Saturday, September 3, 2011

Movie Reviews-Straw Dogs (1971), Hebrew Hammer, Cash

Straw Dogs(1971)
This Peckinpah film is violent, tense and grim. It attracted vitriol from feminists and liberals. Some thought it was a paean to essentialist masculinity while others decried what they saw as rape apologetics.  I was moved to write about this film because there is a remake coming out. I don't know if I will see that. I would bet anything that the lead actress role has been rewritten drastically to conform to more modern sensibilities while the lead male character will have to stretch to reach Dustin Hoffman's work here. If you do decide to see the remake please check out the original. This discussion will (unavoidably) have some major spoilers
David (Dustin Hoffman) is an American math professor married to Amy (Susan George). The young couple have had some issues and in order to reboot their relationship (and also it is implied flee from the socio-political unrest in the US) the duo move to Amy's native English village.

While Amy was evidently attracted enough by David's intellect and success to marry him she's just not currently attracted to him on a gut level. He doesn't make her motor run. David is losing her respect. It's not just one thing and it's not something she can coherently verbalize. And the hyper-rational, pacifistic, sarcastic and coldly polite David wouldn't know what to do if she did. A master of Game, David is not. He wants to work on his equations, not Amy's emotions or other more physical attributes. The couple's mutual irritations grow. 

David is out of place. He comes across as standoffish, incompetent,  (he can't drive a stick-shift) arrogant and condescending. This attitude is returned tenfold. The non-physical David has casually hired some local roust-a-bouts to do home repair. One worker is Amy's old boyfriend Charlie (Del Henney), who is much more traditionally masculine (and larger) than the diminutive Hoffman. Charlie wants Amy back. And Amy is somewhat ambivalent about this. She is a tease who wears provocative clothing and flirts with other men in front of David to make him jealous. The passive-aggressive Amy even disrobes and walks in front of open windows, knowing that the workers, including her former flame will get a nice look.
The Thrill is gone. It's gone away for good.
The tensions between the men and David ratchet up. The workers make not so hidden and increasingly hostile jokes at his expense, which David either pretends not to get or ignores. Someone kills Amy's cat and hangs it in the couple's bedroom, something which scares and infuriates Amy but barely seems to get a rise out of David. She berates her husband and questions his masculinity, wanting him to confront the men. David says he'll talk about it with them when they go hunting. In a Potemkin Show of camaraderie the local yobs have invited David on a hunting trip. However while the clueless David is being led around the backwoods and to his hosts' great amusement ultimately abandoned, Charlie hightails it back to the couple's home where Amy invites him in.
This is the film's most controversial aspect. Charlie initially forces himself on Amy but it's arguable afterwards that this WASN'T a rape. This could have been sex between two frustrated people that like a certain amount of danger and aggression in their partners. It may be similar to Rhett carrying Scarlett up the stairs despite objections. It is ambiguously shot as Amy seems to respond positively towards Charlie at one point. The director said people were missing the point but are you going to believe the director or your lying eyes? However what happens next IS rape as Charlie's buddy has followed, seen what went on and decides at gunpoint he wants in. Charlie assists. Hard to watch, this scene doesn't last long. I can't imagine that this would be shot like this today with ANY sort of initial uncertainty.
For whatever reason , George does not tell her husband what happened when he returns (loss of respect again?) and he never does find out. After these events George does not speak as much and dresses more conservatively.  But events occur which bring David's long dormant violence bubbling up.
This is where I live. This is me. I will not allow violence against this house
While driving home one night from a church social, where Amy has a reaction after seeing her rapists, the couple accidentally hit another man-the mentally slow Henry Niles (David Warner) who just killed a young town girl. David is unaware of Niles' previous actions and takes him home. David calls the local pub to seek assistance for the injured Niles. Unfortunately the local pub is where the murdered girl's father and the local thugs are (including Amy's rapists) and now that they know where Niles is they set off in a drunken rage to demand that David turn him over. But this David will not allow. He finally puts his foot down and massive violence ensues. 
The director also claimed that David was the film's villain. This is a disturbing film but shows the risks that many seventies films took. We can make a very strong argument that David has become exactly what he was trying to avoid becoming. This is not simplistically portrayed as a "good thing". We can be happy that David is standing up for himself at long last but this could have been prevented by different decisions earlier. And since he does not know of his wife's violation or his guest's crime, the violence in him comes from a different place entirely. This film is not for everyone but it did feature some of Hoffman's best work.

The Hebrew Hammer

This film, much like Undercover Brother is a comedic send up of 70's blaxploitation movies. It features Melvin Van Peebles (catch the reference to Sweetback in the video), Mario Van Peebles and stars Adam Goldberg as Mordechai Jefferson Carver aka The Hebrew Hammer, a Jewish private investigator, former IDF member and all around bada$$  who is so militant, so uncompromising that even other hardcore Jewish defense organizations think he's a little bit off and generally refuse to work with him.

That's just fine by The Hammer who prefers to work alone anyway. He tools around Brooklyn in his seventies pimpmobile looking like a combination of Superfly and Bugsy Siegel, telling kids to "stay Jewish". But as it turns out there are some events going on that even the Hammer can't handle by himself. While the previous Santa Claus pursued a live and let live policy of tolerance towards all other religious winter celebrations, he has been murdered and replaced by his decidedly intolerant son Damien (Andy Dick in a particularly over the top role) who intends to wipe out all other non-Christian or non-white celebrations in winter, starting with Hannukah. 

The Hammer has been alerted to this nefarious plan by the Jewish Justice League, which is presided over by Chief Bloominbergensteinanthal (Peter Coyote) The Chief doesn't like Hammer (Hammer was kicked out of the JJL) and the feeling is mutual. But he knows that Hammer is the only one who might be able to save the day.  The Chief sends his daughter Esther (Judy Greer) to watch over Hammer. Her feelings for Hammer are a bit more...complex.

Hammer checks in with his best friend, Mohammed Ali Paula Abdul Rahim (Mario Van Peebles), head of the Kwanzaa Liberation Front (KLF) and together they must team up to defeat the evil Santa's plans. In one of the film's funniest scenes , featuring a cameo by Melvin Van Peebles, Hammer asks for Manischewitz in a skinhead bar.

Although the humor is uneven at times, I liked this film. Like any other satiric film genre it features some jokes at an in-group's expense that would probably be considered quite offensive if made by an outsider. Whether the film is joking about the guilt tripping abilities of Jewish mothers, the preponderance of Holocaust movies in Hollywood, or a clock that lets people know when Macy's is having a 50% off sale, this film plays fast and loose with stereotypes(WASPS, blacks, Jews,etc), but it's all in good fun.

This movie was filmed entirely in Chicago. It's a low key thriller starring Sean Bean in a double role(The Kubic Brothers), Chris Hemsworth (Sam) and Victoria Profeta (Leslie).

One of the Kubic brothers has just been arrested and charged with a bank robbery. However before he's arrested by the cops he throws the suitcase containing the cash over the bridge and manipulates the police into shooting his accomplice. No evidence, no conviction is his plan.

In the meantime he is visited by his hypercalm twin brother who may have bankrolled the heist and wants to find the money. All the imprisoned brother has to go on is the make/model of the car he threw the money on. Armed only with that information ,somewhat implausibly Pyke Kubic starts to track down the people who "stole" the money.

Sam Phelan and his wife Leslie were living paycheck to paycheck so when an unexpected $600,000 comes into their life they go on a spending spree, pay off their house and get new cars.

All this happens in the first 20 minutes. The rest of the story concerns the psychological interactions between the Phelans and the incredibly single minded and intimidating Kubic when he discovers where they live. In some respects it's a lower budget "No Country for Old Men" but Kubic's brand of fear is not as over the top as Chigurh's. The film also has some interesting points to make about women's attraction to strength, men's rivalries with each other and what people are willing to do to save themselves. Ok movie but nothing special. 
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