Tuesday, October 08, 2013

“Tell her she smooches good!”

The Manster. Man, that’s a hell of a title right there. Specifically the title of a 1959 American/Japanese co-production. Also known as The Split, Doktor Satan, The Two-Headed Monster, and Sôtô no Satsujinki.

Larry Stanford (Peter Dyneley, who would later do voice work for the Thunderbirds show) is an American reporter who’s been on a long-term assignment in Japan. His last job before going home to his wife Linda (Jane Hylton, Dyneley’s real-life wife) is to interview a prominent Japanese scientist. This scientist, Dr. Robert Suzuki (Tetsu Nakamura credited as Satoshi Nakamura) is a full-fledged crackpot, having a lab on a volcanic mountain, a beautiful assistant, a lab/dungeon with a few giant plants and his mutated wife Emiko in a cage. Before Larry arrived, Dr. Suzuki just finished shooting his mutated brother Genji, who had gone into a village and killed some people, and then dumping the body into the volcano.

After chatting vaguely about the nature of his experiments, Dr. Suzuki slips Stanford a mickey and injects him with a serum. For Science! Larry wakes up from his nap none the wiser and Doc invites him to hang out later, catch some authentic Japanese culture, and forget about going home to his wife. Larry thinks it’s a great idea, and goes on a week long bender wherein he goes to geisha parties, bath houses, and starts going out with Tara (Terri Zimmern), the doctor’s attractive and vaguely-foreign assistant.

So naturally his wife Linda arrives in Japan. She and Larry’s boss, Ian Matthews (Norman Van Hawley) are worried about him, prompting a lot of yelling from Larry. Larry also starts undergoing physical changes. His right shoulder keeps hurting, and his right hand gets all hairy and monstrous.

Oh yeah, and he tends to fly into rages where he kills people. Doc makes notes about the progress of the mutation, Tara begins falling in love with Larry, and before you know it, Larry’s a hairy, two-headed monster in a trench coat being chased by the police.

Directed by George Breakston and Kenneth G. Crane, the movie is competently shot, though several of the sets, like the exterior of the mountain cottage/lab look pretty cheap. This being a co-production between American and Japanese filmmakers, it’s quite interesting seeing what amounts to a tourist’s look at late 50’s Japan. It’s also nice seeing the movie avoid the “Hey! Look at them foreigners!” trap.

Now, as to the manster makeup, it starts off fairly simple with a hairy hand before building up to the money shot of Larry discovering the eye on his shoulder. Sure Dyneley’s overacting the hell out of the scene, but the simple grotesqueness of a new eyeball staring out of a shoulder sells it. So much so that the way Evil Ash in Army of Darkness is “born” is a direct nod to The Manster. The second head Larry eventually sprouts is not great, but better than some of the other monster costumes in the movie.

There are two other scenes of note. One is where Dr. Suzuki has a heartfelt and touching goodbye with his mutated wife that hits with a level of gravitas the rest of the movie lacks. The second, and earlier, is where Stanford, feeling surly and desperate, wanders the city at night and comes across a Buddhist temple. There’s a priest wearing a cheap bald skullcap and Stanford talks at him for a moment. The priest looks at him briefly, the goes back to his prayers, probably because of the language barrier. Stanford starts to leave, then passes some statues, focusing on a monstrous looking one. Stanford has another freak out and goes back to the priest, then it cuts away as we hear the priest scream. It’s really suspenseful, well shot, set up, and effective.

Story by George P. Breakston and Walt Sheldon. The script is fairly pedestrian, borrowing themes from Jekyll & Hyde quite liberally with a few doses of Frankenstein. Dialogue is mostly forgettable, and Dr. Suzuki’s entire motivation for conducting experiments is never, ever made clear. I have no idea what kind if scientist he is, or why he’s researching mutation by injecting people with vague stuff. How does that kind of project get funded? Oh yes, and the ending is dumb

You know what’s great though? The title. THE MANSTER. It is amazingly stupid and stupidly amazing.

Music by Hirooki Ogawa, the soundtrack features Japanese musical touches and that old B movie staple, the Theremin.

The Manster is an odd 50’s B movie. It’s got an atypical setting, a curious setting, and a great money shot ¾ of the way through the movie. It’s not great, by any means, but unconventional enough that it sticks with you more than some other sci-fi cheapies.

You could do worse.


Thursday, October 03, 2013

“Its not considered good medical practice to perform autopsies in the middle of swamps surrounded by howling dogs and scratching rustics.”

Who’s up for a 1972 werewolf movie made for TV?

Set in the Deep South!

Wait! Where are you going? Come back!

Moon of the Wolf starts with a mumbly old redneck and his son finding a dead woman in the swamp outside of Marsh Island, Louisiana. A swarm of people, including the sheriff, town doctor, and the woman’s brother arrive and make a fuss and initially wild dogs are suspected as the cause of death. After an autopsy, the doc informs the sheriff that a strong blow to the right side of her head is what actually killed her, before being dragged out into the swamp to chewed on by wild dogs. The sheriff suspects murder, the dead girl’s crazy old cajun father keeps ranting about loogaroo, some deputies and a suspect get mauled by a “Wildman,” and an old crush of the sheriff’s returns to town.

Sheriff Aaron Whitaker: David Janssen is our main character. Interesting that a gruff, grumpy, middle-aged man is the protagonist of a movie, but it’s a nice change of pace. Sheriff Whitaker is a fundamentally decent guy, who tries to keep order in his town and doesn’t like that people are getting killed by what is ultimately a werewolf. He’s also shy and awkward around his old crush at first when she come back to town, which is a good touch of characterization.

Louise Rodanthe: Barbara Rush plays the sheriff’s love interest. She’s Old Money and her great-grand daddy established the town. Louise was away in New York living with a “socially unacceptable” man until he left her and she came back home. She’s a nice enough character and has some decent chemistry with the Sheriff.

Andrew Rodanthe: Bradford Dillman plays Louise’s brother. He’s lived in town all along, and like all good movie Old Money, doesn’t like talking about his family’s problems in public because certain things are not discussed in public. He’s also a bit possessive about his sister. And he drives a Rolls because he’s RICH. Outside of that, he’s not a terrible person, and once people start getting murder-mauled, he’s the only one who volunteers to become a deputy for the Sheriff when nobody else wants to.

Dr. Druten: John Beradino plays the town doctor and is an old friend of the Sheriff’s. He discovers the cause of the girl’s death was murder, and then becomes a suspect, because he’s left-handed and was having an affair with the dead girl.

Lawrence: Geoffrey Lewis plays the brother of the dead girl (Ellie). He’s a sweaty, scruffy swamp-dweller with a mean temper and doesn’t take his sister’s death well at all. He’s also left-handed and did hit her at least once in the past, which makes him a suspect, right up until he gets mauled to death in his prison cell while he’s supposed to be cooling off for the night.

Directed by Daniel Petrie, it’s a 70’s made-for-TV movie and looks as such. The Louisiana setting is a nice change of pace and fortunately the mystery keeps the pacing moving forward without dragging too many scenes out. The werewolf is only seen at the film’s climax, and it’s a wolfman in a button down shirt and slacks. It looks cheap and goofy, but at least the poor lighting works in his favor.

Teleplay by Alvin Sapinsley, based on the novel by Leslie H. Whitten. The script was surprisingly competent, even good in places. Given the title and description, I knew going in that it was a werewolf movie, so the big reveal isn’t a surprise (nor is who the werewolf actually is). What the script really does well is build the mystery of Ellie’s death and presenting suspects and possible motivations for it. It does this for the first half of the movie until the town learns a monster stalks the streets on a full moon, but it makes sense for the Sheriff to be investigating all these leads.

Original Music by Bernardo Segall. It’s not very memorable, but gets the job done in a made-for-TV 70’s way.

The Verdict
Moon of the Wolf is a surprisingly decent early 70’s made-for-TV movie. I know that isn’t saying much to recommend it, but it recycles your werewolf plot elements well enough and makes the Deep South setting work. I’m not giving it a wholehearted recommendation, but you could do a lot worse than a Southern Sheriff investigating werewolf killings.

…And now I want a police procedural with a werewolf who’s a loose cannon but a damn good cop.


Tuesday, October 01, 2013

“I feel sorry for you, and your lack of soul.”

What? Is it the tenth month already?

Spooky how that happens. SPOOKY, I say!

Oh man, so I've been sitting on this one for a little bit, putting my thoughts about it together and…ah who cares about that, let’s talk about why Carnival of Souls is regarded as such a cult classic, shall we?

Naturally, I mean the 1962 version and not the remake.

We start with a car crash. Some ladies in an automobile drag race with some guys in another car, and the ladies’ car goes off a bridge and into a river. Quite some time later, one female survivor emerges from the water. It's not sexy. She recovers and leaves her Kansas town for a job as a church organist in Utah. Though along the way she starts seeing a pale, sinister man, and then things get weirder.

Mary Henry: Candace Hilligoss plays a character who is…well, liminal is the best word to describe her. Attractive, she’s also antisocial and doesn't fit in with anyone around her after the accident. Curiously, she walks a fine line between being sympathetic and unlikable: She doesn't seem to like anything. She doesn't like people, she doesn't trust anyone, she doesn't drink, and she doesn't have much interest in religion, despite being a church organist (she views it as just another job). But it works, largely because the other people she meets are also weirdly unlikable.

John Linden: Sidney Berger plays the one guy who tries to get close to her. He’s a neighbor in the boarding house Mary rents, and he’s a lech. He peeps on her, tries to get her drunk, and so on. He’s oddly sympathetic, since despite being completely skeevy, he’s also the only living person who has any persistent interest in Mary as a person. He can’t actually help her though. He can't even help being skeevy.

The Man: Herk Harvey (also the director) plays the entity that haunts Mary. He doesn't say a word, and despite being a man in greasepaint with raccoon eyes and a receding hairline, he’s thoroughly creepy. Part of it’s in how he’s always got this serene smile on his face but a hunger in his eyes, and part of it’s in the timing of his appearances. He literally does come out of nowhere and approaches Mary before going away until the next time.

Directed by Herk Harvey, who directed a large number of educational/documentary shorts, but this was his only movie. Despite that, he gets a ton of mileage out of this one movie with the help of Director of Photography Maurice Prather. Many of the shots are mundane and ordinary. There are some awkward edits. The makeup for the souls is, as I've said, a matter of black and white face paint. But it works because of atmosphere. The visual style of the movie is just as standoffish as Mary herself, and works to isolate her character, even in busy street scenes. The visual linchpin that ties the atmosphere together is the abandoned Saltair pavilion at Salt Lake City, where Mary has her final encounter with the souls, which is makes exceptional use of undercranking to unnaturally speed up the unearthly characters.

Story (uncredited) by Herk Harvey and Written by John Clifford. The script is not particularly noteworthy. Dialogue is largely unremarkable with a few nice moments of banter here and there. Characterization is mostly vague and undefined, though I think that works in its favor.

One thing I think the script wisely does it not explain any of the supernatural to the audience. The ghostly characters chasing Mary are presumably the souls of the dead coming to claim her, but that’s merely an inference. The movie never tells you this. The Man could be Death, or the Devil (he is certainly sinister), or just the leader of the souls. Mary goes into occasional fugue states where she can interact with the world, but nobody else can interact with her and all sounds stop. Is this her passing into the spirit world physically? Dunno, but probably. The movie leaves it up to the audience to determine. I like that, because it lays out this mysterious situation and challenges the viewer to make sense of it.

The Sounds
Original Music by Gene Moore. It’s organ music, and lots of it. Which makes sense, as Mary’s an organist. It being a CHURCH organ adds to the supernatural/spiritual themes at play, and can quickly transition from beautiful and comforting to dissonant and unsettling. That last part is very important, as it is the hammer that nails the eerie atmosphere together in the most critical scenes. At other times the organ music can grate on the ears, but that’s a small price to pay for the atmospheric payoffs.

The Verdict
Carnival of Souls is a cheaply made B-movie with fair acting. Its individual elements are nothing spectacular and yet when those same elements are put together, it’s a master class in atmosphere that feels like a long form Twilight Zone episode. The movie builds tension extremely well and has legitimately creepy moments. Absolutely recommended, and easily viewable since it’s lapsed into the public domain (though Criterion also put out one of its deluxe sets for it as well).

Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Skyrim Interlude


Like pretty much all Bethesda games, I was late to the party for The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim. Not that I didn't want to play the game when it was brand new, but because I knew that Bethesda is consistent about putting out “game of the year” editions with their expansions bundled in, and at a considerably cheaper price.

So anyway, Skyrim. It's got pretty mountains. Killing dragons has a nice feeling of accomplishment to it. Jeremy Soule's soundtrack is amazing. It's an entire province populated by Not-Vikings. Combat isn't quite as janky as in The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion. These are all good things.

Like Oblivion before it, the story is fairly bog standard and...not really engaging. Oblivion had the hilarious but kind of odd trait of casting you as the highly competent sidekick of the actual hero and sent around the kingdom to help him get ready to save the world. Here, you turn out to be a pretty big deal, a dragonborn capable of learning magical shouts when you kill dragons by absorbing their souls. And yes, the first shout you learn is how to yell so hard it knocks people over.

But the plot itself of Skyrim is standard fare. There's a civil war between two factions and you get to throw in with one of them. Worse, ancient dragons, not seen for centuries, begin flying around and tearing shit up. You see this firsthand at the beginning of the game as a prisoner caught up in this civil war on your way to execution in a fortified town when BOOM! DRAGON. You escape in the confusion and the town gets destroyed and from there the world opens up for you to explore as you wish. Ancient evil, need to find a way to stop it, need to level up by finding people to give you quests. Not my first rodeo, but one I still enjoy paying the price of admission for.

The main quest might not be amazing overall, but this and the hundreds of side quests propel you into what the series is amazingly good at: exploration. It gives you a big map with undiscovered locations and begs the question “What's over that hill?” “What's in that ruin?” Sometimes it's bandits. Sometimes it's an impressive view. Sometimes its just a mudcrab. But then there's the next hill, and what looks like a fort over to the left, and a dirt road running through a dense forest to the right.... That right there is where the “actual” story of an Elder Scrolls game is: the emergent personal story of you the player deciding to go explore something.

Case in point, this weekend I finally had my first real “whoa” moment. Playing for maybe an hour, I end up wandering back to the town from the prologue just to see what's there. Not much, it turns out. Some bandits, a few chests to open with some minor loot, and the burned out ruins of a small town. Following dirt road outside the town, I get attacked by a wolf. At level 9, a lone wolf is no problem and swiftly dispatched. Around the bend is a smear of blood and what's left of a campsite. There are two corpses labeled “refugee.” The location does not show up on the map as something discovered.

I think “man that sucks,” and proceed to loot their corpses. As sociopathic as it sounds, that's just one of the things that you do in these types of games. Its not like you've got the option to give them a proper burial. Beyond their pittance of gold there's nothing else of interest and I move on down the trail. A quartet of bandits is easily dispatched, then a small hill campsite with two bandits that got hostile as I approached.

On guard, I keep on truckin' and see a canine shape ahead that doesn't run away like a fox. “Probably another wolf” I think and get my axe ready. It does not run. It does not attack, either. I get close and its a stray dog.

Huh. I've been attacked by dogs in the game before, so I'm still on guard, but if he doesn't attack, then I've got no beef.

He doesn't attack. The game gives me the option to “talk” to him. I do, and all that happens is that he sits down and whines a little then wags his tail. I thank the game for a random encounter that doesn't want to kill me, and proceed into a nearby cave with my AI companion because CURIOSITY!

Inside the cave is an ice cavern with a bunch of skeletons (human and mammoth), an ice bridge, and a saber toothed cat.

Before you can say “Fighty Time!” I hear a bark and see a dog run at the cat along with my companion.

“Wait, is that the stray dog from... Shit, better kill that monster.”

The cat goes down and I look at the dog. Yep. Stray Dog. He sits down and wags his tail.

“Well damn. Thanks little buddy. Guess you're following me around. That's cool.”

And then I remembered the campsite, the wolf, and the dead refugees. Putting the pieces together into an entirely assumed conclusion, I decided that this poor mutt was the last survivor of that wolf attack.

At which point I made myself a promise that I'd get this dog to a settlement. Maybe a town. Maybe a farm. Maybe let him follow me around some more.

I exit through the other side of the cave with two companions in tow and see some ruins and one of the shrines that unlocks Dragonborn shouts. “Cool. New stuff!”

Then the music ramps up and a dragon soars overhead. I pause the game and weigh my options, and then I exited out. Not because I was worried I couldn't take it down, but because I was certain that dog was going to turn into literal toast. Plus, I had other stuff I had to do.

Right then and there was where I got onboard with Skyrim. It had just given me a Moment. No dialogue, not even text or any kind of exposition whatsoever, just context cues pulled from possibly unconnected incidents. The campfire ruin was coded for that spot, obviously, and apparently stray dogs appear at various places on the map to be rescued from immediate peril, yet I had no confirmation that these two were related. I made that connection in my head, and I'm not even much of a pet person.

This isn't a review or anything even close to that, nor is it weighing in on the “games are totally art, man” argument. It's just highlighting a brief yet oddly profound storytelling moment in a game that I been enjoying from a more...I guess “academic perspective” is the right phrase. Ironically for a game that prides itself on an epic story and scale, the best moment so far has been the exact opposite on the scale of intimacy.

So yeah. Skyrim's pretty neat. The main storyline is kind of blah, but that's not why I come to Elder Scrolls games. It's for the moments of exploration/discovery, the emergent narrative that the player is encouraged to build up around their blank slate of a character, and for the weird exploits possible that let you break the game. (For instance, by the time I finished Oblivion, I was a sword and board warrior with boots that let me run on water, an amulet that let me breathe underwater, and a unique unbreakable lockpick that essentially meant that I could go pretty much anywhere and take anything.)

Combat's still pretty janky though.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

“When you have to shoot, shoot. Don’t talk.”

So this is the big one of the Dollars Trilogy. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly AKA Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo from 1966. The one that a lot of people point to as “the best Western ever.” I don’t exactly agree with that.

During the later stages of the American Civil War, an uneasy duo of bounty hunter and outlaw hustle law enforcement, until the bounty hunter decides to finally sell out the outlaw. The outlaw wants revenge, and his pursuit of the bounty hunter sets them both on a collision course with buried treasure and a sinister Union officer. 

The movie is much longer than that, though.

“Blondie”: Clint Eastwood (as usual) continuing to be mysterious and inscrutable. He’s still kind of a dick, too, teaming up with Tuco to scam and split bounty rewards. Curiously, he doesn’t start out the story with his trademark poncho. He gets that and his other accoutrements over the course of the movie. That, and his increasing number of occasional kind acts (he is “The Good” after all), hints at character development, which is not something our nameless protagonist has had much of over the trilogy. It’s also never outright stated, but the Civil War setting and aforementioned poncho acquiring implies this is a prequel of sorts to the first two movies. Does it matter from a narrative perspective? Not really.

Tuco Benedicto Pacifico Juan Maria Ramirez (known as “The Rat”): Eli Wallach is our viewpoint character, and if Blondie’s kind of a dick, Tuco’s a complete bastard. Robbery, murder, torture, fraud, scamming everyone he meets…Tuco is a survivalist well-suited to the harsh landscape and looks out only for himself. It’s a credit to Wallach’s hammy yet intense performance that he makes such a repulsive character so entertaining to watch. Yet when he gets his occasional comeuppances, its actually pretty deserved, and even in the prison camp interrogation, it’s hard to feel sympathy for Tuco, since he’s been such a backstabbing bastard up to that point. But there are moments where you almost do feel sympathy for him, especially in the monastery where he meets his brother and the viewer gets a glimpse at what makes him tick. He may not be beyond redemption, but he is certainly “The Ugly” and one of the great screen rogues.

Sentenza “Angel Eyes”: Lee Van Cleef returns, this time as the villain of the piece. Angel Eyes is introduced as a sinister assassin who honors his contracts and can’t be negotiated with by his victims, but doesn’t hesitate to kill his employer for another contract. Utterly ruthless, merciless, and pragmatic, he‘s also less disturbing than El Indio. Van Cleef does the role well, but it lacks the nuance and development that Colonel Mortimer had in the previous film. Even his motivation for wanting the gold is vague. Greed, I suppose, but the character is “The Bad” and lacks the layers that make him more than simply cold-blooded.

Alcoholic Union Captain: Aldo Giuffrè plays a side character so minor that he doesn’t even register a name in the credits, yet he is a scene stealer. An officer who knows the back-and-forth fight for an inconsequential bridge is accomplishing nothing but the slaughter of his own men, he copes with nihilistic alcoholism. Until Blondie and Tuco show up and give him an explosive sendoff. 

The Sights
Director Sergio Leone displays a technical confidence in his filmmaking here. Gone are the day-for-night scenes from Fistful. Easily the most polished of the three in editing, composition, and cinematography. Juxtaposition of desolate long shots and extreme close-ups of weathered, craggy faces are also done very well. It’s also the biggest in sense of scale, with large crowds of extras in the towns and even a Civil War bridge skirmish that ends in a sizable explosion. For being about such ugly subject matter, this movie sure is pretty.

The Story
Story by: Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone. Screenplay: Agenore Incrocci, Furio Scarpelli, Luciano Vincenzoni, & Sergio Leone. English version by Mickey Knox. That’s a fair number of names, and the script seems to be the weakest element. Not for the core plot, that’s tightly arranged, and the climactic scene is one of the most amazing showdowns in movie history. Seriously, it is THAT good.

I didn’t warm to the episodic nature of the film. This is a very, very long movie that wanders around in some places.  These scenes aren’t bad by any means, but they lack the narrative tightness of the previous two movies. Things are a little more stretched out. There’s less sense of urgency or of the stakes being as high or immediate to the characters. The bridge battle has nothing to do with the rest of the movie other than “Blondie and Tuco stumble upon it” like it was some random encounter. It’s a well-done scene and hey, I’m not anti-explosions, but it could conceivably be cut and the film wouldn’t lose much. Tuco & Blondie don’t really develop further as a result of it. It just feels like a heavy-handed way of getting across the message that war is full of pointless loss of life over arbitrarily chosen objectives. 

A curious aspect of the film is its sympathetic portrayal of the Confederacy. Obviously not for the slavery aspect of the South, but the only Confederates we see in the movie tend to be maltreated prisoners of war: the infantry, the cannon-fodder, the schlubs. The Union has a more even spread of sympathetic and unsympathetic characters (about two and two, regarding speaking roles). Yet this is a movie released in 1966, when racial tensions ran high, and if this were an American production, it is highly unlikely that the Confederacy would have received such a portrayal. Not to imply that there weren’t sympathetic people among the Confederacy. Both sides in a war have good and bad people caught up in them, and a large number of rebel soldiers in the Civil War were not themselves slave owners…

And I’m getting off topic. Suffice it to say, historical reality is a complicated thing, and it is curious that the movie is so well regarded in a country where the shorthand opinion of the Civil War is “Confederacy = Bad.”

The Sounds
Original Music by Ennio Morricone. He really knocked it out of the park on this one. The incredible Main Theme, the Ecstasy of Gold, etc. Like the rest of the trilogy, this is the glue that really holds the movie together and elevates it to another level of quality. It can’t be stressed enough.

The Verdict
The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly is a good movie, no doubt. Best Western? Nah, that’s a hotel chain. Best Spaghetti Western? Maybe. It’s technical skill is superlative and the climax is amazing. Yet I can’t shake the feeling that the overall package is somehow less than the sum of its excellent parts. For me, the best of the trilogy is For A Few Dollars More, which features more consistently good character work, a tighter plot, and fewer digressions about social commentary that lack subtlety. 

Watching this movie is definitely worthwhile, but seeing only this one does a disservice to the rest of the trilogy, which is very, very good overall.

*Note: The trailer lies and switches the Bad with the Ugly.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

“When the chimes end, pick up your gun.”

A year after the success of A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood re-teamed in 1965 to make For a Few Dollars More (AKA Per qualche dollaro in più), which has the benefit of not being a remake of Yojimbo.

The Plot
Two bounty hunters, Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee Van Cleef) and a man referred to as “Monco” on account of him using his left hand for everything except shooting (Clint Eastwood) ply their trade across the west when a vicious bandit, El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté) and his gang break out of prison.  El Indio’s got a hefty bounty out for his gang, and the two bounty hunters cross paths and eventually decide to team up take down the gang as it plans an ambitious bank robbery.

Volonté returns from the last movie as a new bad guy, and manages to be even more psychotic and disturbing than Rojo was. To give you an idea of how villainous El Indio is, he tracks down the man responsible for putting him in prison, tortures him, then has his wife and 18 month old baby shot offscreen, then, satisfied that the man hates him enough, he flips open a musical watch. When the music stops, its time to shoot. Naturally Indio wins. Beyond mere sadism, Volonté gives the character a manic-depressive personality that he switches between with alarming suddenness. The impression it gives is of a man who gets any kind of enjoyment out of life by pushing people to the point of violence against him, then giving them a chance at revenge with the odds skewed in his favor, and then finishing them off. Which is really messed up. Oh, and one of his henchmen, Juan the Hunchback, is played by Klaus Kinski.

 Colonel Mortimer has more complicated reasons for going after El Indio. Revenge reasons. Without spoiling anything, he’s got some pretty damn good reasons for hating El Indio. More relatable than Monco, Mortimer is essentially the real protagonist, since he’s the one you can relate to more. Van Cleef really nails the old soldier archetype as he plays a wily veteran next to Monco’s more youthful bravado, but Mortimer’s also a character with a lot of pain locked away. That sadness and hatred really come to the surface in the final shootout, which is all done and seen in Van Cleef’s eyes. That’s some amazing acting right there.

The Visuals
Sergio Leone had a real budget this time! No more obvious day-for-night scenes and the whole movie has a more polished feel to it. Much like the previous film, it sets a fantastic mood with harsh landscapes and supporting characters with equally harsh features.  Leone even adds some artsy flourishes, such as ending a scene on El Indio laughing madly and cutting to a wanted poster of him with that same expression. Little things like that.

The Story
Screenplay by Luciano Vincenzoni & Sergio Leone. Dialogue by Luciano Vincenzoni (and Uncredited Fernando Di Leo & Sergio Donati). On a superficial level, its rather similar to A Fistful, since it involves Clint hunting bad guys in the name of a lot of money. Eastwood’s poncho wearing drifter is much the same here. Mysterious, deadpan, and essentially motivated by greed. Then again, it works quite well, so why mess with it?

Volonté returns as a new bad guy, and manages to be even more psychotic and disturbing than Rojo was. To give you an idea of how villainous El Indio is, he tracks down the man responsible for putting him in prison, tortures him, then has his wife and 18 month old baby shot offscreen, then, satisfied that the man hates him enough, he flips open a musical watch. When the music stops, its time to shoot. Naturally Indio wins. Beyond mere sadism, Volonté gives the character a manic-depressive personality that he switches between with alarming suddenness. The impression it gives is of a man who gets any kind of enjoyment out of life by pushing people to the point of violence against him, then giving them a chance at revenge with the odds skewed in his favor, and then finishing them off. Which is really messed up. Oh, and one of his henchmen, Juan the Hunchback, is played by Klaus Kinski.

 Colonel Mortimer has more complicated reasons for going after El Indio. Revenge reasons. Without spoiling anything, he’s got some pretty damn good reasons for hating El Indio. More relatable than Monco, Mortimer is essentially the real protagonist, since he’s the one you can relate to more. Van Cleef really nails the old soldier archetype as he plays a wily veteran next to Monco’s more youthful bravado, but Mortimer’s also a character with a lot of pain locked away. That sadness and hatred really come to the surface in the final shootout, which is all done and seen in Van Cleef’s eyes. That’s some amazing acting right there, and it’s the culmination of an entire movie’s worth of build up.

The Sounds
Ennio Morricone’s score continues to be an essential cog in the Leone Western. Here, it ups the ante a bit by integrating the musical watch theme brilliantly into the movie. As an omen of impending death, the watch begins as a haunting, melancholy, almost sinister sound. By the final showdown, it transforms into a harbinger of vengeance. Hard to explain in words, but damn. It works so damn well.

The Verdict
For A Few Dollars More is an amazing movie. A tight script, great acting, slick visuals and an incredible score knock it out of the park. A damn fine Spaghetti Western, and a damn fine Western, period.

Friday, July 26, 2013

“When a man’s got money in his pocket he begins to appreciate peace.”

That was a hiatus that went on longer than expected. Hard work is hard.

I've covered a few Spaghetti Westerns here at RMWC before, which tend to be fun and wacky, and often blatant imitations of Sergio Leone's seminal Man With No Name trilogy. Leone obviously didn't invent the Western, nor was he the first man to film one in Europe with mostly European actors, but he sure as hell put his stamp on it.

In 1964 A Fistful of Dollars (AKA Per un pugno di dollari), an “unofficial remake” (that led to a lawsuit by Japanese Studio Toho) of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (which was itself inspired partly by the Westerns of John Ford). And in turn, Yojimbo/Fistful was remade as Last Man Standing

Legal stuff is complicated.

Clint Eastwood shoots dudes. 

Ok, fine, there’s more to it. A mysterious drifter rides into the little town of San Miguel and finds two gangs fighting over who will get to run the town. Sensing there’s money to be made, he starts playing off both sides, hiring himself out as a gunfighter to both groups at his convenience. 

“Joe”: Clint Eastwood’s breakout role as the flint-eyed stoic anti-hero of the movie. Joe’s not his name, its just what some of the locals take to calling him. While certainly not a bad guy (he doesn't kill any innocents) he’s still a greedy, selfish, callous man. Exactly the kind of man to thrive in a world as harsh as the one Leone builds for him. There certainly isn't a lot of variety to his expressions in this movie, but Eastwood clearly displays the steely nerve that cemented his future roles as relentless badasses. Which isn't to say he’s completely mirthless. The scene where he demands an apology from four thugs for insulting his mule is some fun black comedy, but “Joe’s” sense of humor is a deadpan, sardonic sort that only surfaces rarely. He also has an awesome poncho and a fondness for stubby cigars. 

Don Miguel Benito Rojo: Antonio Prieto is the nominal leader of the Rojo gang. The Rojos sell liquor but want to move in on the rest of the shady dealings in town. He’s not a handsome man, but is arguably the friendliest Rojo to “Joe.”

Esteban Rojo: Sieghardt Rupp plays the youngest and most headstrong Rojo. Brash and kind of dumb, Esteban dresses fancier than his brothers, likes pistols, and has a screechy laugh that just makes you want “Joe” to shoot him.

Ramon Rojo: Gian Maria Volonté is the real brains behind the Rojo operation. Brutal and controlling, he’s incredibly clever and a monster to women. Exactly the kind of villain you want to see our hero destroy.

Chico: Mario Brega plays the main Rojo goon. Not much to say about him other than he’s trusted by the gang, is a chubby guy, and shows up on screen a fair amount.

Marisol: Marianne Koch plays “Ramon’s woman” and boy is she unhappy about it. See, Ramon keeps her under guard in a shack outside town and her husband Julio and son Jesus have moved into the shack thirty feet away. At first she’s little more than a pawn for “Joe,” but as the movie progresses (and so does “Joe’s” war on the gangs, he shows her family some genuine kindness. Oh, and her son is dubbed with a really annoying, whiny voice. Yes, I know the little kid’s sad and abused by the bad guys, but he still set my teeth on edge whenever he spoke.

John Baxter: Wolfgang Lukschy is the “sheriff” of town and patriarch of the Baxter family. His gang run and sell guns illegally. Slightly less ruthless than the Rojos, they’re also less interesting, clever, or menacing.

Silvanito the barkeep: Jose Calvo plays one of the few characters who become acquaintances/helpers for “Joe.” Silvanito also provides exposition as needed, in fine Movie bartender tradition. 

The Visuals
Directed by Sergio Leone, the film looks really good in daylight and interior shots. The heavy use of day-for-night though, betrays the film’s lower budget origins. That bit of cost-cutting doesn’t detract from the quality of the rest of the movie. Action sequences are nicely shot (and with great build-up). Leone also uses extreme close ups on faces to good effect as well. Most of these faces are as weathered as the landscape, and Leone really plays up the harshness of the West. Case in point: “Joe” gets the crap beaten out of him something fierce a third of the way through the movie, and it is very effective in its brutality. 

Oh, and this movie totally stole Marty McFly’s gunfight strategy against Mad Dog Tannen in Back to the Future Part III.

The Story
Story by A. Bonzzoni, Víctor Andrés Catena, & Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Víctor Andrés Catena, Jaime Comas, & Sergio Leone. Dialogue by Mark Lowell (and Uncredited: Fernando Di Leo, Duccio Tessari, & Tonino Valerii). Character motivation is quite simple, and most of the cast are painted in broad strokes with a few character traits to define them. The plot is the real focus of the story, with intrigue, betrayal, and manipulation taking center stage (and that’s exactly what “Joe’s” doing). The twists and turns of the story, along with how Joe reacts to them in his game of cat-and-mouse with the gangs is great fun to see play out. 

The Sounds
I've read arguments that Ennio Morricone single-handedly elevated the Man With No Name trilogy to greatness by the awesomeness of his score alone, and there is some credence to that. The variety of moods that Morricone can set with little more than a piano, guitar and a whistle is inhuman. 

The Verdict
A Fistful of Dollars is a damn fine movie and an interesting alternative take on the Western genre. Moody and amoral, its quite a difference from the more forthright heroics of the American-grown Westerns that John Wayne became a fixture of. I hesitate to say Leone made a superior version of the Western (I have good things to say about Stagecoach as well, for instance), but he definitely helped make Spaghetti Westerns a legitimate, and stylish sub-genre. The direction, Eastwood’s intensity, and Morricone's amazing music make this well worth watching. 

Monday, April 15, 2013

“Nobody likes a smartass truck.”

No movie poster, because it doesn't exist. Also, WOOO, ALT TEXT!

Monster Trucks. Man, those were popular in the 80s, weren’t they? Big ol’ trucks with giant wheels, it seems like their entire purpose was to see how many cars they can crush in one jump. In 1987, the cinematic auteur behind Giant Spider Invasion and at least partly responsible for Monster A Go-Go, Bill Rebane, gifted the world Twister’s Revenge! It features Wisconsin, rednecks, and a sentient monster truck named Twister.

Hope you brought your E-Z Pass, because we’re on the turnpike to WACKINESS.

We open with some monster trucks at a state fair, and three rednecks trying to pull off various schemes. They’re Dutch (Jay Gjernes), Kelly (David Alan Smith), and Bear (R. Richardson Luka, who, despite not being a good actor ends up being the most, er, likable of the speaking characters) and they will be our villains today. Kelly has anger issues and Bear gets hit a lot (frequently in the balls) and Dutch sort of gets caught in between the two like Larry, if we’re going for a Stooges comparison.

Our heroes are at the fair as well. Dave (Dean West) is a cowboy mechanic/monster truck driver and his fiancee/new bride Sherry (Meredith Orr) is the computer expert who installed the AI into Twister. This sounds like it would’ve been an awesome 80’s TV show,  like “Knight Rider” meets “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Sadly, it doesn’t live up to the promise.

So anyway, the three goons try to steal Twister so they can pawn it, fail, then decide to kidnap the girl and force Dave to give them the truck as blackmail. It takes them several attempts to actually grab her, which involve TWO Scooby-Doo style chase scenes (one on foot and one in cars), the newlyweds deciding to spend their honeymoon in their van (!), and an elderly lady hitting Bear in the junk with her purse after his friends slashed the tires of her van. It’s not nearly as funny as that sentence.

Anyway, our boring, stupid hero goes back to the shop and Twister starts talking to him like a hayseed version of K.I.T.T. Except the audio is so bad you can barely understand the garbled dialogue coming from the truck. And now the “meat” of the story can begin.

One’s an idiot in a cowboy hat. The other’s a condescending monster truck. THEY FIGHT CRIME. Or try to. Dave goes to a bar and the movie nosedives into weirdness. Words can’t really describe it.

What’s with the Bat Guy? That just raises so many questions. Is he a mutant? An alien? A guy in a mask? What’s he doing drinking in a Wisconsin dive bar? Why is his mask so well made, with a working jaw hinge? Is it really a mask?

Anyway, Dave gets beaten up by a biker for going up to him and saying “Excuse me, I need some information.”  And then Twister drives over a car. Because that’s really all monster trucks are good for, and rescues Dave.

Bear goes to a slutty woman’s shack to, well, shack up, I guess. She’s girlfriend I guess, and hasn’t had it in a while. Twister & Dave follow. Twister drives over the shack then chases slutty woman through the countryside. For giggles, I suppose. OUR HEROES. (The slutty girl running panicked through the woods becomes a running “gag” at random points of the movie.)

After this the movie wanders from inane “what?” moment to “what?’ moment. Twister and Dave search for Sherry and end up driving over cars and through houses that belong to innocent people, Bear gets hit in the junk, Sherry is tied up in a mine with a ticking time bomb, and the soundtrack limps along halfheartedly while at time riffing on the “Jaws” theme and, for some reason, “Good King Wenceslaus” during an overly long chase/battle scene between Twister and an M60 Patton tank the antagonists call “The Big One.” They drive around, disrupt a small town, destroy some barns (that explode by driving through them), but the movie somehow makes a tank causing havoc in a small town boring and drawn out.

Overly long and painfully not funny. That’s Twister’s Revenge! in a nutshell. And yet… And yet it is incredibly captivating watching the movie steadily sink lower and lower into dull madness. Each new scene leaves you asking the screen “somebody thought this was funny? How??”  It leaves you staring in slack-jawed wonder that something like this exists.

Then, when the dust settles of the anticlimactic tank/truck battle, and the lovers are reunited, the movie takes time for one last gag before the credits. It cuts back to the slutty girl, still running through the woods at that cranked up Benny Hill show speed, only now its winter. The implication being that she’s been running in nonstop terror from the monster truck for months now. I don’t know if it was because the movie had finally beaten me down or had somehow managed to deliver an actual, slightly amusing joke, but I chuckled.

That doesn't mean I can recommend it in good conscience, but it is bizarrely watchable.

He's the best character in the movie because he doesn't SAY ANYTHING.