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Posts in: November 10th, 2010

Death Wish 3 (1985)

Death Wish 3 might be the most insane, spectacular action film ever made. The film trims the “fat” of the first two (such as Paul Kersey’s attempts to balance a normal life with frequent vigilante killings) and amps up the film’s universe to a degree so over-the-top, not even John Waters would be bold enough to go there. The result is a gloriously violent, laughably absurd, but undeniably entertaining masterpiece of action filmmaking. Yes, it’s stupid and silly and cheesy and inconceivable, but for its chosen genre, it’s one of the high water marks.

The film opens with Paul Kersey (Charles Bronson) returning to New York City for the first time after taking his vigilante act on the road. He wants to visit a friend—a Vietnam vet who lives in a slum so violent, it’s beyond any mere mortal’s imagination—but when he arrives at the apartment, he finds the man has been brutally murdered by one of the numerous hoodlums overrunning the streets. Inconveniently, Paul arrives just as the police show up. They arrest him for the murder and drag him to the station.

Shriker (Ed Lauter, who previously costarred with Bronson in Death Hunt), who heads the “NYCPD” drug task force, recognizes Paul from his exploits in New York a decade ago. He offers a deal to Paul: he’ll put him on the streets to reduce the number of hoodlums, and in exchange Paul will be untouchable by police. Paul initially refuses, but when he’s harassed in lockup by Fraker (Gavan O’Herlihy), the Opie-esque leader of a gang whose fashion sense and painted faces make them look like they recently left Thunderdome, Paul changes his mind. He wants to take down Fraker and his gang.

Both Paul and Fraker are let loose on the streets. Paul returns to his friend’s tenement building, which is occupied by the nicest bunch of people you could possibly imagine—an elderly Jewish couple who mind their own business, a young Latino couple just starting out, and a swingin’ single named Bennett (Martin Balsam), who schools Paul on the way the neighborhood works. From there, it’s a high-stakes battle between Paul’s high-powered revolver and the increasing insanity of Fraker’s coked-up antics. This culminates in an epic 20-minute street battle that rivals Saving Private Ryan in raw violence and chaos. I’m not being hyperbolic at all—it obviously lacks Saving Private Ryan‘s depth and meaning, but it is equally as intense and frenetic.

This movie is a mind-boggling joy to watch. Winner shifts the tone from the first film’s gritty sense of realism to the outsized realm of a living cartoon. It’s impossible to do it justice in words, so here’s a brief clip that says it all:

This is the world of Death Wish 3 in a nutshell: maniacal gangsters, impotent policemen, and benevolent Paul Kersey becoming the hero of the day simply by taking action.

Taking his cues from a screenplay so insane that writer Don Jakoby removed his name from the final film, Winner creates this seemingly apocalyptic world through a combination of budget-conscious choices: Filming in weed-choked, bombed-out sections of London to substitute for New York; covering the thugs in war paint to distract from the ratty, thrift-store clothing; and finding a group of “good” characters so polite and noble, nobody in the audience could possibly root against them.

Almost like science fiction, Death Wish 3 has only the tiniest possible footing in the real world. The film manages to succeed for two reasons. First, the goofy insanity of this world is consistent in its presentation—it doesn’t shift from gritty and real to raucous and over-the-top. Second, and most importantly, Paul Kersey still shines as a beacon of believability in the midst of the mayhem. Not because the sight of a well-built man in his mid-60s firing a gatling gun into a city street is in any way believable—because Bronson still plays him as a wounded man driven to his breaking point by what he’s experienced in his life. His anger and disgust is palpable and relatable, even if the things that anger and disgust him are jaw-droppingly farfetched. It’s also a nice touch that the other residents of the decaying apartment building join Paul in his stand against Fraker’s gang.

This film’s not for everyone, obviously. If you enter the world of Death Wish 3, you probably know what you’re getting into. The good news is that the film delivers beyond any viewer’s wildest expectations. This is why it received the coveted four-star rating. For what the movie wants to achieve—a chaotic, over-the-top action film—it surpasses any other example of the genre, including the other four films in the Death Wish series. As an avid fan of ridiculous action movies, I can guarantee you that you’ll never see anything else like it. Ever.

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Morning Glory (2010)

Morning Glory is a comedy suffering from a frustrating identity crisis. The film has all the focus of a cocaine-addicted squirrel, so it never decides which story it wants to tell. As a result, nothing in the film is particularly satisfying, despite sparks of potential all over the place. Does it want to be a scathing satire of news-as-entertainment, or a respectful paean to the difficulties suffered even by morning news personalities? A career-versus-romance story (because in the movies, nobody can ever do both successfully), or the tale of a career-driven young woman trying to earn the respect of both her peers and her family? The truth is, half the time the film doesn’t even seem sure if it wants Becky Fuller (Rachel McAdams) as its main character. It could just as easily follow the bitter rivalry between veteran newsman Mike Pomeroy (Harrison Ford) and longtime Daybreak host Colleen Peck (Diane Keaton), or the tragic fall of the IBS network’s news chief (Jeff Goldblum).

The majority of the time, director Roger Michell aims the camera at Becky. The film opens with her getting fired from a small-market morning show. A few weeks later, she’s hired as the executive producer of Daybreak, the lowest-rated national morning show on TV. Her task: Turn things around as quickly as possible. She gets the ball rolling by first firing the current anchor (Modern Family‘s Ty Burrell in a thankless, surprisingly unfunny cameo).

After scouring audition tapes of various anchors to replace him, Becky realizes Pomeroy has a Dan Rather-esque deal with IBS: He can pitch up to six hour-long specials a year, but none of the stories he wants to do suit IBS. Basically, they’re paying him to do nothing. She uses a loophole in Pomeroy’s contract to force him onto Daybreak, against his will. See, he’s a real newsman, and he considers morning shows undignified.

Sometimes, the movie is about Becky’s difficult struggle to keep Pomeroy happy. Sometimes, it’s about her attempting a relationship with a news producer (Patrick Wilson). Sometimes, it’s about her giving in to sensationalism in order to boost the ratings. Sometimes, it’s about Pomeroy wanting to prove to himself he’s still a real journalist. Sometimes, it’s even about the surprisingly paternal relationship that develops between a veteran Daybreak producer (John Pankow) and Becky.

Unfortunately, Morning Glory has so little focus that even the good things don’t have time to resonate. Exceptionally bad dialogue allows the characters to flatly describe themselves and what they’re feeling instead of taking the time to let the audiences see and feel along with them. When they run out of time for bad dialogue, a closing montage reminds us of long-forgotten characters and hastily abandoned early subplots. It tries to tie up loose ends, but it really serves as a prime example of how sloppy the film actually is.

On the plus side, McAdams is her typical charming self throughout the film. Ford’s late-period decision to grouse and grumble his way through every role actually fits with the character he plays, so that’s an unintentional bonus. The film mostly wastes a cast of ringers, though, including Keaton, Goldblum, and Wilson. The one actor who really stands out, surprisingly, is Pankow. Often a supporting player, probably best remembered as Paul Reiser’s cousin on Mad About You, his scenes with McAdams are often the film’s best. His easy rapport with her, and the father-daughter chemistry they share, is much more natural and fun to watch than the filmmakers trying to force the same sort of relationship between Becky and Pomeroy.

What frustrates me is the film that could have been. When the dialogue isn’t abrasively on-the-nose, it’s quite witty and amusing. The cast Michell has assembled is uniformly too good for the material, and the proceedings feel frustratingly watered down. This is most evident in the handling of Daybreak. After starting off with a little ineffectual media satire, the film inexplicably treats Becky’s decision to resort to sensationalism to boost ratings as the best possible choice, and a third-act twist has Pomeroy hosting a cooking segment to prove he cares about the show more than his journalistic integrity. At one point, Becky states the apparent theme to Pomeroy: “In the battle between news and entertainment, your side lost.” The film treats this as if we’re supposed to be on Becky’s side of the argument. It’s kind of a weird, dispiriting message.

The bottom line is this: go rent Network and/or Broadcast News. Even Switching Channels is a better choice. What a disappointment.

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