Saturday, July 27, 2019

THE JERICHO MILE (1979): Quality Made-For-TV Prison Flick

The Jericho Mile contains a straightforward story about a complicated man.  This makes it one of the most difficult films to make.  To be successful, it requires realistic dialogue, good characterization, a grim and tough setting, and solid acting.  And as the makers of this movie went to the trouble to achieve these things, the final result is an honest film.

Larry Murphy (Peter Strauss) is serving a life sentence in Folsom Prison for the murder of his father.  The way Murphy tells it, he killed him because he raped Murphy’s sister.  Murphy wants to now bide his time in prison not bothered by staff or the other prisoners.  Murphy only has one friend in prison – a young black husband and father by the name of Stiles (Richard Lawson).  He spends his time running around the prison yard trying to rid himself of his demons.  This earns him the nickname “Lickety Split.”  As it turns out, the pace he’s running during his very short workouts in the prison yard put him in the class of Olympic runner.

A Dr. Janowski (Geoffrey Lewis), who would like to reach and help Murphy, discovers Murphy’s ability as a long-distance runner.  He arranges for a trainer to coach Murphy on his running in hopes that Murphy will obtain an Olympic bid.  Murphy only reluctantly agrees to cooperate.  To him, it means dwelling on the possibility of achieving travel in the outside world and possible freedom – a freedom he knows to be a pipedream.

Stiles, honest to a fault, is unwittingly drawn into a drug-trafficking scheme by the prison drug king, Dr. D (Brian Dennehy).  Because Stiles thought he was going to meet his wife and child rather than one of Dr. D’s drug mules, he refuses to cooperate with the drug mule and ends up getting her busted.  Ultimately, this leads to Stiles’ murder at the behest of Dr. D.

As Dr. D tries to pin the blame for the murder on Murphy, neither black nor white prisoners will cooperate with prison authorities to complete a track that would allow Murphy to train and try out for the Olympics.  Eventually, the black prisoners figure out what is going on, that Murphy was Stiles’ friend, and they help complete the track.

Unfortunately, Olympic officials do not want a felon running on the Olympic team.  They devise a scheme that will keep him away.  Murphy than runs his own trial solo with no one to observe but the other prisoners, and it turns out that Murphy ran a faster time than any of the American athletes that do qualify for the Olympics.

Perhaps because The Jericho Mile was a television feature, maybe I’m the only one who remembers it.  Based upon a story by Patrick Nolan, Nolan also took on the role of co-directing the film with Michael Mann.  At 97-minutes in length, a tough storyline, an excellent cast, and the recipient of several Emmy Awards, the film deserves greater attention.  Too bad so few people will ever take the time to watch it.

The Jericho Mile is not a movie that follows a tried and tested formula like most of today’s blockbusters.  Whatever you say about Hollywood, its studios know how to bring in money.  They do it by spending money on special effects and advertising and have no interest in making a decent film that will fail to draw an audience.  And that’s the issue with The Jericho Mile.  The only way viewers knew about it was through perusing the TV guide.

Some of today’s movies often have budgets well over $100 million.  But I suspect it’s difficult to create a film containing character development when spending that sort of money.  Directors and producers are more concerned with showing off the special effects at that point.  Otherwise, why spend $100 million? 

This made-for-television film, on the other hand, probably had little budget.  Even in today’s dollars, The Jericho Mile might have a budget that is about one percent of the size of today’s typical movie.  But whatever its spending limitations, The Jericho Movie is a quality movie.  Thankfully, it is not typical in any way.  Filmed inside Folsom Prison, the atmosphere in the movie is real.  So is the emotion.

July 27, 2019

© Robert S. Miller 2019

Monday, May 27, 2019

DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012): The Slavery Story Revised

Like every other Tarantino movie, Django Unchained is both predictable and unpredictable.  The movie is long (165 minutes), violent and overly clever.  At the same time, anticipating all of the plot twists is impossible.  According to the IMDB database, the most common plot keywords include (1) racial vengeance; (2) racial violence; (3) historically inaccurate; (4) sadism; and (5) slavery.  It stars some of the usual actors in Tarantino films including Samuel L. Jackson, Leonardo DiCaprio, and Christoph Walz.  It also features newcomers such as Jamie Foxx, Don Johnson and Kerry Washington.  Bruce Dern even has the chance to make a cameo appearance.

It’s too difficult to describe the plot in depth without going on for pages.  Chiefly, it concerns a black slave separated from his wife doing anything possible to get her back.  Django (Jamie Foxx) escapes from slavery due to the mischief caused by a former dentist, Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Walz), now turned bounty hunter.  Eventually, the two have to face down the formidable slaveowner, Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), who has Django’s wife, Broomhilda (Kerry Washington).  An advisor to Candie is a villainous former slave named Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson) who is the first to figure out what Django and the dentist are planning.  It ends in lots of shootouts and Django escaping the plantation with his wife.  For whatever reason the dentist cares, he dies to help the two escape to freedom.

Anyone who has seen any Tarantino movie knows that he tries too hard ever to make a perfect film.  While only a few viewers hated the film, there are many mixed reviews of the film.  I don’t believe it’s the violence that turned certain viewers off. 

As far as violence, Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, a western filmed in 1969, might have it beat.  It’s mild compared to Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ (obviously not a western), filmed in 2004.  Again, the movie is unpredictable.  But unlike so many of Tarantino’s other films, the plot takes place chronologically.  And there were movies with stranger plot twists back in the 1960s and 1970s including Dr. Strangelove, The Manchurian Candidate, Clockwork Orange, Once Upon a Time in the West, and The Deer Hunter.

More likely, what made certain reviewers uncomfortable was the irreverent and none too polite portrayal of race relations in the years leading up to the American Civil War.  It’s a topic that some feel is too sensitive for this sort of humorous treatment.  And I suppose much of the film is in bad taste.  But as someone once said, humor and bad taste are inseparable.

One reviewer stated the transformation of Django from an unsophisticated slave to a superhero is the film’s weakest link.  How did he suddenly become such a good student to end up doing what he did at the film’s end?  Whether you feel this criticism is legitimate largely depends on whether you consider the film serious satire.  Many do not and would not even worry about such character development.  They cannot take Tarantino seriously.

I think there is a place for a film like Django Unchained.  If the film is a farce, is it any more of a farce than what led up to the institution of slavery to begin with?  The depiction of slavery in Gone With the Wind is one of the benevolent plantation owners who were truly there to bring gentility to the south by allowing the blacks to pick cotton for them.  Even in films where characters are sympathetic to the plight of blacks in America, the heroes are white.  Not so in Django Unchained.  Too violent?  It’s difficult to separate slavery and violence.  To begin with, there were over 600,000 Americans who died during the American Civil War.

Yet as in all Tarantino films, we’re not sure what his motivations are in this movie.  I think Django Unchained is actually one of his better films in that it’s less quirky and contains less grandstanding.  Still, these traits do appear.  And this is why many think, and will continue to think, he’s more of an entertainer than a storyteller.  We’re not sure if the humor in his films has a purpose, or whether it’s there to be self-serving. 

May 27, 2019

© Robert S. Miller 2019

Sunday, April 28, 2019

THE MUSTANG (2019): The Convict and his Wild Horse

The Mustang is one of those short and low-budget films that most moviegoers will miss.  This is unfortunate since it’s probably going to be a better film than whatever wins the next best picture award.  It’s only a 96-minute film, features an actor from Belgium, Matthias Schoenaerts (not a household name in American films), and directed by Laure de Clermont-Tonnerre (also not a household name).  

I could give away the entire storyline for this movie and not spoil it for anyone.  The Mustang’s two great virtues include its visual depictions demonstrating the beauties and challenges of living side-by-side with wild horses, and the acting of Schoenaerts as convict Roman Coleman.

Roman is doing hard time due to a domestic abuse incident.  The only person who visits him in prison is his daughter Martha (Gideon Adlon).  She has understandable reservations about Roman since her mother was the victim of Roman’s abuse.  The visits are anything but friendly and usually end in arguments.  Martha is pregnant at the film’s beginning, and we probably can assume that the father of her unborn child disappeared.  Possibly the only reason she first visits her father at all is so that she can sell a piece of property for which Roman has an ownership interest.  

Roman is incapable of showing warmth or communicating with anyone.  It is only by a fluke he’s recruited to work with wild horses as part of a prison program.  First assigned to shovel manure, Myles (Bruce Dern), who heads up the program, decides to let Roman work with one specific horse.  Roman calls the horse Marcus since he can’t pronounce the word “marquis.”   This horse has the identical temperament of Roman.  At first, Roman becomes so frustrated working with the horse that he physically attacks it trying to punch it into submission.  Despite this setback, Myles still provides Roman another opportunity to work with Marcus.

As the training progresses, we see a change come over Roman as he becomes accustomed to his job.  Possibly, Roman is the only one who could tame this beast.  Another prisoner, Henry (Jason Mitchell), provides Roman advice along the way and becomes the closest thing to a friend Roman ever has.  And as Roman learns to adapt to the horse, he also learns how to relate with his daughter who is coming closer to the delivery time for her child.

What saves The Mustang from sentimentality is the toughness of the acting and the storyline.  Both Schoenaerts and Adlon play their roles perfectly.  Bruce Dern is adequate in support, though it’s certainly not his finest role.  And the storyline remains intense from beginning of the film until the end.

The Mustang is not a perfect film only because the filmmakers try to say too much rather than too little.  There are storylines in which the film possibly would be better without.  For example, his friend Henry is killed for drugs by Roman’s cellmate.  This results in Roman attacking his cellmate.  This entire subplot comes close to melodrama.

Also, when the prisoners demonstrate their horses for bidders at an auction, a helicopter flies over the arena disturbing Marcus and leading to Roman being thrown from the horse.  After this, the prison staff decides they should euthanize Marcus.  When Roman hears this from Myles, he manages to break Marcus out of prison and allow him to run free.  This leads to consequences for Roman (probably additional prison time).  This storyline seems somewhat contrived.

While neither of these storylines appeared necessary to the primary plot, both of these scenes, while showing both Roman and Marcus as untamable, also portray the two as figures deserving sympathy.  The movie manages to pull off this difficult task.  Roman is not someone we want to visit our home, and Marcus is not the horse we want to take on a joyride.  But the film does a magnificent job depicting these flawed creatures as redeemable living beings.

© Robert S. Miller 2019
April 28, 2019