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Archive for February, 2011

Penitentiary

Posted by Josh Samford On February - 21 - 2011

Penitentiary (1979)
Director: Jamaa Fanaka
Writers: Jamaa Fanaka
Starring: Leon Isaac Kennedy, Wilbur ‘Hi-Fi’ White and Thommy Pollard



The Plot: Martel ‘Too Sweet’ Gordone (played by Leon Isaac Kennedy) is a tough young man who runs into some trouble with a couple of bikers who try their best to rough up a young prostitute. When ‘Too Sweet’ begins to batter the two goons, he is struck over the head with a bottle and knocked unconscious. When he awakens, he is in prison. A victim of the racist system, Too Sweet must now contend with life on the inside. The prison is ran by a group of individuals who are obsessed with breaking in the fresh meat, so that they can make them their sexual slaves. ‘Too Sweet’ however refuses to give in and displays his tremendous natural fighting ability. This gets him a shot in a boxing competition that offers many rewards, such as free time with a woman and even time taken off of a sentence! Will ‘Too Sweet’ make it through the tournament and what will happen with his new enemies within the penitentiary?

The Review
By the time the seventies were coming to a close the blaxploitation genre was beginning to fade into obscurity, certainly when looked at in comparison to its popularity during the years previous. There were still films being made, such as Rudy Ray Moore’s Disco Godfather (1979) and South African Death of a Snow Man (1978) amongst many others, but the lines had been blurred so much at this point that this genre, that never really was a “genre”, was beginning to peter out. Director Jamaa Fanaka was a filmmaker from a specific time, who could only have worked within that very specific generation, and his time and place was within African American independent cinema during the 1970’s. Best known for the Penitentiary trilogy, Fanaka is a very different and interesting character from blaxploitation film history. Since the majority of all casts in blaxploitation films were obviously African American, many might have been left with the impression that these films were also directed and written by African Americans themselves. This was unfortunately not the case on most occasions. There were only a hand full of African Americans standing behind the camera within this movement. Fanaka is interesting because, unlike someone like Melvin Van Peoples, Fanaka had a definite love for genre filmmaking. Each one of his five films, made between the years of 1975 to 1992, all fall within the lines of genre-cinema in some form or another. Often times they were bent into weird and unrecognizable shapes along the way, but by and large his films had a certain commercial aesthetic to them that lead many to embrace his particular form of entertainment. Penitentiary itself stands out as easily one of the better, and certainly most interesting, prison films made within this time and era.
The film opens up as a regular run of the mill exploitation film, starting off in a dusty desert surrounding with a group of bikers harassing ‘Too Sweet’. Your first impression is that this film will take us the route of a generic biker film similar to Born Losers (the first Billy Jack film which featured similar scenery and a biker’s run-amuck plot device), but in the very first moment where we actually enter into the prison system: we are transported to a different world. This is where the film delivers something completely unlike anything you have ever seen before. Characters break through the fourth wall on regular occurrence, walking directly into the camera and staring into it while mouthing inaudible words and threats while their happiness and anger scream intimidation. Their wild stares and incessant dancing gives the appearance of something foreign, or completely wild, hidden away within our “justice” system. The criminal system, within the first few shots, is shown to be a complete and total madhouse. Insanity at it’s most tantamount. This isn’t a place to be reformed, it’s a place where sanity is apparently deprived of all its citizenry. Within this secular society, all of societal norms have been flipped upside down and a war of sexual orientation is being battled about.

Although, at its very heart, this is a very simple boxing story set within a prison and has a fair amount of comedy thrown in to entertain, but one gets the idea that Fanaka definitely went for some of the social commentary that his film makes. The state of the criminal system is of course shown to be predominately black, with several allusions to slavery being made in the form of homosexual aggression lead by a select number of authoritative leaders within the prison. Fresh prisoners who aren’t acclimated to the rough and tumble way of life that is now in front of them are made into sexual slaves for the high ranking gang leaders. Human beings are treated as objects, expressed perfectly in one pivotal sequence where the young Laverne is chastised by another inmate and is told “You my stuff now! You my stuff!”. The heartlessness of slavery is captured within scenes such as this better than any civil war feature I believe that I have ever seen. Although the white warden isn’t shown to be as insufferable as many of the black inmates, he is still very much a plantation-owner of sorts. The character generally even looks the part. So, within this strange world of slavery upon slavery, the character of Too Sweet stands up as a strong black male who may be held within the confines of this system, the prison/America, but he will not play ball and he will fight to have what he desperately wants: freedom/equality. This is all very surface level observations, but what I like about Penitentiary is that we as the audience can pick up on these small bits of subtext but at the same time we can also enjoy the plentiful action sequences throughout.
Never willing to abandon the fun nature of cinema, Fanaka crafts an action film in the midst of his counter-cultural observation on American “justice”. The action is generally divided into two parts: the realistic boxing sequences, and then the rehearsed and choreographed street fights. As a fight fan myself (boxing and mixed martial arts), I always keep an eye on fight choreography. What is interesting about Penitentiary is the way many of the in-ring boxing sequences are handled. Rather than a Rocky style of back and forth action, which is often well choreographed but entirely fake looking, the actors in Penitentiary look to really throw their punches and are legitimately trying to make contact with one another. If you have ever seen a legitimate street fight between two untrained guys who simply want to slug it out and throw the most ridiculous haymakers that they possibly can, then you have seen what some of the boxing in Penitentiary looks like. Overhand lefts and overhand rights, thrown in succession without halting, by both combatants… that is really all there is to these boxing sequences, but in the context of the movie it works tremendously well. After all, these are just men throwing punches at each other without any kind of legitimate training. When a fighter who has no self control steps into the ring within any full contact sport, they will act in basically the same fashion. When offense seems to work, who cares about defense?


The Conclusion
Does Penitentiary have issues? Sure! You can pick it apart, with the budget obviously being a factor in many of the goals Fanaka likely had for his film. However, I must say, Penitentiary succeeds as a piece of entertainment and as a time capsule for independent African American filmmaking. I have become such a fan of this movie, I can’t help but recommend it. I give it a four out of five stars and hope others take the time to track it down if they have not already!




The Manhunt Review!

Posted by Josh Samford On February - 14 - 2011
Hey everybody! We’re back with some Euro-crime! A genre that I love to dabble in, but am far from being a master of just yet. This time out we have the unbeatable combination of Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox) and Henry Silva (Il Boss), so prepare to have your socks knocked off or at the very least prepare to be shoved down in the muck and the dirt!

The Plot: Our film begins with a group of robbers entering a jewelry store and pulling a heist. In the midst of the confusion and the violence, David Vanucchi (Henry Silva)’s daughter is shot by this group of psychopaths. The only thing that Vanucchi’s daughter can muster before her death is that she saw the “Scorpion”. Vanucchi and the police are baffled by the statement and are left with no other clues as to who could have committed such a heinous crime. Vanucchi, feeling abandoned by a system that allowed these criminals to kill his daughter in the first place, begins his own investigation into the criminal underground. He is persistently told to stay out of it by the police detective who is handling the case, but his own quest for vengeance will not be appeased. Will he find the men responsible or will he destroy his own life in the process?


CONTINUE READING HERE!

Manhunt, The

Posted by Josh Samford On February - 14 - 2011

The Manhunt (1975)
Director: Umberto Lenzi
Writers: Umberto Lenzi, Dardano Sacchetti
Starring: Henry Silva, Luciana Paluzzi and Silvano Tranquilli



The Plot: Our film begins with a group of robbers entering a jewelry store and pulling a heist. In the midst of the confusion and the violence, David Vanucchi (Henry Silva)’s daughter is shot by this group of psychopaths. The only thing that Vanucchi’s daughter can muster before her death is that she saw the “Scorpion”. Vanucchi and the police are baffled by the statement and are left with no other clues as to who could have committed such a heinous crime. Vanucchi, feeling abandoned by a system that allowed these criminals to kill his daughter in the first place, begins his own investigation into the criminal underground. He is persistently told to stay out of it by the police detective who is handling the case, but his own quest for vengeance will not be appeased. Will he find the men responsible or will he destroy his own life in the process?

The Review
I have always had an affinity for crime cinema. It is one of my largest passions as a follower of film, and ever since discovering the world of Euro-Crime, the genre has been a staple of my cinematic habits. The Manhunt is a deceptively generic action/crime film from the outset, but has a great deal of interesting opportunities that it takes advantage of throughout its running time. Often, for me at least, it is the little things that can make or break a genre film. In the case of Manhunt, I don’t think it’ll ever be a title that anyone considers required viewing for fans of Euro-Crime, but it acts as a bleak alternative for the vigilantism influence that some of these films have. A movie that is nowhere near as black and white as Enzo G. Castellari’s Street Law, this Umberto Lenzi directed piece of work may surprise audiences as it tackles the issue in a very unconventional manner.
The impact that Michael Winner and Charles Bronson had on the worldwide culture with their film Death Wish is almost impossible to grasp. Whether The Manhunt was a film made as a spurned outcry against the politics of Castellari’s Street Law or Death Wish, this can likely be debated, but its easy to imagine that both films were sources for inspiration. Although Castellari’s film never shared the same overtly political statements that Winner’s masterpiece of right wing values did, it retained the same concepts. That is to say, if our own government refuses to stop the rampant crime, perhaps it is up to us the citizens. The Manhunt is interesting in different ways, most notably because it is far more gray in its moral color palette. Lenzi’s film doesn’t offer any kind of conclusions for the audience, in terms of how one fights crime when the local government has been corrupted or are generally oblivious, but his film poses many engaging questions throughout. Who would have thought it from the director of Cannibal Ferox?

The Manhunt takes a similar vantage point that the previously mentioned titles did, with the police force made up of either idiots or criminals, and instead asks where the concept of vigilantism ends. Most of the really interesting points, where these questions are asked directly, come about during the final third of the movie so unfortunately that means there is a lot of ‘filler’ thrown around in the mid-section. During this section of the film we are lucky in the fact that Henry Silva is our leading man, as he is always a commanding performer. It isn’t until the final third, however, that I think the film has any chance of being really solid. Lenzi takes vigilantism and presents it in a necessary light, at least during the first half of the movie, but as things begin to escalate we see that while men are fallible then no body of governance can truly be perfect. I don’t think Lenzi excuses the corruption of the Italian government, but instead poses questions from every side of the equation and shows that nothing is perfect. Ultimately, grief, anger and paranoia do not prove to be adequate means in determining order and judging death sentences.
Indeed, Henry Silva demands your attention here. From what I have seen of the man, this may also be one of his most engaging performances as well. There is a moment that comes about early on, where Silva’s character first discovers the death of his daughter. During this we actually get to see the tough guy facade of Silva falter just slightly, and he portrays the role of a grieving father to exceptional levels. However, within short order, Henry Silva is back to being the Henry Silva that we all know and love: a hard man who sports a grimace, no matter what the situation may be. Henry Silva was not/is not a bad actor, not by any degree, but there is no getting past the fact that the man can be a bit one-dimensional. He was a charismatic actor who could win the audience over, but the roles that he was known for didn’t always require him to step out from his safety zone and I find it interesting that we get to see the man do that here, even if it is only for a very short time.

The Manhunt shows Silva at his most brutal, as he wanders from one action set piece to another. In the midst of his investigation we get to see him slap around a transvestite prostitute, whilst yelling “YOU LYING FAGGOT!” which seems shocking by today’s standards but was relatively run of the mill in those times. Silva is shown at this point as being no better than the men he attempts to chase, as he beats and attempts to drown the transvestite we are eventually shown a book-end sequence that shows this gang lead by the Scorpion doing the same thing to the same transvestite in an attempt to also extract information. The homophobic verbal abuse is also continued, so if that sort of thing bothers you then prepare yourself because it gets fairly vicious.


The Conclusion
This is a Euro-Crime title that bucks the norm, that is for certain. When Umberto Lenzi tries to do things that manipulate his audience on an emotional level (as he does here and also with Almost Human), he can be quite successful. The Manhunt doesn’t turn out to be a classic unfortunately, due mainly to the stagnate pace during the middle portion of the feature, but it is certainly watchable. In fact, if you are a Henry Silva fan then it is probably required viewing! I give it my recommendation and list it with three out of five stars. It is above average, but only slightly.




A Barge and Its Wind Review!

Posted by Josh Samford On February - 10 - 2011
Hey everybody, we are back once again! This time with another independent film for your reading pleasure! This time we are covering the spacey/gory indie short A Barge and Its Wind which should hold some interest for horror fans out there who are looking for something just a wee bit different. Give the review a read and make sure to post comments if you have any!

The Plot: Quoting almost verbatim from the opening text crawl: In the early winter months of 2011, an unmarked barge docked at the port of Cleveland, Ohio. Penned as a vessel carrying WMD’s linked to terrorism by the govt/media, the ship was in fact federal & contained an experimental gas. The substance was a bio-chemical agent designed using nano-technology made up of electro magnetic particles programmed to sound frequencies. In field missions frequencies are referred to as targets. Still a prototype, the weapon has yet to be tested. The leaked gas serves as an advantage for a surveillance test. Over the course of three days the govt strategically zoned & evacuated the city knowing there would be civilians left behind or wanted felons in hiding from arrest. Civilian lives serve as a convenient field experiment. Our film shows the lives of five survivors as they try to escape this harsh chemical agent that seems to float above their heads, like tiny black clouds, and ultimately kills whoever it swarms upon.


CONTINUE READING HERE!

Barge and Its Wind, A

Posted by Josh Samford On February - 10 - 2011

A Barge and its Wind (2010)
Director: Keitj T. Alin
Writers: Keitj T. Alin and Frank Frederico
Starring: Douglas Arthur Hall, Perry Barbarino and Nick Larich



The Plot: Quoting almost verbatim from the opening text crawl: In the early winter months of 2011, an unmarked barge docked at the port of Cleveland, Ohio. Penned as a vessel carrying WMD’s linked to terrorism by the govt/media, the ship was in fact federal, and contained an experimental gas. The substance was a bio-chemical agent designed using nano-technology made up of electro-magnetic particles programmed to sound frequencies. In field missions, frequencies are referred to as targets. Still a prototype, the weapon has yet to be tested. The leaked gas serves as an advantage for a surveillance test. Over the course of three days the govt strategically zoned & evacuated the city knowing there would be civilians left behind or wanted felons in hiding from arrest. Civilian lives serve as a convenient field experiment. Our film shows the lives of five survivors as they try to escape this harsh chemical agent that seems to float above their heads, like tiny black clouds, and ultimately kills whoever it swarms upon.

The Review
Although Varied Celluloid has never, up until this point, featured a short film amongst its litany of film reviews, we do not hold any form of antagonism towards the short form subject. A Barge and Its Wind holds the dubious “honor” of being our very first! I was contacted by director Keitj T. Allin a month or so ago about reviewing his film, and although it took me a long time to finally get around to it, I am here to do just that. Varied Celluloid as a site may not be used to the short film format, I as a viewer have a great deal of experience with these films as I have been writing for RogueCinema for nearly as long as this website has been active. I am sent many independent short films on a monthly basis, but writing for Varied Celluloid makes this a slightly more special occasion. Thankfully, A Barge and Its Wind also turns out as one of the better shorts I have seen in a while. A strange mix of varying concepts and ideas, A Barge… is one part gore flick, one part atmospheric and claustrophobic horror film and one part arthouse-cinema. This may sound a bit uneven, but surprisingly Alin finds a way to mix his strange concoction so that everything comes out as a singular vision.
I am a great supporter of independent and short films. Covering them for such a long period of time, I have seen some intensely dramatic pieces of fiction told within very short time frames. Although interesting, within the independent film world these projects usually reside in one of two different categories: the first type being the “over-indulgent film school geek” method and the other comes in the form of “the horror-geek who wants to directly recreate his favorite movies”. Not all films fall into this stereotypical and neatly packaged little definition, but there have been enough that it has become a pattern within my monthly viewing habits. A Barge and It’s Wind is a varied mix of these two concepts and is decidedly well made despite the brew of conflicting aesthetic values.

A bawdy (and gaudy) array of low brow and high brow values, A Barge and Its Wind seems to be equal parts August Underground and arthouse existentialist examination. The introduction to the film seems to recall filmmakers such as Gaspar Noe, as it recalls a great deal of backstory and exposition through the use of very bold and rounded bubble type on the screen. After several cards that read us through this backstory, we are ultimately lead to out actual film which starts off like a spear traveling through the screen. We will soon be introduced to an intense amount of violence, and not only in the ways you expect. You see, what physical violence there is within A Barge… doesn’t actually show up until the latter part of this short, but for the moment Keitj T. Alin instead focuses on the harsh atmosphere of human emotions. The characters that we are saddled with are brutally violent towards one another, yelling expletives and presenting a very nihilistic view of humanity. The anger seeded within these characters seems like a side effect of whatever the WMD is that has been released. At least one hopes that is the case, and that these characters aren’t naturally this toxic and filled with hate. The conflict between our small group of characters at all times seethes hostility, which is then mixed with the visual quality of our film which is so drastically different that this mix becomes a conflict within itself.
In true arthouse fashion, A Barge and its Wind has a slow and brooding atmosphere to it. The first thing that comes to mind when trying to find another film to compare it to would be Lars Von Trier’s recently captivating piece of work Antichrist. A Barge… has a similarly spacey vibe to it that seems to draw out the atmosphere and slow creeping darkness that the movie delves into, with gusto. There are moments where the camera lingers on our characters while they seem to slip away from sanity, and these moments perfectly capture the darkness of what Alin is trying to evoke. That isn’t to say that this film shies away from the general “exploitation” elements of extreme horror, because that is for sure not the case. There’s an abundance of gore throughout A Barge… and it certainly attempts to push through the boundaries of good taste, as the main source of death in this film doesn’t come in the form of a simple gunshot or knifing… these characters all die from self-disembowelment. As they die, we watch as these characters wriggle around in their own intestines and gore before passing away in excruciating pain. The gore isn’t the end for the forays into bad taste either, we also have some real on-screen vomit as has become popular within underground extreme cinema. Although A Barge… is far away from the Vomit-Gore trilogy of Lucifer Valentine, it’s certainly off of the beaten path.

A Barge and its Wind is a smart short, without question. If one were so inclined, I’m sure you could delve into the project and pull out several interpretations for it but I think what is here on the surface-level is of interest enough. This is a beautiful looking short. Shot in high definition video, as is standard within the field now, the filmmakers give their movie a professional polish with some interesting post-production FX and a brilliant audio composition. The soundtrack is filled with unsettling sounds that resemble the snowstorm that waits outside of this run down building that the project takes place in. Gusts of wind and strange fragmented noises fill up the audio space, and this helps add to the wholly disturbing and claustrophobic atmosphere that the film generally reflects.

The Conclusion
While it isn’t the most spectacular short you are likely to ever see, it is an impressive start for a filmmaker who shows a tremendous amount of promise. As a whole, I think the project absolutely achieves what it sets out to do. It has issues along the way, as it can seem somewhat indecisive and unclear in what it is ultimately trying to say, but for thrills and an interesting insight into science fiction done on a limited budget – it is absolutely worth a watch. If you’re given the chance to check this one out, absolutely search it out. I give it a very high three, and on reflection it may actually achieve a 4 as I look back upon things, but for now I’m happy with that score. It’s highly recommended. Here’s the official IMDB page for more information!


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Varied Celluloid is a film website intent on delivering views on movies from all genres. Started in 2003, the website has been steadfast in its goal and features a database of over 500 lengthy reviews. If you would like to contact us about writing for the website or sending screeners, please visit the about page located here.

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