine block (John Goodman is great as an elephantine ‘boss’) who needs putting in his place. His relentless pursuit of Bacon in one of the film’s signature action scenes - a wonderful return to the days of the foot chase – easily illustrates his demented drive and fury. Later, in a sinister sequence with his father, we understand what made this gangbanger turn to crime. The point where things become mega-personal, where the back and forth kills stop being about retribution and start sounding a little specious (almost as if this was a game where corpses count as wins) may test a viewer’s sense of logic, but Death Sentence isn’t really concerned about being rational. It’s way too wrapped up in parenthood’s precariousness and our own helplessness within the world to consider its creative purity.


Oddly enough, where the movie loses some of its moxie is in the otherwise outstanding finale. Bacon, loaded for bear and – through the magic of the movies – completely capable of conning and killing off a band of seasoned slayers, is far too mechanical in his manslaughter. All the emotion he showed before simply vanishes. Never once do we believe he will balk. Certainly, one of his targets may take him out, but it won’t be because our now inhuman hero will panic. No, Nick Hume turns into The Terminator somewhere around the 70 minute mark, and he never really turns back. The final shot, a smile of self-satisfaction plastered on a mangled and melting mug, is like the robotic response of someone who is dead inside. Perhaps it’s supposed to resonate the same way that Travis Bickel’s bloody finger did in Taxi Driver, but Wan isn’t out to make some metaphysical point. Death Sentence is about brute force and blame. It’s not out to address the morals or mindsets involved.


Still, this is a significant movie, a clear indication that Wan will remain a fixture in film for the time being. Granted, he’s yet to be great, though Saw’s continuing influence and success suggests otherwise, and it would be nice to see him work within a genre that doesn’t demand stunts, splatter, or suspense. But in a realm where made for cable drek stands as the mainstream movie standard, Death Sentence gives good gonzo. It consists of some less than airtight plotting, and tends to understate the obvious, but perhaps that’s better than some regressive Rambo of the suburbs stance. It definitely resides in the realm of flights of fancy and fiction, though it really wants to represent some measure of truth. Unfortunately, the lure of vigilantism is too strong – and too socially acceptable – to avoid…or dismiss.



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Friday, Aug 31, 2007

Habib ought not to have rolled down his window.


His yellow cab was stopped at a red light behind a bus in the tar-dark Queens night when I approached. But roll down his window Habib did. And from there Habib’s immediate future was sealed.


Unfortunately, as it turned out, for us all.


Habib is a Manhattan hack who had the misfortune of dumping a fare over the river. Or actually, the misfortune of rolling down his window after dumping his fare over the river and entertaining my pitch. Misfortune because Habib had no business thinking that he could negotiate the streets of Queens efficiently (and if not efficiently, then efficaciously). And no business because Habib couldn’t have found an intersection even if he rolled right through it—which, it turned out he did with great frequency, if not alacrity.


All of this became immediately apparent when I hopped into the front seat and announced my crew’s intended destination. There, flashing through Habib’s eyes were two thoughts: “perhaps you’d better step back out of this cab, Sir” and “I can do this! I’m sure I can.”


In the battle of voices -– we might label Habib’s contending thoughts “red” versus “green”. Red being “stop this nonsense (right now!)” and green being “for the love of money (let’s jump on it!)”. Unfortunately for our side, green prevailed. And after muttering our destination, “Rockaway Boulevard” to himself three times, Habib shifted into Drive and away we did.


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