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Black Christmas (1974)



Starring: Olivia Hussey, Margot Kidder, Andrea Martin
Director: Bob Clark
Screenwriter: Roy Moore
Rating : R

The slasher genre is probably one of the most popoular in the world for over 30 years now. The first of its kind was Hitchcock’s “Psycho”, though some would point out “Thirteen Women” (1932). Those were the precedents that gave birth to a world-wide phenomenon, the film that portrays the criminal endevours of a psychopathic killer. In time, the genre has suffered mutations, reaching out to such outlandish genres as Science Fiction, draining it of even the last molecule of originality. Freddie Kruger, Jason Vorhees, Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, Leatherface, Chucky, Jigsaw are but a few of the names in the pantheon of horror. Among the films that set the rules straight where the 1974 classics “The Chainsaw Massacre” and “Black Christmas”. But it wasn’t until the box-office success of 1978’s “Halloween” that really helped the genre break out into the mainstream.

“Black Christmas” can safely be called a standard slasher. A sorority houe in Canada is terrorised by psychopath who makes obscene phone calls. Hidden in the attic of the house, he quickly makes the transition from harmless calls, to brutal executions, taking the girls out one by one, during the Christmas holiday.

The cast is largely unknown except for Olivia Hussey (Maria from “Jesus of Nazareth”) and Margot Kidder (Lois Lane from the original “Superman”). But, the true star is the unseen killer. There’s plenty of carnage going around but don’t expect any gore. The killer blows are mostly off-screen, or visually stylised to conceal any explicitness. The violence is reduced to a level of suggestion rather than the more modern showcasing of blood and guts (see “Saw”), with more efficiency in terms of suspense.

The moments that rely on atmposphere and tension work well and are interesting enough, even if everything feels just a little bit dated and too predictable (only because we’ve seen this done over and over again in countless clones). For example, there’s a scene where the police is trying to trace the call. Not these are the 70s, so don’t imagine any kind of hi-tech tracking gear. No, there’s this cop waiting at the phone company for the call. When the call does come, he has to run around in a big room full of ceiling-high mechanical machines to see which one connected the call. Obviously he doesn’t get it the first time around. Or the second. It’s all about how fast he can get to the right machine in order to find out the address where the call came from. This generates loads of tension, but it’s also funny compared to all this new slick technology on display in modern films.

Obviously, it’s no Oscar contender. Slasher flicks belong to a league of their own that does not require critical acclaim. In a way, they appeal to our darker side, which makes us tolerate these sinister stories. The quality level is subjective, depending on our likes or dislikes regarding the genre. In fact, the only reason why this gets a high poatato score, is because it was an original take on a subject that would never stop being remade.


Assault on Precinct 13 (2005)



Starring: Ethan Hawke, Laurence Fishburne, Gabriel Byrne, John Leguizamo
Director: Jean-François Richet
Screenwriter: James DeMonaco
Rating : R for strong violence and language throughout, and for some drug content.

This 2005 film is a remake of the 1976 John Carpenter classic, produced by the same people who brought us “Training Day”, and it was certainly a surprise on a market saturated with frame-by-frame copycat remakes like 2006’s “The Omen”, an uninspired carbon copy of the original featuring improved visuals and a bad Gregory Peck imitation by Liev Schreiber. “Assault on Precinct 13” delivers unusual signs of intelligence, scarce enough to warrant its B flick status, but enough to keep one awake.

In the original, Bishop was the fearless “sheriff”, forced to protect his precinct from scores of cop-hating thugs. Now, the Bishop of this film is Marion Bishop (Laurence Fishburne), an extremely dangerous criminal (the old Napoleon Wilson character, this time more street), caught after murdering an undercover cop in a church (that’s just how badass he is). The “sheriff” is a Sgt. Roenick (Ethan Hawke), former undercover officer, now hiding behind a desk, pumping himself full of alcohol and pills to forget about an unfortunate undercover stint which ended with two of his colleagues getting killed because of his bad call. The 13th precinct (this time actually called 13) is still being closed down (right on New Year’s Eve), which once again means not enough police and not enough guns. The prisoner bus transporting Bishop and a handful of other prisoners is rerouted to precinct 13 because of a higway accident. With all plot requirements in place, the siege is ready to commence.

The big change from the ’76 version is that the attackers this time are corrupt cops, scared that if Bishop gets to the trial he’ll rat them all out. So it’s clear that not one of the people inside the precinct are supposed to make it out alive, as the leader of the bad guys Marcus Duvall (Gabriel Byrne) overstates, they have to “put them all down, without pause, without regard”. Roenick decides to release and arm the prisoners and work together in a fragile alliance in order to survive. I would have to say this version adds more to the police and criminals fighting side by side idea. There’s always a sense of tensions added to it. Then there’s also the irony of the criminals helping the cops, while bad cops try to kill them all. While the original was a sort of urban western story concerned with building atmosphere, the remake feels like “Die Hard” in an abandoned precinct concerned more about building a traditional plot with twists and cliches, sometimes annoyingly predictable, yet at times surprising. Jean-Francois Richet seems aware of the constraints of the genre and manipulates these cliches in his favor, although one of the most annoying ones is that of the traitor within the precinct. It’s annoying because it’s so painfully obvious, it’s like there’s a tag that spells “traitor” on him. Maybe it was supposed to divert attention since traitors are rarely this obvious, but no, not here. Still, there is surprise in the way the characters are killed off, even though the film dispenses of them almost in slasher fashion, it’s still less obvious who’s going to bite the bullet, and that’s a big plus. Also, this time there’s the perspective of the bad guys, polarised by a dominant villainous figure, which turns the siege in a strategic confrontation of sorts.

Although I’m an admirer of Carpenter’s work, in the case of “Assault on Precinct 13”, I preffer the 2005 version, although the potato score differs very little. It’s a solid action film, much less a remake, but a complete reconstruction with the original as the foundation, not as the blueprint. There’s more action, a solid, well selected cast, an entertaining plot with some nice touches and an interesting directorial vision that in the end serves the same ideas that made the original a B classic.

The Breakfast Club (1985)



Starring: Paul Gleason, Molly Ringwald, Emilio Estevez, Anthony Michael Hall, John Kapelos, Judd Nelson, Ally Sheedy, Ron Dean

Screenwriter and Director: John Hughes

John Hughes passed away this August, but his legacy remains, as he produced, written or directed some of  the most successful movies of the ‘80s and ‘90s: “National Lampoon’s Vacation”, ”Ferris Bueller’s Day Off”,  “Weird Science”, “ The Breakfast Club”, “Some Kind of Wonderful”, “Sixteen Candles”,  “Pretty in Pink”, “Planes”, “Trains and Automobiles”, “Uncle Buck”, “Home Alone” and its sequel “Home Alone 2: Lost in New York”. His ability to talk to teenagers without being condescending, without minimizing their already small and passionate universe and without making one of the worst mistakes a teen targeted flick writer could do: talk about the former generation instead of the current one – these were some of the reasons his movies were very well received. Some of them even set the tone for countless series and movies to come, as every teen drama has at least one mention of the iconic “The Breakfast Club” and at least one attempt of imitating one of its scenes.

It’s amazing what can be done with very little setting and a fairly simple idea: five very different teenagers belonging to opposed high school cliques end up spending the Saturday in the school library, each having broken a conduct rule. The school is the stage, and seven people are the actors. Andrew (Emilio Estevez) is a jock with a wrestling ambition, but it becomes very clear that that ambition belongs to Clark Senior rather than Junior. The constant pressure has him wishing for a permanent injury and drives him to bully others, making him ashamed of his behavior, and the shame adds even more pressure… a full inescapable circle. Claire Standish (Molly Ringwald) is the prom queen, the prize over which the two halves of a bitter marriage fight.  Rewarded and pampered, she is not actually missed or loved. John Bender (Judd Nelson) is “the criminal” and the only one from a working class background. The constant abuse has him lashing out against everyone, making him to always go out of his way trying to be obnoxious. He is the one that rattles everybody’s cages so that the premise can be outlined. Brian Johnson (Anthony Michael Hall) the brain of the group, the geek that cannot conceive a low grade. When he receives an F at shop class, he acts out in an unusual way and gets detention. And finally, the basket case: Allison Reynolds (Ally Sheedy), a compulsive liar and a sometimes kleptomaniac who is severely deprived of human contact and attention and whose internal void and loneliness has her attaching herself to this unlikely group in the hope of any kind of bonding. They all talk like ’80s teens do, and it still rings true (either that or I’m old). They try to stand out; they all have short attention spans, a predilection for experiencing new forbidden grounds and a desperate need to be unique. On top of that lays a desire common to us all: to be loved for what they are underneath their façades.

This is the movie that set the mark for stereotyping high school life into groups. We all know that cheerleaders are beautiful and popular, geeks are harassed daily and weirdoes are singled out. I frankly do not remember my cretaceous high school era as being so overwhelming. Yes, there is that obvious fight to not be at the bottom of the social pyramid, but other than that, it is fun. Or it should be. The script does not surprise very much because it does not need to: the point of the story is that the typical masks uncover ordinary family tales. Nothing is extreme; nothing makes you gasp in astonishment. Because these cheap tricks would alienate the target audience, the ones that should be able to point at one of the five characters and say: “That is sooooooo me in 10th grade!”. It is authentic and real instead of over the top. That is one of the characteristics of John Hughes’ work.

It also seems to be one of the major strengths of the cast. They blend tighter together as they separate their stories and they all seem to reverting back to their teen years without any visible effort. One of the main reasons I support the “Beverly Hills 90210” type of casting (remember the balding 16 years old Dylan McKay? Or Andrea, the menopausal school paper editor?) is this kind of acting work, acting that does not make your brain melt (have you ever seen Shanae Grimes “act”? Her full-on seizure face contrasts with her deadpan delivery making it impossibly embarrassing to watch).

John Hughes has one of the characters say that “when you grow up your heart dies”. The good thing is that these teens will never grow up because all we will ever see of them are these 90 minutes of anguish.  Nobody will ever know what happened to them after they left the library, and maybe it’s for the best. One of the most referenced movies in history, “The Breakfast Club” is a ‘80s classic.

Duplicity (2009)


Starring : Julia Roberts, Clive Owen, Paul Giamatti, Tom Wilkinson
Writer and Director : Tony Gilroy
Rating : PG-13 for language and some sexual content.

Espionage is a very fruitful resource for screenwriter’s inspiration. The possibilities are basically infinite. The ’80s for example were all about the Cold War all the way through the ‘90s. But as we slowly but surely approached the new millenium, spy movies were losing their appeal. The James Bond franchise was becoming stale even with the Pierce Brosnan reboot, “Mission:Impossible” was about to receive a very curious sequel in 2000 which broke all ties to its roots, and Tom Clancy novels were no longer of interest for Hollywood. Times were bad for spies. That is, until 2001 when “The Bourne Identity” and TV series “24” reignited some of that passion for deadly, almost invincible super-agents with a slight twist, a more modern, darkish and sllightly more realistic sensibility added to the characters, something that would even carry over to the 007 franchise. To blame for this is screenwriter Tony Gilroy who wrote all three Bourne films (and, perhaps less known for his work on “Proof of Life” and “Dolores Claiborne”). Recently he’s been trying his hand as a director. His directorial debut, “Michael Clayton” earned him a lot of accolades and a handsome amount of award nominations. His last project : “Duplicity”.

Quite a long introduction, I know. Now off to a small synopsis. Ray Koval (Clive Owen) is an MI6 agent. Claire Stenwick (Julia Roberts) is a CIA agent. When they first meet, they don’t know that about each other. After a lite flirt, they end up sharing a hotel room, where she drugs him and steals some sensible documents he was supposed to be protecting with his own life. Not very MI6 of him, right ? Fate would have them meet again after some time. The attraction between them is irresistable so they end up sharing a hotel room once again, this time without any work-related intentions, though they hardly trust each other. They cook up a plan which would allow them to make a lot of money, enough to quit their day jobs. The plan requires one of them to infiltrate a company with a big product on the market, while the other infiltrates a rival company, allowing them to play at both ends to retrieve vital information about a hypothetical ground-breaking new product, information which they will then sell to a third party for personal gain.

Sounds complicated doesn’t it ? It sure is. Claire gets a job protecting industrial secrets for Burkett&Randle, owned by Howard Tully (Tom Wilkinson). Ray gets a job stealing industrial secrets at Equickrom, owned by Richard Garsik (Paul Giamatti). Claire becomes a mole for Equickrom, but the objective is to place vital information in Ray’s hands. When Burkett&Randle announce the development of a super-product, Garsik let’s loose with the corporate espionage, and the game is on.

At first glance, the story doesn’t seem too complicated, but that’s mostly because I tried to organize the film’s plot in a comprehensive manner. The film never follows a traditional narrative line. Instead, the story flips back and forward from the present, where Claire and Ray seem to not know each other, to earlier moments in time, which slowly allow us to realise what their true intentions are. And even that is not all there is to it, but I’ll just stick to what the trailers made public for those who haven’t seen it. The main idea follows the corporate wars in a satirical manner. The main title sequence finds the two corporate bosses engaging in full contact dirty fighting on an airstrip, all in slow motion. I think that makes a solid point. But not much else about this film is as straightforward. The script follows a complicated path to its resolution, playing with our minds throughout, which I think, in a way is part of the point Gilroy is trying to make. He’s also showing off quite a bit. Is it necessary ? Not really. Is it interesting ? Somewhat. Is the man a master when it comes to writing scripts ? He sure is. The main title says it all. Duality. Not just the lies and deceit built around the two corporations, but also around the two protagonists, Claire and Ray. The two love each other, but they just can’t trust one another. All their training as spies has taught them to keep their guard up and trust no one, and that’s just not what makes a relationship work. Julia Roberts and Clive Owen (second collaboration since “Closer”) are talented and charismatic, and their conflictual relationship, filled with verbal jousting cleverly written by Gilroy, works especially because they react so well together. The espionage plot may or may not dazzle you, but it’s the relationship between these two characters that is the drive of the film.

In short, it’s an interesting approach to spy films, wonderfully backed up by a great cast and featuring a sometimes too complicated script. Complicated, but smart and crafty. Though there were times I wished I had started writing down some of the plot elements, the film ultimately rewards the viewer, though a repeat viewing is not exactly tempting.