Manson Family Movies

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In the summer of ‘69 members of Charlie Manson’s “family” stole an NBC-TV truck loaded with film equipment. Later on the truck was dumped and the majority of its contents given away, but Charlie kept one of the cameras. The Family also allegedly owned three Super-8 cameras which they used to produce amateur porn films. Based on this information and an interview with a one-time member of The Family which (rather vaguely) supports this, Ed Sanders speculates in his book The Family, that Charlie and his followers may have filmed their crimes and/or been involved in the production of “snuff films”. This was the first recorded use of the term snuff.

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Helter Skelter

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Helter Skelter is a remake of a 1976 TV movie and is based on the true story of the Tate-Labianca murders committed by The Manson Family.

I will make my opinion clear… this is a tacky, tacky movie. It does not even deserve the label of trash or cult. It is pure tack through and through. From the insane wigs to the over the top theatrical actor who plays Manson. Jeremy Davies was a convincing Manson, but went just a little too far in some places. He got the accent and the body movements down well, unlike the actor in The Manson Family who came off more like Jesus, to me.

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Deadly Outlaw Rekka

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These days Takashi Miike really needs no introduction, he’s one of the leading forces in modern Japanese cinema and his prolific body of violent and eccentric work has won over many a fan of cult, extreme and foreign cinema. Deadly Outlaw: Rekka is a Yakuza tale which is a subject Miike is perhaps one of the foremost masters of as it’s what a large amount of his flicks are centred around. I was pretty excited to check this one out when I read the soundtrack was from none other than Flower Travelin’ BandDeadly Outlaw: Rekka looked like a collision of some of the killer elements of Japanese pop culture I’ve really grown fond of over the last fear years.

Deadly Outlaw: Rekka revolves itself around Kunisada’s (Riki Takeuchi) quest for revenge against a rival crime family who murdered his boss. Kunisada butts heads with his superiors who wish to maintain a truce which he sees as cowardly and weak. He of course sets out against their wishes and finds himself targeted by both sides.

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Nighthawks

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Lost somewhere in between Stallone’s highly successful Rocky and Rambo franchises, Nighthawks is an underrated gem in action cinema and is notable for introducing Rutger Hauer to American audiences and Sly kicking ass in drag.

Nighthawks revolves around two New York undercover cops DaSilva (Stallone) and Fox (Billy Dee Williams) who are assembled by a British Counter-terrorist specialist Hartman (Nigel Davenport) to form a task force to stop Wulfgar (Rutger Hauer) a dangerous international terrorist who has fled to New York.

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The Ma Barker Story

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From the Pope of Aesthetic Nihilism himself – Jon Aes-Nihil – comes this bizarre reimagining of the Karpis-Barker gang saga. This family/gang of criminals terrorized the Midwest with a series of bank robberies, kidnappings and murders in the 1930s.

The Ma Barker Story is essentially a prequel to Aes-Nihil’s 1984 film Manson Family Movies, as linked by a historical connection between a young Charlie Manson and Alvin “Creepy” Karpis. It seems when Charlie was locked up as a youngster in the early ‘60s, Creepy took him under his wing and taught him to play the guitar.

Starring lovable transsexual-quadriplegic-drag queen the Goddess Bunny as Ma Barker and queer Christian cow-punk Glen Meadmore as Alvin “Creepy” Karpis, The Ma Barker Story depicts a week (or so) in the life of the notorious gang. Continue reading

Animal Kingdom

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Australian cinema is in the middle of something of a resurgence lately, with films across a wide variety of genres gaining international recognition and new voices rising to be heard. One of the most promising of these is David Michod on the strength of his powerhouse debut, crime drama Animal Kingdom.

“Crooks always come undone. Always. One way or another.” So says J (newcomer James Frecheville) in his narration early on in Animal Kingdom as he is brought into his criminally-active extended family. And so the story goes – in an inexorable, if not always totally predictable, downward spiral to betrayal and death.

After his mother overdoses on heroin, J moves in with his grandmother, ‘Smurf’ (Jacki Weaver) and his four uncles, Barry (Joel Edgerton), Darren (Luke Ford), Craig (Sullivan Stapleton) and the absent Andrew ‘Pope’ (Ben Mendelsohn). When the police investigation of the fugitive Pope reaches boiling point, the family decides they need to react and the young J is caught in the middle.

In many ways, Animal Kingdom is a standard crime movie. You have the family, revenge, in-fighting and the usual escalation of events. But what elevates it is that Michod keeps the whole movie grounded in reality. With its casual Melbourne setting, unassuming costumes and low-key conversational tone, this feels like a familiar place – an underworld barely beneath the surface of any suburb. It is an approach that makes it all the more affecting. Continue reading

Outrage

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Actor/director Takeshi “Beat” Kitano is probably most well known for his string of ultra-violent Yakuza films in the ’90s. Masterpieces like Violent Cop and Sonatine cemented Kitano’s stone-cold demeanor, deadpan humor, and often Zen-like atmospheres into the cannon of must-see Japanese cinema. After those films Takeshi went on to make more lighthearted comedy/drama fare (with the slight exception of his The Blind Swordsman: Zatoichi remake), but now, 10 years after his last Yakuza oriented film, Brother, he makes a long-awaited return to the blood-spattered stage with his latest film, Outrage.

Outrage deals with the simmering-until-boiling-point conflicts between (and within) the Iketomo and Murase crime syndicates. It’s a rivalry that involves many complicated angles, but ultimately breaks down to: a long-ago vow made in prison, turf wars over drug territories, and a power struggle for the Boss’s favour. Also coming into play are a corrupt detective, a blackmailed African ambassador, and plenty of superbly choreographed and explicit violence.

Kitano describes the initial development process of Outrage as beginning by envisioning the various ways in which the characters would die, then shaping a story around the deaths. He wanted to make a film with no ambition other than to entertain, and it shows. Gone are the existential idiosyncratic gangsters that populated Beat’s early films and gone are the lingering poetic visuals, leaving only a cold and heartless Yakuza action epic, but a stylish one nonetheless. Which is fine, I’m all for violent Japanese genre flicks, it’s just almost hard to tell this one’s made by Kitano himself, despite his always entertaining grim-faced presence. Continue reading

Drive

DriveIt’s not often a film completely blows me away but Drive managed the rare feat of doing just that. I went in with fairly high expectations being a big fan of director Nicolas Winding Refn. Refn’s film not only met my expectations but totally exceeded them. Film awards are something that don’t really interest me but I can see why Drive took out the prize for Best Director at Cannes and the film is definitely deserving of such an accolade. Tense, well acted, entertaining and a visual feast for the eyes, Drive has given the action/crime genre a new lease on life.

Drive is the tale of a nameless stunt driver (Ryan Gosling) who moonlights as a getaway driver by night. The driver befriends his neighbour Irene (Carey Mulligan) and her young son Benicio (Kaden Leos). Irene’s husband Standard (Oscar Isaac) returns after a stint in prison and is forced into committing an armed robbery of a pawn shop. Once the driver discovers the thugs have been threatening Irene and Benicio he offers his services as a getaway driver. The robbery doesn’t go to plan and the driver is thrown right into the chaos of the aftermath. Fairly familiar story right? In fact Drive’s story is almost so familiar that a lesser director would’ve turned this into a forgettable film that slipped under everyone’s radar. Stunning cinematography throughout with some nice touches like the opening chase scene being shot only from inside the car. Gosling gives a solid performance (reminiscent of 70s era Eastwood or Steve Mcqueen) as does the rest of the cast. Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston was a highlight for me and Ron Perlman played the unlikable character of Nino with glee.

It was interesting how Refn handled the primarily American genre. Drive combines Refn’s hard hitting raw aesthetic of his Pusher Trilogy with elements of the gritty modern noir vehicles produced in the US during the late 70s and early 80s. If you’re a fan of Walter Hill or Michael Mann’s early work you’ll be right at home with this one. It is of course easy to compare this film to Hill’s 1978 masterpiece The Driver especially with their similar storylines, characters and rapid fire intense pacing. Drive also tips its hat to Mann’s best flick Thief especially in its cinematography and choice of soundtrack. Like Thief and The Driver, the film tastefully mixes elements of past and present melding them into a stylish reinvention. Thankfully Refn doesn’t lay a tired self reflexive “homage” on us and Drive stands on its own as a film that is aware of genre history refining its elements for the modern era.

For me this is something that’s been long overdue as the usual action fare these days is just hollow and lacking substance. Flashy, big budget and disposable sums it up. Big explosions, car crashes but zero characterization and nothing engaging. Night of the Juggler, The Driver and Thief are fine examples of the gritty, hard-nosed character driven American action films that just aren’t made these days. The subtly of these films made the action and violence – when it did happen – more explosive and hard hitting unlike the wall to wall overload of The Transporter and its ilk. These flicks had a more authentic realism about them and thematically were a lot darker. I think Drive is a film that has really raised the bar and we’ll see its influence in a lot of upcoming films just like the post-Pulp Fiction releases during the 90s.

Drive is a visually impressive and captivating film that will appeal to quite a broad audience; there’s enough action, tension and splatter to keep those after visceral thrills happy. Drive is also exquisitely shot and is a very different film from the the usual action and crime fare which will appeal to the art-house crowd. Most importantly it’s a damn entertaining film with a great cast.

Easily one of the year’s best films for me and in my opinion Nicolas Winding Refn’s best work to date. Drive is destined to become a cult classic and is a welcome return of the dark and gritty American crime film. Essential viewing.

 Drive is available on DVD and Blu-Ray from Vendetta Films.

Brighton Rock

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Originally published in 1938, Graham Greene’s novel Brighton Rock was a seminal and highly influential crime thriller, having been adapted into a play (1944), a film (1947), a radio drama (1997) and even a (short lived) 2004 musical produced for the London stage. Taking its name from the hard confectionery that was traditionally sold at tacky seaside resorts across England, the 2010 film adaptation of Brighton Rock keeps the characters and basic morality of Greene’s novel intact, but updates the setting from pre-World War Two to the early-1960s, using the simmering conflict between the traditional rockers and the emerging mods as the background canvas upon which the drama paints itself.

Pinkie Brown (Sam Riley) is a young, vicious small time hood trying to make big in the English seaside town of Brighton. When his boss and father figure Kite is stabbed to death by rival hood Fred, Pinkie seizes the moment as his opportunity to not only take over the running of his gang, but to assert authority over the established – and much more powerful – rival crime boss Colleoni (Andy Serkis). Things take a complicated turn when a lonely waitress named Rosie (Andrea Riseborough) unwittingly becomes a potential witness to the payback killing of Fred, forcing Pinkie to romance the naive young girl in order to make sure she keeps her silence.

Updating the time period of Brighton Rock was a brave but inventive move for writer/director Rowan Joffe, who injects the film with the interesting juxtaposition of the old school gangsters being swallowed by the tide of an incoming, rebellious generation and a new breed of younger, more unbalanced and violent criminal. The setting also helps give the film a more downbeat atmosphere, as by the 1960s the seaside resorts across England had become a lot grimier and decrepit than it was three decades earlier, making the ambiance more reflective of the characters and situations. Sam Riley brings a great sneer and sense of bubbling psychopathy as Pinkie Brown, and is surrounded by a uniformly excellent cast (including veterans John Hurt and Helen Mirren, who plays Rosie’s boss Ida, a hardened and booze-weathered woman who is clearly used to hanging around the world of criminals and lowlifes).

While Brighton Rock may not rank amongst the classic British movies in its genre, it more than holds its place as a gritty, atmospheric and stylish crime thriller. Madman have done a great job with their two-disc DVD release, giving us an audio commentary track with Joffe and editor Joe Walker and disc of extra material including deleted scenes, cast & crew interviews, ‘Anatomy of a Scene’ (which breaks down the key sequence where Pinkie makes a vinyl record of his voice for Rose in a recording booth), making of featurette and ‘Mod or Rocker?’ (unfortunately not a documentary but merely a survey of the cast and crew, who reveal which side their allegiance would have been on had they lived through the era).

Brighton Rock is available on R4 DVD and Blu-Ray from Madman Entertainment.