Time Off From the Movies (With Movies)

I guess that was a pretty good Spring Break -y’know, outside of the unpaid vacation premise – in that it was pretty low impact. I watched a movie a day, wrote about them. That’s about as close to Nirvana as I’m likely to currently get. Well, all good things, etc, as my family returned from their vacation, I lost my sovereign status over the TV, and found myself trying to care for a wife that had, as usual, pushed herself too far for too long. Shooting video in a thunderstorm system that had spawned three tornadoes the night before. Getting soaked to the skin and wondering if my current sniffling is due to something more pernicious than my usual rampant allergies.

You know, Life’s Rich Pageant.

I’ve managed to get two movies in so far this week, mainly because the Super Soaker day was so long, I was in danger of logging too many hours in my work week, and had to take Thursday off. Though I’m fairly itching to get on with the Stanley Kubrick Project – next up is Paths of Glory – it turned out to be neither of the movies.

First up was Vigilante, the 1983 William Lustig flick, watched for an upcoming Daily Grindhouse podcast. (And knowing that, I placed it on The Other List. I am gaming my own system) It would be pretty easy to dismiss this movie as a Death Wish rip-off, but since Death Wish was made in ’74, that doesn’t wash – you don’t do rip-offs ten years after the fact (you wait twenty, apparently, and call it a remake – but that’s a rant for another time). It’s been pointed out that Vigilante is more like an homage to the Italian revenge flicks that proliferated after the success of Death Wish, making it, at best, an homage to an homage. Or something.

The tragically under-used Robert Forster is a New York mechanic whose working buddies (including Fred Williamson) have gotten tired of the situation on the streets and have formed a sort of vigilante hit squad. For the most part, they seem to satisfy themselves with beating the living crap out of rapists and drug dealers, but it’s obvious they are soon going to be taking it to the next level. Forster isn’t having any of that, even after his wife is stabbed multiple times and his son shotgunned to death by a street gang – he still believes in the courts. Of course, that faith is quashed when a corrupt judge gives the leader of the gang a suspended sentence, and Forster himself winds up going to the pen for a month for contempt of court when he tries to assault said judge. Once out, Forster tells Williamson he is totally down with this vigilante stuff.

Vigilante is way too episodic for its own good; once Forster goes to prison, the movie splits into two movies, one about Forster, the other about Williamson. The two movies intersect when the new Vigilante Squad plus One busts into an apartment so Forster can personally plug the gang leader. After that, Forster splits from the Squad, which leaves Williamson’s movie unfinished. Forster’s movie does come to a literally explosive end, but I am still left wondering about some plot threads left over from Williamson’s flick.

There’s no denying that the movie is well cast and well made; some of the photography, in fact, is damn well gorgeous – it’s not every day you see an exploitation flick shot in Panavision. I’m always down with watching Forster, and this is one of the best things I’ve seen Williamson do; he still gets to be quite the badass, but he’s a conflicted badass. You can see he doesn’t really like what he’s doing, but he finds it necessary, and soldiers on.

Can’t really recommend it, unless you’re a Forster, Hammer, or Italian Revenge fan. In that case, go for it.

I watched Vigilante  on Netflix Streaming, and as a side project to that, remembered that there were various websites that laid out when movies were expiring on that service. Found to my shock (or something like it) that two Luis Bunuel movies were going offline on April 1, and as they were a part of my goal to get better educated about film, they got pushed waaaaay up the queue.  First up: The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.

This was my first full-length Bunuel; I had seen Un Chien Andelou years before, his short in collaboration with Salvador Dali, but none of his long-form stuff, so I wasn’t quite sure of what I was getting into. Bunuel is best known as a surrealist, but Charm is, I think, more appropriately absurdist rather than surrealist. I am down with the absurd, as the kids say, I get it, and, as such, I really enjoyed it.

A marvelous cast is led by Fernando Ray, who plays an Ambassador from the fictional Latin American country of Miranda, who is smuggling cocaine in his diplomatic pouch. He and his two French friends (and their spouses and one sister) will keep trying to sit down to a meal, but never quite get to it due to a series of increasingly bizarre and chaotic events.

And that is about the most concise and sensate synopsis I can manage. Going into too much detail would take longer than watching the movie and serve no real purpose; I’m kind of a lunkhead when it comes to these things, and have to have any symbolism that prances by explained to me. I’ll try to just point out some of my favorite bits:

In the scene where Ray starts pulling bags of coke out of his pouch, one of his compatriots points out there’s a pretty girl on the sidewalk in front of his office, selling mechanical cat and dog toys. Ray’s response is to take a sniper rifle out of a nearby cabinet and shoot one of the dogs. (He explains that she is a terrorist from Miranda spying on him, but still…)

The ladies are at a stylish restaurant (complete with string quartet)  for what appears to be brunch. They order tea and switch places because the young sister cannot stand the sight of cellists. After being told that the restaurant is out of tea, they order coffee, and a young army lieutenant joins them. He tells them the tale of how he poisoned his stepfather while young. The ladies accept this without batting an eyelash, all smiles. Then they are told the restaurant is out of coffee.

Later, in a similar scene, their dinner party is interrupted by a squad of soldiers who will be using the estate for war games. Of course, they are invited to join in for dinner, but just as they are starting their meal, a messenger arrives and advises the colonel that the opposing army has started the war early. Before they leave however, they all sit to hear the messenger relate a dream he had the night before. Afterwards, everyone is captivated. One soldier says, “Now tell the train dream!” “Oh, yes, yes!” cry the ladies, but the Colonel demurs, “No, no, we must get to the war.”

Dreams play an increasingly important part in the proceedings, as the more outrageous and violent incidents are terminated by a character awakening from a dream. In fact, one states that he was having a dream about another character having a dream – that’s the complexity with which Bunuel layers his imagery. It’s not as confrontational or frantic as the cascading imagery in Head, but it is so much more, well, bourgeois. As one can tell from the sarcastic title, these are terrible people being terrible because it is their right to be terrible, even to the point where being terrible is blase. So much of this movie is striking and haunting, I feel I must recommend it highly, even knowing that it is not for all markets.

I’m going to have to find time this week for the other Bunuel movie in danger of expiring, That Obscure Object of Desire. And possibly carve out some time to break into Paths of Glory. These are good problems to have.

3 Comments

  1. My favorite part of Vigilante comes early, when Fred gives that awesome, ludicrous speech. “This is our Waterloo, baby!”

  2. Expectations be a bitch seldom satisfied, and with that cast, director and setting, I was probably expecting way too much out of Vigilante the first time through. Probably need to check it out again.

    • We recorded the podcast this morning, and turns out Joe Robin feels the same way; didn’t love it, but didn’t hate it, either. Truthfully, my expectations were pretty high, too, and I suspected that kept me from giving the movie its full due, but hearing Joe agree with me on most of my points confirmed it was a deeply flawed flick.

      It’s on Netflix Instant for the foreseeable future, so.if you have that, it’s pretty easy and cheap to give it a second chance.


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