RIP Dino De Laurentiis

Another link to cinema’s past has left us with the passing of the legendary Italian and eventually American producer at age 91. A truly old school style movie mogul with all the good and bad that went with that, creatively speaking, Dino De Laurentiis was instrumental in launching the worldwide vogue for European cinema, particularly in his partnership with fellow powerhouse producer Carlo Ponti and ultimate Italian auteur Federico Fellini.

During a period I personally consider Fellini’s creative prime, De Laurentiis co-produced two of the director’s most powerful films, the classic tearjerker “La Strada” with Anthony Quinn and the great Giulietta Masina, and “Nights of Cabiria” also with Masina, a great tragicomedy and a huge personal favorite of mine. He also produced two now somewhat obscure adaptations, a version of Tolstoy’s “War and Peace” with Audrey Hepburn and “Ulysses.” Fortunately, the latter was not an adaptation of the James Joyce stream-of-consciousness meganovel, but Homer’s “The Odyssey,” and starred Kirk Douglas in the heroic title role.

No snob, De Laurentiis had a gift for commingling arthouse fare, quality middlebrow entertainment, and complete schlock — some of it fun, some it merely schlocky. Geeks cried foul when he eschewed stop-motion for an unworkable animatronic monstrosity and, mostly, Rick Baker in a monkey suit for his silly mega-blockbuster remake attempt, “King Kong,” but that movie was a classic when compared to something like the hugely regrettable killer-whale flick “Orca.”

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The New Centurions

This entry in Sony’s amusingly vague new “Martini Movies” imprint stars George C. Scott (“Patton”) at the height of his early seventies fame as Kilvinski, a humane cop nearing retirement who bonds with his new partner, a would-be lawyer rookie partner (Stacy Keach) going through some big changes of his own. Adapted from a bestselling novel by ex-policeman Joseph Wambaugh, “The New Centurions” often foreshadows later cop dramas, particularly eighties TV groundbreaker “Hill Street Blues” — right down to earthy pre-patrol briefings and actor James B. Sikking sporting what appears to be the very same pipe he parlayed to semi-fame as the affected, egomaniacal Lt. Howard Hunter. Still, while familiar faces from lighter fare show up (Isabel Sanford of “The Jeffersons,” Erik “CHiPs” Estrada, and the eventually dickless William Atherton of “Ghostbusters”), 1972 was a year when grim was in and even the most mainstream of Hollywood films were often deliberately under-structured. Taking place over what appears to be several years, there is no particular “case” and this is not really a story about crime fighting; it’s an investigation into the effects of police work on vulnerable human beings. Written by Stirling Silliphant and directed by Richard Fleischer (“20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Soylent Green,” and “Mandingo”), “The New Centurions” is slowed by overly novelistic/episodic pacing and a few too many contemporary mannerisms (including a wah-wah heavy score by Quincy Jones) but it works more often than it doesn’t because of its two first-rate lead actors and a great deal of sincerity. The film’s benevolent view of the quasi-militarist seventies LAPD may be iffy, but its depiction of the bigger truth here feels true enough: policemen are nothing more than human beings doing a job that can be as seductively destructive as heroin.

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Mandingo

When this deeply strange tale of cruelty and interracial sexual exploitation on a pre-Civil War Southern plantation directed by Richard Fleischer (“Soylent Green,” “20,000 Leagues Under the Seas”) was released in 1975, it was greeted with hoots of derision and ridiculed as cheaply sensational – and possibly racist – not only by critics, but on a raucous “Saturday Night Live” skit. More recently, writers like the outstanding cinephile blogger Dennis Cozzalio have been urging a critical reappraisal. While I admit this attempt at a sort of satirical tragedy has been misunderstood to a degree, “misunderstood” is not the same thing as “good.”

“Mandingo” stars aging screen legend James Mason as Warren Maxwell, a hateful Southern patriarch. His relatively sensitive son, Hammond (Perry King), runs into deep trouble when he takes on a new wife (Susan George) while practicing the prerogatives of a Southern “gentleman” and keeping a slave mistress (Brenda Sykes). Meanwhile, he finds himself feeling somewhat protective toward Mede (boxer Ken Norton), a fighter he has bought in much the same way a man of that time might have purchased a fighting cock. I almost wrote “fighting dog” but the double meaning here seems correct. It is the dehumanizing effects of slavery that is the laudable focus of “Mandingo,” but sensationalized 70s-style sex is the primary vehicle and selling point. (Not that there’s anything wrong with that.) Unfortunately, Fleischer’s film is somewhat crude stylistically, but also too polite in telling its brutal story. Worse, it’s badly marred by some weak acting, not only from acting novice Norton, but also by a shockingly mannered and subpar performance from the usually superb, British-born Mason. Although the melodrama events make for a compelling final half-hour, it’s a long, long road getting there.

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