Monday, December 31, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: Special "Spaghetti's End" Edition: FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975); KEOMA (1976); and MANNAJA (1977)

In the wake of the huge global success of Sergio Leone's A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966) came hundreds upon hundreds of spaghetti westerns that were cranked out at an astonishing rate well into the 1970s.  By the early 1970s, with the coming of nihilistic American westerns like Sam Peckinpah's THE WILD BUNCH (1969), the genre segued into political westerns such as Damiano Damiani's A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL (1968), Sergio Corbucci's COMPANEROS (1968), and Leone's DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971) before making a sharp turn towards the comedic with the success of THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970).  TRINITY made a star of Terence Hill, who had been working as a character actor for years under his real name Mario Girotti.  Starting with 1967's GOD FORGIVES, I DON'T, Hill often teamed with burly Bud Spencer (real name Carlo Pedersoli) on a series of spaghetti westerns that ranged from lighthearted to outright slapstick.  While American westerns got increasingly violent in response to the first wave of spaghetti westerns, this new wave, in which most characters seemed modeled after Eli Wallach's Tuco in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (Wallach even played a Tuco-like character in the 1969 Hill/Spencer western ACE HIGH), was more concerned with the lighter side of the genre.  The success of THEY CALL ME TRINITY led to a sequel (1971's TRINITY IS STILL MY NAME!) and tons of offshoots and unofficial sequels (even an earlier Hill film was retitled REVENGE OF TRINITY).  Spaghetti western experts like Howard Hughes, author of the genre analysis Once Upon a Time in the Italian West, frequently cite 1973's MY NAME IS NOBODY as, for all practical purposes, the end of the genre.  A TRINITY-inspired western-comedy produced by Leone (who also directed parts of it, though Tonino Valerii is given sole credit) and therefore bringing the genre full circle, NOBODY paired Hill with Hollywood legend Henry Fonda for the story of a goofball gunslinger goading an aging cowboy into going out in a blaze of glory by taking on a 150-man posse singlehandedly.  While the film's 1974 US release flopped (it was sold as a BLAZING SADDLES knockoff), MY NAME IS NOBODY was a huge hit in Europe, and led to a Leone-produced semi-sequel A GENIUS, TWO PARTNERS AND A DUPE (1975), which was also released as NOBODY'S THE GREATEST.  A few more slapstick spaghettis were produced and the genre quietly passed on as other trends, like polizias and EXORCIST ripoffs, took over.

Most audiences moved on as the spaghetti western faded into the sunset, which explains why three noteworthy (and too late for their own good) examples managed to fall through the cracks, though there were others that certainly justified the end of the genre, like Gianfranco Parolini's dreadful GOD'S GUN  (1976), possibly the worst spaghetti western ever made.  Lucio Fulci's FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE (1975), Enzo G. Castellari's KEOMA (1976), and Sergio Martino's MANNAJA (1977) were about as far removed from the TRINITY school of spaghetti westerns as one could get, yet none of the three really fit in with the first or second wave of spaghettis, either.  They're the kinds of bizarre, offbeat films that get made when no one's paying attention, from directors not normally associated with the genre. 

(Italy - 1975)

Directed by Lucio Fulci. Written by Ennio De Concini.  Cast: Fabio Testi, Tomas Milian, Lynne Frederick, Michael J. Pollard, Harry Baird, Donald O'Brien, Adolfo Lastretti, Bruno Corazzari, Lorenzo Robledo. (Unrated, 104 mins)

FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE was directed by Lucio Fulci, then a jobbing journeyman just a few years away from cementing his place in cult movie history with 1979's ZOMBIE. Gambler and card cheat Stubby Preston (Fabio Testi) arrives in Salt Flat for his latest con game and is quickly kicked out of town by the sheriff (Donald O'Brien), along with three other miscreants:  pregnant prostitute Bunny (Lynne Frederick), town drunk Clem (Michael J. Pollard), and the crazed Butt (Harry Baird), who claims to see dead people.  Taking a coach and heading to Stubby's next stop of Sand City, the quartet are joined by depraved outlaw Chaco (Tomas Milian), who drugs them and rapes Bunny before shooting Clem in the leg and riding off.  Vowing revenge on Chaco, Stubby pulls this odd "family" together as romance blooms between with Bunny and he decides to change his dishonest ways.  There's very little in the way of action in this low-key, character-driven film, with most of the graphic bloodletting confined to the opening and closing sequences.  With its odd characters and set pieces, its soft rock soundtrack, and its general eccentric quirkiness, it almost feels like Robert Altman, Arthur Penn, or George Roy Hill took a break from Hollywood and decided to go to Italy to make a spaghetti western just for the hell of it (it's probably not a coincidence that BONNIE AND CLYDE Oscar-nominee Pollard is in the cast).  It's a film with surprising heart and shocking transgression, and the latter shouldn't be surprising given that it's a Lucio Fulci film.  The bond that forms between the four outcasts feels genuine, and Fulci films rarely get more sensitively heartfelt than the moment when a dreary, depressed town filled with hard-bitten old bastards beaten down by life finds joy and hope in the cries of Bunny's newborn baby.  It's moments like this that contrast sharply with Chaco's violation of Bunny, his horrific torture of a sheriff (perpetual victim Lorenzo Robledo, the Sean Bean of spaghetti westerns) and Butt's final meltdown after Clem dies, when Stubby finds out that the delicious meal Butt prepared for them is...Clem.

The four leads work very well together, though I wish Pollard's Clem had more to do and Butt's disappearance is abrupt and clumsily-handled (and may be due to British actor Baird's health issues; he was suffering from glaucoma and went blind around the mid-1970s--he died in 2005 but FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE was his last film and the character's vanishing act looks like a textbook example of an actor suddenly being unavailable).  Milian doesn't have a lot of screen time but is a truly repulsive bad guy (and it's one of the rare instances where he's dubbing himself in an Italian film).  The effectively American-sounding score was composed by Bixio-Frizzi-Tempera, with songs performed by European duo Greenfield & Cook with the Benjamin Franklin Group.  FOUR OF THE APOCALYPSE is a strange film that refuses labels.  The brief, horrific foray into cannibalism and the emotional third act exemplify the kind of wild unpredictability that makes the film such a one-of-a-kind entry in both the spaghetti western genre and Fulci's filmography.

(Italy - 1976)

Directed by Enzo G. Castellari. Written by Mino Roli, Nico Ducci, Luigi Montefiori, Enzo G. Castellari.  Cast: Franco Nero, Woody Strode, William Berger, Olga Karlatos, Orso Maria Guerrini, Antonio Marsina, Gabriella Giaccobe, John Loffredo (Joshua Sinclair), Donald O'Brien, Leon Lenoir, Wolfango Soldati, Victoria Zinny, Massimo Vanni, Giovanni Cianfriglia. (Unrated, 101 mins)

Like many Italian genre directors, Enzo G. Castellari dabbled in a little of everything until he found his niche, first with Franco Nero-headlined crime thrillers like HIGH CRIME (1973) and STREET LAW (1974), and later with the Italian WARRIORS ripoff 1990: THE BRONX WARRIORS (1983) and the post-nuke THE NEW BARBARIANS (1983).  He made everything from macaroni combat adventures like EAGLES OVER LONDON (1970) and THE INGLORIOUS BASTARDS (1978) to gialli like COLD EYES OF FEAR (1971), and had a few first-wave spaghetti westerns under his belt, like ANY GUN CAN PLAY (1967) and KILL THEM ALL AND COME BACK ALONE (1970).  He also directed the dismal TRINITY ripoff CRY ONION (1976), one of the worst spaghetti westerns ever made despite a fascinating cast that included Nero, Sterling Hayden, Martin Balsam, legendary Chicago Bears linebacker Dick Butkus, and a farting horse.  Perhaps to wash away the foul taste of CRY ONION, Castellari and Nero immediately reteamed for the more serious spaghetti throwback KEOMA.

KEOMA finds the Castellari-Nero alliance in fine form with Nero as the half-breed Keoma, who returns to his home after the Civil War to find the area a plague-infested wasteland ruled by the evil Caldwell (Donald O'Brien), a Confederate officer who took over the town and whose shady business dealings resulted in a polluted well that's killed off much of the population.  Keoma immediately gets on Caldwell's bad side when he kills a couple of his flunkies who were terrorizing pregnant widow Lisa (Olga Karlatos).  Things get even more complicated when Keoma must deal with his loathsome half-brothers (Orso Maria Guerrini, Antonio Marsina, and Joshua Sinclair), who never accepted Keoma as their father's (William Berger) son and now very inconveniently work for Caldwell.

"Lemme hear ya say KEOMA!"
Even though it arrived three years after the effective end of the spaghetti western, KEOMA was well-received by European fans eager to see Nero back in DJANGO mode after ten years.  As far as I can tell, KEOMA never got a US theatrical release, which seems odd considering that even CRY ONION made it to a few US theaters in 1980.  There's definitely a post-WILD BUNCH Peckinpah feel to the directorial style Castellari uses here, not so much in the violence (which is plentiful but not particularly bloody), but in the frequent use of slo-mo in the action scenes.  Also notable is the imaginatively-staged finale with Keoma taking on his brothers while Lisa gives birth--as the mayhem ensues, we don't hear the gunfire but rather, the pained screams of Lisa and nothing else as Keoma's brothers are murdered.  It's an initially disorienting effect that's ultimately a very creative use of sound and editing by Castellari and his regular editor Gianfranco Amicucci. There's also some crucifixion/resurrection symbolism and a witch (Gabriella Giaccobe), who may not be real and could represent Keoma's conscience.  Nero, dubbing himself, is at the top of his game here, and KEOMA also benefits from the unusual casting of career badass Woody Strode as the disgraced and bullied town drunk who was once an idol to a young Keoma and sees the battle against Caldwell as his one shot at redemption.  If there's one thing that's prevented KEOMA from becoming a legit spaghetti western classic and made it a target of ridicule, it's the absolutely terrible score by the usually-reliable Guido & Maurizio De Angelis, filled with badly-croaked songs that function as a Greek chorus warbled by singers for whom English is a second language.  Sure, most of these films have goofy scores and silly songs, but the tunes in KEOMA are exceptionally godawful.  Aside from that, KEOMA is top-notch.

(Italy - 1977)

Directed by Sergio Martino. Written by Sauro Scavolini, Sergio Martino.  Cast: Maurizio Merli, John Steiner, Philippe Leroy, Martine Brochard, Sonya Jeannine, Donald O'Brien,  Salvatore Puntillo, Rick Battaglia, Nino Casale, Enzo Fiermonte, Nello Pazzafini. (Unrated, 96 mins)

Maurizio Merli began his career in Italian genre fare as a second-string Franco Nero but briefly became a superstar in the mid-1970s with a string of extremely violent police thrillers like Umberto Lenzi's incredible ROME ARMED TO THE TEETH aka THE TOUGH ONES (1976).  Usually playing a hard-nosed cop with anger management issues and a tendency to play by his own rules, Merli's Harry Callahan-like characters (he played different cops with names like Tanzi, Berni, and Betti, but they were all basically "Maurizio Merli") made him a sort-of Italian Clint Eastwood, but as the polizia films went out of style by the early 1980s, so did Merli.  He drifted into Italian TV gigs and had a supporting role in the 1981 British drama PRIEST OF LOVE with Ian McKellen, but he never broke into American movies and never got to have his big Tarantino comeback: Merli was only 49 when he died in 1989 from a sudden, massive heart attack while playing tennis.

Merli's day in the sun was relatively brief, but he's become a beloved cult figure with fans of 1970s Italian cop thrillers.  It's possible that the only reason MANNAJA got made was because Merli wanted to make a western and became a star after the genre faded away.  MANNAJA was pretty much last call for the spaghetti western cycle.  It's the last noteworthy one (though Fulci managed to sneak in SILVER SADDLE in 1978), and by this time, even the comedic TRINITY knockoffs had ceased being made and Italian genre fare was moving in a different direction, namely ripoffs of blockbuster American movies.  MANNAJA was directed by Sergio Martino (1973's TORSO), who had one spaghetti western to his credit (1970's ARIZONA COLT RETURNS), but was known mainly for his early 1970s giallo collaborations with the stunning Edwige Fenech.  Martino, like Fulci and Castellari, pinballed around the Italian B-movie scene for years but found his niche relatively early, and when gialli became passe, he tried his hand a bit of everything:  cop thrillers (1975's SUSPECTED DEATH OF A MINOR), sex comedies (1976's SEX WITH A SMILE), cannibal horror (1978's MOUNTAIN OF THE CANNIBAL GOD), and post-nuke (1983's 2019: AFTER THE FALL OF NEW YORK), and almost everything in between.  MANNAJA is stylistically interesting for its excessively foggy look, and Martino shoots some scenes as if he were making a horror movie (also helping this is a recurrent pulsating electronic music cue that sounds like it belongs in a zombie flick).  It's a pretty standard western overall, but there are interesting touches throughout that make it a unique entry in the field.

Blade (Merli) is a tomahawk-hurling, fur-coat-wearing bounty hunter who arrives in Suttonville to claim the reward for the wanted Burt Craven (Donald O'Brien, a fixture in these last spaghettis).  Blade lets Craven go when he finds out that Suttonville has no marshal and the only law is McGowan (Philippe Leroy), a puritanical, religious fanatic mining magnate who rules the town and whose irresponsible business practices have created a smoggy, foggy pollution and a sick but practically enslaved work force (a "job creator," if you will).  Blade irritates McGowan's top strongarm Voller (an expectedly hammy John Steiner) by jockeying for his job, but Blade has an ulterior motive:  McGowan ran Blade's father off their land in the process of building his empire, and inadvertantly caused Blade Sr's death.  Sick of taking orders from McGowan, Voller kidnaps his boss' daughter Deborah (Sonya Jeannine), setting off a chain of events that will, of course, lead to Maurizio Merli kicking all sorts of ass.

John Steiner as Voller
Merli tones down his rageaholic act a tad for MANNAJA, but he's still a solid hero and it's a shame his career didn't last longer.  Martino achieves a nicely foreboding look to the film with all the fog and mud, and the way Blade emerges from the fog for his showdown with Voller is a great shot.  Other than that, there's not much about MANNAJA that's very innovative, but it's an enjoyable actioner and a worthy eulogy for the genre, even if it gives us another batch of ill-advised Greek chorus songs from Guido & Maurizio De Angelis illustrating obvious plot points, this time with the croaking singer from the KEOMA soundtrack trading verses with a guy who's trying way too hard to sound like David Bowie.

Friday, December 28, 2012

In Theaters: DJANGO UNCHAINED (2012)

(US - 2012)

Written and directed by Quentin Tarantino.  Cast: Jamie Foxx, Christoph Waltz, Leonardo DiCaprio, Samuel L. Jackson, Kerry Washington, Don Johnson, Dennis Christopher, Walton Goggins, Laura Cayouette, David Steen, Dana Gourrier, Nichole Galicia, James Remar, James Russo, Russ Tamblyn, Amber Tamblyn, Don Stroud, Tom Wopat, Bruce Dern, M.C. Gainey, Cooper Huckabee, Doc Duhame, Jonah Hill, Lee Horsley, Ted Neeley, Zoe Bell, Michael Bowen,  Tom Savini, Robert Carradine, Michael Parks, John Jarratt, Quentin Tarantino, and with the friendly participation of Franco Nero.  (R, 165 mins)

Perhaps cognizant of the fact that the likelihood of lightning striking twice with another reinvention of cinema along the lines of 1994's PULP FICTION is slim, Quentin Tarantino has spent the last 15 years content with being a mad scientist DJ of sorts, fusing various genres and making each new film an homage to the cult cinema of his past.  JACKIE BROWN (1997) was his love letter to Blaxploitation; the two-part KILL BILL (2003/2004) his tribute to martial-arts films; DEATH PROOF (2007) his '70s drive-in/car chase throwback; and INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS (2009) his spin on WWII movies.  DJANGO UNCHAINED is Tarantino's take on spaghetti westerns, namely Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966), but reimagined as a pre-Civil War slavery/revenge saga.  Like most Tarantino films after JACKIE BROWN (maybe his most restrained, disciplined film and one that just gets better with each passing year), DJANGO UNCHAINED is guilty of unabashed self-indulgence on the part of its creator, but it's filled with such inspired enthusiasm, crackling dialogue, and a heart-on-its-sleeve love of movies that its appeal--so long as you can get by the splatter and the constant barrage of racial slurs--is positively infectious.  Tarantino's films of late aren't perfect and one could argue that there's some regression from the surprising maturity of JACKIE BROWN.  But really, if he just kept trying to top PULP FICTION, he'd fail miserably.  Films like BASTERDS and DJANGO UNCHAINED may not be reinventing the wheel (though they may try to reinvent history), but there's no denying that they're distinctly Tarantino and couldn't have been made with the same wit, style, and passion by any other director.  Flaws and indulgences aside, DJANGO UNCHAINED is a captivatingly unhinged, over-the-top blast.

In 1858 Texas, Django (Jamie Foxx) is a slave purchased by German dentist/bounty hunter Dr. King Schultz (Christoph Waltz).  Schultz is after the fugitive trio of Brittle brothers, and it's been brought to his attention that Django knows what they look like.  So, the doctor offers Django a deal:  travel with him as a "valet," and point out the Brittles, and receive a third of the reward money along with his freedom.  The two make such a great team that the deal blossoms into a partnership and a friendship, and Schultz offers to help Django find his wife Broomhilda (Kerry Washington), whose whereabouts are unknown after the two were split up by a vengeful plantation owner (Bruce Dern) when they attempted to escape.  After doing some research, Schultz discovers that Broomhilda was sold to Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), the flamboyant owner of the plantation Candieland.  Posing as a pair of slavers interested in purchasing slaves for "Mandingo fighting," Schultz and Django arrive at Candieland to rescue Broomhilda, but face an unexpected obstacle in elderly house slave Stephen (Samuel L. Jackson).

Tarantino's gift for the verbose is on full display here, and, as in BASTERDS, it's Waltz who benefits the most, even though he's playing a good guy here--probably the moral center of the film--who's capable of shocking violence.  Schultz's mentor/student relationship with Django recalls Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood, respectively, in Sergio Leone's FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965).  The pair make a memorable team and are given strong support by the villainous turns of DiCaprio and Jackson. Candie is the easily identifiable villain and DiCaprio relishes the chance to play such a pompously sneering scumbag, but Candie is frequently acting under the manipulative machinations of Jackson's Stephen, who arguably emerges as the film's true antagonist.  One of the most diabolical representations of the "Uncle Tom" stereotype ever presented, Stephen's self-loathing of his race and his alternately pragmatic, humiliating, and malicious eagerness to constantly be in the good graces of the rich and powerful Candie makes him one of the most complex characters in all of Tarantino's films.  It's a difficult role that Jackson essays very well while still dropping "motherfucker"'s as only Samuel L. Jackson can.

The supporting cast is filled with recognizable faces and Tarantino B-movie favorites, some of whom have little more than walk-ons.  Original Django Franco Nero has a brief conversation with Foxx's Django ("The D is silent," Foxx says after introducing himself.  "I know," Nero replies), and it's great to see guys like Dern, Don Stroud, Russ Tamblyn, Tom Wopat, and Lee Horsley again, however briefly.  Going back to John Travolta in PULP FICTION, Robert Forster in JACKIE BROWN, and David Carradine in KILL BILL, Tarantino always seems to give a forgotten actor another shot, and here it's BREAKING AWAY (1979) star Dennis Christopher in a showy supporting role as Candie's weasally lawyer.  Jonah Hill turns up as a doofus KKK member for apparently no other reason than Tarantino wanted to put him somewhere.  The KKK bit and a later sequence with Tarantino attempting an Australian accent as a slave trading employee with Michael Parks and John Jarratt (two of the director's apparently 10,000 favorite actors) are probably the two most egregious examples of things that should've been cut and could've brought the running time down to something more reasonable than a bloated 165 minutes, especially with Parks/Jarratt/Tarantino sequence coming after a jaw-dropping, splatter-filled shootout (all glorious squibs! No CGI!) that paints the walls of Candieland bright red and would've made Sam Peckinpah hard.

Continuing his trend of anachronistic music cues (like David Bowie's CAT PEOPLE theme turning up in BASTERDS), Tarantino expectedly utilizes vintage Italian western themes by Luis Bacalov, Ennio Morricone, and Riz Ortolani, but also songs by Rick Ross, James Brown & 2Pac, and even Jim Croce, and the effect, while jarring, actually works.  DJANGO UNCHAINED is an insane, freewheeling mash-up of cult movie/spaghetti western/exploitation madness that could only be a Quentin Tarantino film.  He may not have another game-changer like PULP FICTION in him, but he really doesn't need one.  There's nobody who does what Tarantino does with such unbridled glee and on such a grand scale.  DJANGO UNCHAINED isn't his best film, but like most of his work (except for that dreadful first half of DEATH PROOF), it will likely prove to be an endlessly rewatchable one, and that'll do just fine.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

On DVD/Blu-ray: KILLER JOE (2012) and STOLEN (2012)

(US - 2012)

It's hard to believe that in a career now in its sixth decade and including such classics as THE FRENCH CONNECTION (1971), THE EXORCIST (1973), and TO LIVE AND DIE IN L.A. (1985), 77-year-old William Friedkin has just now unleashed what might be his most boldly audacious film yet.  Reteaming with playwright Tracy Letts (the pair previously worked on 2006's BUG), Friedkin's KILLER JOE is at various times intense, terrifying, darkly hilarious, sick, twisted, shocking, and flat-out horrifying, anchored by a chilling, career-best performance by Matthew McConaughey.  It's a white trash, trailer park noir populated mostly by loathsome, self-serving shitbags, with Chris (Emile Hirsch) owing $6000 to a local mobster and unable to come up with the cash.  He devises an ill-conceived scheme with his dad Ansel (Thomas Haden Church) and stepmom Sharla (Gina Gershon) to hire Dallas detective "Killer Joe" Cooper (McConaughey), who has a murder-for-hire side business, to off his mom--Ansel's ex-wife--for a $50,000 life insurance policy for which Chris' dim-witted younger sister Dottie (Juno Temple) is the beneficiary.  Killer Joe requires his $25,000 payment up front but since Chris doesn't have the money, he agrees to a retainer:  Dottie.  Killer Joe romances and seduces the naive, virginal Dottie and soon ingratiates himself into the family.  And of course, no murder-for-insurance plot ever goes according to plan and this one goes into some dark, disturbing, stomach-turning places.

On just 75 screens at its widest release and initially sporting an NC-17 rating (since surrendered; the film is currently unrated) because of the controversial, oft-mentioned but rarely explicitly-discussed "K-Fried-C" scene--it's one of those things where once you've seen it, it's impossible to unsee it--KILLER JOE features several fearless performances, Gershon most notably, for reasons that become brutally clear by the end of the film.  But it's McConaughey, in a truly revelatory, career-reinventing year, who establishes some major bona fides as an actor who's grown up and is ready to be taken seriously.  His interpretation of Killer Joe is an unforgettable cinematic monster, and McConaughey's controlled, committed performance is Oscar-caliber work.  Part of the brilliance of KILLER JOE's execution is that it's that rare film where anything can happen at any moment.  You never know what to expect and you won't believe it when you see it, and Friedkin, as he's done so masterfully so many times in his career, lets the suspense build from sequence to sequence, piling it on, escalating, and finally exploding in a nerve-wracking, excruciating, exhausting, and thoroughly demented finale that's a masterpiece of claustrophobic tension.  Every scene, every line of dialogue, every movement and nuance by the cast are vital ingredients to what make the film work as well as it does.  KILLER JOE is often grueling and unpleasant, but it's one of the best and ballsiest films of 2012.  (Unrated, 103 mins).

(US - 2012)

Just six months after SEEKING JUSTICE, Nicolas Cage is back with another barely-released New Orleans-shot thriller that opened on just a handful of screens before being dumped on DVD.  The not-bad-at-all STOLEN reunites him with CON AIR director Simon West and if it had been made 10-12 years ago, it probably would've been the #1 movie for a couple of weeks.  Cage leads a crew of bank robbers who rip off $10 million from a vault but when his cohorts get away, he burns the money when cornered by FBI agent Danny Huston.  Cage gets sent to prison for eight years, and when he gets out, his teenage daughter (Sami Gayle) is kidnapped by his presumed-dead psycho partner Josh Lucas, who will stop at nothing to get his share of the money and refuses to believe that Cage destroyed it.  Cage can't convince Huston (what serious FBI agent wears a porkpie hat on the clock?) that Lucas is alive and holding his daughter hostage, so what else can Cage do but team up with another of his old crew (Malin Akerman) to stage an impromptu complicated heist of some gold reserves from the same vault with no planning whatsoever, to somehow get Lucas the money he's demanding?

STOLEN is a competent B thriller most of the way, but David Guggenheim's (SAFE HOUSE) script really starts to fall apart when Cage and Akerman get into a bank vault in the middle of the day with no preparation, just confidently (and apparently, correctly) assuming that nothing's changed about the layout or the security system in eight years. Back in Cage's heyday, STOLEN would've been a popular popcorn thriller and even today, while not some unsung gem, it didn't deserve to get on just 140 screens to the tune of $300,000 (with a $35 million budget) to land in 38th place for its opening weekend. With all the WICKER MANs and BANGKOK DANGEROUSes littering his IMDb page over the last decade, Cage really has no one but himself to blame for this commercial downfall, and with all of these interchangeable, generic race-against-the-clock thrillers he does, it's only a matter of time before he realizes the glory days are gone and this comfortable familiarity prompts someone at CBS to propose CSI: NEW ORLEANS to him (admit it...you'd watch that).  In the grand scheme of things, STOLEN is one of his better movies of recent years (and it's not at all the TAKEN ripoff that the trailer made it appear), he's wearing one of his non-hilarious hairpieces (the Cage equivalent to Burt Reynolds' "serious toupee"*), and he keeps his histrionics to a minimum. The wild-eyed overacting is left mostly to a methy-looking Lucas, in his second film titled STOLEN since 2010. STOLEN's probably not worth a $10 movie ticket, but as a check-your-brain-at-the-door Netflix pick on a slow night after a long day, you could do a lot worse. (R, 95 mins)

* - "Burt Reynolds' serious toupee" © Marty McKee

Thursday, December 20, 2012


(US - 1988)

Directed by Richard Park.  Written by Joseph Diamond and Richard Park.  Cast: Y.K. Kim, Vincent Hirsch, Joseph Diamond, Maurice Smith, Angelo Janotti, Kathy Collier, William Ergle, Si Y. Jo, Richard Park, William Young, Jack McLaughlin, John Escobar.  (Unrated, 87 mins)

Since being filmed in central Florida in 1986 at the height of the staggeringly prolific B-movie ninja craze, MIAMI CONNECTION has taken a strange and unexpected journey from lost film to cult movie sensation.  The brainchild of Z-grade NINJA TURF director Richard Park and Korean Tae Kwon Do instructor/motivational speaker/co-producer Grandmaster Y.K. Kim, MIAMI CONNECTION centers on Dragon Sound, Orlando's top Tae Kwon Do rockers: guitarist Mark (Kim), singer/guitarist Tom (Angelo Janotti), keyboardist Jim (Maurice Smith), drummer Jack (co-writer Joseph Diamond), bassist John (Vincent Hirsch), and new female singer and John's girlfriend Jane (Kathy Collier).  Dragon Sound gets a steady gig as the house band at Park Avenue ("Central Florida's hottest nightclub"), which enrages the frontman (Jack McLaughlin) of the band they replaced.  On top of that, Jane's insanely jealous brother Jeff (William Ergle), the Orlando distributor for Yoshito (Si Y. Jo), Miami's top cocaine dealer, doesn't want her seeing John.  While the members of Dragon Sound (orphaned best friends who live together and attend the University of Central Florida) just want to live by the philosophies of Tae Kwon Do, play their music, hang out at the restaurant owned by fatherly Uncle Song (Park), and tour the world to promote peace and goodwill, they have to deal with the kung-fu treachery of Jeff's goons and the lethal ninja motorcycle gang dispatched by Yoshito.

Park (who died in 2006 and never got to see MIAMI CONNECTION's cult rebirth) saw Kim giving a Tae Kwon Do demonstration on a Korean talk show and wanted to make a movie with him.  Kim had moved from Seoul to Orlando in 1976, where he opened a Tae Kwon Do school. The cast is made up of non-professional actors, and almost all of the main co-stars were Kim's students and most of them agreed to work as crew members as well (Janotti, who could actually play guitar and read music, helped write Dragon Sound's songs).  They were a group of friends who sincerely believed in this project.  Kim tried to shop it around to various distributors and nobody was interested in it.  According to the Blu-ray liner notes by Alamo Drafthouse Cinema programmer Zack Carlson (more on him shortly), Kim took the advice of one distribution agent and made some significant changes to the film without Park's involvement, reshooting a large chunk of it despite having no filmmaking experience and referring to a filmmaking how-to book between shots, totally learning how to direct on the fly (Park still retains sole directing credit).  The film managed to get picked up by the low-rent grindhouse outfit Manson International and it opened on about eight screens in the Orlando area in September of 1988, where it died a quick death and vanished, seemingly never to be heard from again.  A disappointed Kim abandoned his dreams of movie stardom and returned to operating his successful Tae Kwon Do school, unaware that his instantly obscure film would be accidentally rediscovered over two decades later.

Cut to 2009, when Carlson stumbles upon a listing for a 35mm print of something called MIAMI CONNECTION while browsing eBay.  Just out of idle curiosity, he purchases it for the Buy-It-Now price of $50 and decides to screen it at the Alamo Drafthouse in the hipster mecca of Austin, TX for the cinema's "Weird Wednesday" program, with the caveat that no one had watched it and he had no idea what it was about.  The audience loved it and the film immediately became a must-see staple at the Alamo Drafthouse, eventually getting a national theatrical release on the midnight movie circuit in the fall of 2012, followed by a recent Blu-ray and DVD release. Unlike a lot of midnight movies these days, where the usual justification for watching and mocking it is that "it's so bad, it's good," MIAMI CONNECTION, while terribly-made, laughably naive, and displaying everything aesthetically horrible about 1986 (the mullets, the fashions, the music) is undeniably infectiously entertaining.  Even the most cynical, seen-it-all cineaste will find themselves being won over by the unbelievable, heart-on-its-sleeve sincerity of the film.  The fight scenes are ineptly staged, the script is a joke (early on, marvel at one of the clumsiest exposition drops ever in the way Jane shoehorns her backstory in after John meets her after class; shouldn't he already know these things about her if they're a couple?), the acting is atrocious (you haven't lived until you've seen Smith deliver Jim's heartfelt monologue about his long-lost father), you can barely understand anything Kim says, the editing is less than fluid (some scenes just stop), and the songs are awful...but you won't be able to help yourself.  You will be cheering Dragon Sound on.  You will be singing along to such songs as "Friends" and "Against the Ninja."  You will, despite every fiber of your being telling you that it's wrong, have a genuine blast watching this thing.

Image Entertainment/Drafthouse Films' Blu-ray (1.85:1 anamorphic) looks surprisingly good considering that the original negative was damaged in flooding from a hurricane in 2004.  Carlson hosts a commentary track featuring Kim and Diamond, and all five members of Dragon Sound are interviewed in another segment.  Also included in the special features are Park's original, far more downbeat ending, deleted scenes (the best being Dragon Sound getting booted out of a music instrument store by the irate manager, fed up with them always coming in to jam but never buying anything), and footage from a Dragon Sound reunion show (!) at the 2012 Fantastic Fest.  YES!

Unlike bad-movie favorites of recent years like TROLL 2 , THE ROOM, and BIRDEMIC, MIAMI CONNECTION is that rare bad movie that you find yourself not mocking with hipper-than-thou snark, but legitimately enjoying.  It's genuinely earnest, well-meaning, and filled with hokey positivity that will win over even the most jaded viewer. In other words, you have to be a total dick to not find this thing incredibly entertaining and Y.K. Kim's belated, dreams-really-do-come-true success story oddly moving.  What else can I say?  I love MIAMI CONNECTION. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


(US/New Zealand - 2012)

Directed by Peter Jackson.  Written by Peter Jackson, Fran Walsh, Philippa Boyens, Guillermo del Toro.  Cast: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Cate Blanchett, Ian Holm, Christopher Lee, Hugo Weaving, Elijah Wood, Andy Serkis, James Nesbitt, Ken Stott, Sylvester McCoy, Graham McTavish, Barry Humphries, Manu Bennett, Lee Pace, William Kircher, Stephen Hunter, Dean O'Gorman, Aidan Turner, John Callen, Peter Hambleton, Jed Brophy, Mark Hadlow, Adam Brown. (PG-13, 170 mins)

Other than greed, hubris, and self-indulgence, is there really any need for J.R.R. Tolkien's 300-page book to take three three-hour movies to play out?  After a long pre-production delayed by lawsuits and MGM financial issues, and a change in director from Guillermo del Toro to Peter Jackson, the eagerly-awaited prequel to Jackson's landmark LORD OF THE RINGS trilogy is finally here, and not without controversy.  Jackson initially planned THE HOBBIT as a two-part film, but it was expanded into a trilogy of its own.  If this first installment is any indication, there's definitely a sense of bloat and overkill, especially in the way Jackson brings in elements that weren't in Tolkien's book (incorporating some material from The Silmarillion and Unfinished Tales, including most of the backstory for the eccentrically disheveled wizard Radagast the Brown, played by former DOCTOR WHO Sylvester McCoy) as a way of giving what was a smaller-scaled, significantly less epic-feeling tale the same heft and spectacle of the original trilogy.  The 1977 animated, Rankin-Bass produced TV-movie of THE HOBBIT managed to get the story across in about 80 minutes.  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY has assorted detours, asides, and completely new elements that aren't entirely necessary (and it's in higher-priced 3D) and really only seem to be there as a way to get as much money out of moviegoers as possible.

The bigger story, at least in the select theaters that are presenting it this particular way, is Jackson's decision to shoot the film in the High Frame Rate of 48 fps (frames per second) instead of the industry-standard 24 fps.  The HFR 3D version is playing on less than 500 screens in the US, but it does represent Jackson's preferred vision of the film.  While you get used to it as the film progresses, it's initially very jarring and disorienting.  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY looks traditionally "cinematic" maybe 15% of the time, usually in close-ups of certain cast members (Ian McKellen as Gandalf seems to have the least CGI enhancement of the cast).  The rest of the film has an overwhelmingly artificial look to its ultra-HD appearance.  The high frame rate brings out every minute detail (you can clearly see the line of the prosthetic footgear worn by the actors playing Hobbits), and it gives most of the epic action and battle scenes an annoyingly video-gamey look that's nothing less than a total distraction.  Elsewhere, many scenes look almost entirely CGI animated.  The interiors fare the worst of all, with the film having a completely stage-bound, soap-opera look that resembles a remastered version of a shot-on-video PBS or BBC TV production from the 1980s.  Walk in on a scene of people talking indoors and it could pass for a filmed version of a HOBBIT stage performance.  And in these interior scenes the high frame rate gives the actors a jerky, sped-up movement that frequently resembles something being slightly fast-forwarded.  When it comes to anything LORD OF THE RINGS, Jackson wields enough power that he can do anything he wants, and like George Lucas, is likely surrounded by yes-men who are happy to indulge him as long as the money keeps rolling in.  I imagine the traditional 24 fps version (also in 3D and regular screenings) plays better, or at least more "cinematically," but Jackson's 48 fps experiment really only works in the shots of the stunning natural terrain of New Zealand's hills and mountains.  In these all-too-brief scenes, the film takes on an almost PLANET EARTH quality that's a beautiful sight to behold.

Having said all that...I did find AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY generally enjoyable, at least from the standpoint of the story and the performances.  Martin Freeman makes a likably fussy young Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm again plays the aged Bilbo in a framing sequence with Elijah Wood as Frodo), it's great to see McKellen play Gandalf once again, and a mere decade in technological advancements have made Andy Serkis' motion-capture Gollum even more expressive and lifelike.  The film's strongest performance comes from Richard Armitage as Thorin Oakenshield, leader of a band of Dwarf warriors who adopt a reluctant Bilbo to help them reclaim their home on Lonely Mountain, lost 60 years earlier when the dragon Smaug took it as his own, forcing them to live as marauding outcasts.  The camaraderie of Thorin and his cohorts with Gandalf and Bilbo, and the ways Bilbo proves his worth and earns their respect are the kinds of things that are hard to bungle, and, as in the original trilogy, it's in these rousing and emotional scenes that AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY finds its true strengths. 

Christopher Lee (as Saruman), Cate Blanchett (as Galadriel), and Hugo Weaving (as Elrond) briefly reappear from the original trilogy.  The elderly cast members, like 90-year-old Lee and 81-year-old Holm, have some very noticeable CGI retouching done to their faces, as they're a decade older but playing younger, and they have a waxy, glossy, artificial appearance that looks a lot like extensive noise reduction on a Blu-ray.  This is likely due more to the use of 48 fps, which just represents another issue with the format.  AN UNEXPECTED JOURNEY might visually play better on Blu-ray, but I think I've seen enough of Jackson's love of the high frame rate to go with the standard 24 fps version when THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG hits theaters in December 2013.

Cult Classics Revisited, Special "Movies Michael Caine Hates" Edition: ASHANTI (1979) and THE ISLAND (1980)

By his own admission, two-time Academy Award winner Michael Caine has done horrible things for money. He was infamously unable to accept in person his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for 1986's HANNAH AND HER SISTERS because he was stuck in the Bahamas shooting the atrocious JAWS: THE REVENGE, of which Caine once said "I have never seen it, but by all accounts, it is terrible. However, I have seen the house that it built, and it is terrific." From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, Caine developed a reputation for being a bit of a sell-out who would do anything if the price was right, thanks largely to junk like THE SWARM (1978), BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE (1979), THE HAND (1981), JAWS: THE REVENGE (1987), and his over-the-top performance as the villain in director/star Steven Seagal's misfired vanity project ON DEADLY GROUND (1994). But it wasn't all garbage: aside from his HANNAH AND HER SISTERS Oscar win (the first of two), DRESSED TO KILL (1980), EDUCATING RITA (1983), MONA LISA (1986), THE FOURTH PROTOCOL (1987) and THE WHISTLE BLOWER (also 1987) were critical favorites, with EDUCATING RITA getting Caine the third of his six (so far) Oscar nominations.

A never-before-published photo of Michael Caine being offered the
starring roles in ASHANTI and THE ISLAND

Caine said around the mid-1990s that he had enough money and would only be doing quality projects from then on and he's more or less stuck to it (it's interesting that his change in attitude came about after being directed by Seagal), with his Oscar win for THE CIDER HOUSE RULES (1999), an Oscar-nominated starring turn in THE QUIET AMERICAN (2002), his work for Christopher Nolan (the DARK KNIGHT trilogy, THE PRESTIGE, INCEPTION), and his powerful performance in the British vigilante thriller HARRY BROWN (2010).  Caine will be 80 this March and shows no signs of slowing down, and as his work in this year's THE DARK KNIGHT RISES showed, he's as vital a screen presence as he was in ALFIE back in 1966.  A career that spans half a century is bound to have peaks and valleys, but perhaps his 1970s/1980s reputation as a hack actor whose film projects seemed to be dictated primarily by how nice of a working vacation they would provide stems from Caine being so self-deprecating about it.  Really, his hits-to-bombs ratio was no worse than any other busy actor in that period.  Caine has been particularly critical of some of his films between 1978 and 1981, and two films from that era have just been released on Blu-ray:  the 1979 modern-day slave-trading epic ASHANTI, and the high seas horrors of 1980's THE ISLAND.

You know it's a 1970s all-star cast with
the classic "faces in boxes" poster design.
(Switzerland - 1979)

Directed by Richard Fleischer. Written by Stephen Geller. Cast: Michael Caine, Peter Ustinov, Kabir Bedi, Beverly Johnson, Omar Sharif, Rex Harrison, William Holden, Winston Ntshona, Zia Mohyeddin, Akosua Busia, Eric Pohlmann, Marne Maitland, Johnny Sekka, Jean-Luc Bideau. (R, 117 mins)

At various times, Caine has referred to ASHANTI as either "the worst" or "the third worst" movie he's ever made (he's also cited, apparently depending on his mood, either THE SWARM or 1968's THE MAGUS as his other worsts).  It's really not bad at all, and Caine's feelings about the film may have more to do with its troubled production.  Producer Georges-Alain Vuille fired original director Richard C. Sarafian (VANISHING POINT) at some point during production and replaced him with Richard Fleischer.  Fleischer was an experienced journeyman who had a reputation as a guy who got the job done on time and on budget, and whose long career found him helming films as varied as 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA (1954), FANTASTIC VOYAGE (1966), THE BOSTON STRANGLER (1968), SOYLENT GREEN (1973), MANDINGO (1975), AMITYVILLE 3-D (1983) and RED SONJA (1985), among many others.   Caine stars as Dr. David Linderby, on a humanitarian mission vaccinating villages in remote parts of Africa.  When Linderby's wife and colleague Anansa (Beverly Johnson), who was part of the nearby Ashanti tribe in her childhood, is abducted by nefarious Arab slave dealer Suleiman (Peter Ustinov), he finds the authorities unwilling to intervene. Through a human rights activist (Rex Harrison), Linderby meets up with Malik (Kabir Bedi), whose wife and children were abducted and killed by Suleiman years earlier, and the two are off in hot pursuit of the slave dealer, who is planning on Anansa netting him a retirement-sized payday when he sells her to top client Prince Hassan (Omar Sharif).

ASHANTI was part of the short-lived "slave trading" exploitation craze brought about by the trash classic MANDINGO (I hope that's not what got Fleischer the gig) and its offshoots, like the 1976 sequel DRUM, and the 1978 German ripoff SLAVERS.  The classic TV miniseries ROOTS (1977) gave the subgenre some much-needed respectability and ASHANTI falls somewhere in between.  It has some occasionally lurid moments, such as some gratuitous Johnson nudity and Suleiman's depraved henchman Ansok (Winston Ntshona) having a thing for little boys and being warned by Suleiman to "Be gentle...I'm not into selling damaged goods!" but never ventures into the territory of, say, EMANUELLE AND THE WHITE SLAVE TRADE (1978).  A Swiss production, shot in Kenya, Israel, and Sicily with a mostly Italian crew, ASHANTI looks fantastic on Severin's new Blu-ray, framed at 2.35:1.  The big-name cast seems to be going through the motions, with Caine mostly looking bored, a bloodshot-eyed Harrison mostly looking drunk, and a glassy-eyed Sharif looking like he's been on an all-night bridge jag.  William Holden turns up for two scenes as a mercenary helicopter pilot who agrees to help Linderby and almost instantly gets killed for his trouble.  Ustinov hams it up pretty mercilessly, and only busy Bollywood fixture Bedi (best known as Louis Jourdan's henchman in the 007 film OCTOPUSSY), then a young actor trying to make it big, seems to be fully invested in the film.  There's some signs of the problematic shoot, such as occasionally choppy editing, Johnson sounding dubbed (she was fired about 2/3 of the way through filming), and the filmmakers apparently forgetting about Sharif's character.  The Blu-ray features an interview with Johnson, who seems like a nice lady with many fond memories of the production (pregnant at the time of filming, she named her daughter Anansa after her character) but some of her stories have more than a slight whiff of bullshit, and she too frequently uses the forum to bash her philandering ex-husband.  Michael Melvoin's score sounds like it belongs in a 1979 Aaron Spelling TV show, and Jimmy Chambers' closing credits tune "Don't Lose the Feeling" screams "last call at the Regal Beagle."  While no classic, ASHANTI is never dull, looks great, and at least has some hammy and/or intoxicated actors to keep things lively, and it's hardly the worst thing Caine has done.  ASHANTI opened in the US in April 1979 and flopped, and Caine had his other 1979 dud BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE in theaters just a month later.

(US - 1980)

Directed by Michael Ritchie. Written by Peter Benchley. Cast: Michael Caine, David Warner, Angela Punch McGregor, Jeffrey Frank, Frank Middlemass, Colin Jeavons, Don Henderson, Dudley Sutton, Zakes Mokae, Brad Sullivan, Reg Evans. (R, 114 mins)

After BEYOND THE POSEIDON ADVENTURE, Caine was back with more nautical nonsense in the summer of 1980 with THE ISLAND.  Written by JAWS author Peter Benchley, who adapted his novel, and filmed in Antigua and the Bahamas, THE ISLAND has to rank as one of the most batshit major-studio summer releases of the 1980s. Benchley was big business after the game-changing JAWS in 1975, so much so that 1977's THE DEEP became a huge blockbuster--due entirely to Jacqueline Bisset's skimpy swimwear--despite no one liking it (it's boring as hell;  I'm 0-for-3 at trying to make it all the way through--have you ever met a fan of THE DEEP?).  Perhaps anticipating another DEEP-like snoozer, audiences stayed away from THE ISLAND, and coupled with blistering reviews from critics, it ended up being a major box office disappointment and Benchley never again had a novel adapted for the big screen (though BEAST and CREATURE became a pair of TV miniseries).  Nobody associated with THE ISLAND really liked it, but it's developed a huge cult following over the last 30 years.

Caine is NYC journalist Blair Maynard, traveling to Florida with his son Justin (Jeffrey Frank) to investigate reports of disappearances in the Bermuda Triangle (a popular film and TV subject in the late '70s).  Chartering a cargo plane to the distant island of Navidad, the Maynards are eventually abducted by a crazed band of inbred buccaneers led by John David Nau (an anorexic-looking David Warner).  Justin is tortured and brainwashed into believing he's Nau's son, and Maynard is forced to "make the beast with two backs" with fertile buccaneer babe Beth (Angela Punch McGregor) in order to plant the seed for a family tree that actually forks.  The whole thing is as crazy as it sounds and has "cult movie" written all over it.  It's no wonder audiences expecting JAWS soundly rejected it.

Parts of THE ISLAND are so ridiculous that it's easy to mistake it for a comedy at times: huge 1980 Michael Caine glasses;  the over-the-top gore; the utterly berserk machine-gun climax (SPOILER) that has to be seen to be believed;  the completely inappropriate score by Ennio Morricone during grim and violent scenes that's more suited for a grand, swashbuckling adventure;  a guy in super-tight shorts having a kung-fu freakout; gratuitous buccaneer nutsack; stunningly inept day-for-night shots; and one hilariously sloppy shot of Maynard running that's obviously not Caine and no effort seems to have been made to hide it.  Universal had director Michael Ritchie (THE BAD NEWS BEARS, FLETCH) under the gun to get this completed in time for summer 1980 and at times, it's all too obvious.  THE ISLAND is a pretty bad movie, but it's a great bad movie.  Like in a "they really thought this would be a commercial summer hit?!" kind of way.  Every few minutes, something awesome happens thanks largely to a terrific cast of very game British character actors (Frank Middlemass, Colin Jeavons, Dudley Sutton, Reg Evans, and Don Henderson being the standouts) who are having a blast even if Caine isn't.  I don't know how THE ISLAND got made, but I'm glad it did.  This is guilty pleasure insanity at its guiltiest.

Uh...yeah.  Not Michael Caine.  Not even close.

Shout! Factory's Blu-ray/DVD combo pack, part of their new "Scream Factory" horror line, presents the film in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen.  No extras, not even a trailer.  Ritchie died in 2001 and  Benchley in 2006, and they probably knew better than to request an interview with Caine.  But come on...David Warner wasn't available?   It's awesome that THE ISLAND is on Blu-ray, but the backstory of this mind-boggler needs to be told.

Thursday, December 13, 2012

On DVD: DJANGO Double Features

With the upcoming release of Quentin Tarantino's long-awaited DJANGO UNCHAINED, there's been a renewed interest in the spaghetti westerns that inspired it.  Sergio Corbucci's DJANGO (1966) was itself just one of the hundreds of spaghetti westerns made after the incredible success of the Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood films A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964), FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965), and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966), but it managed to create--at least in Italy--a phenomenon of its own.  DJANGO, which starred Franco Nero as a mysterious stranger who drags behind him a coffin containing a large machine gun, led to a stampede of assorted sequels, knockoffs, and ripoffs that featured "Django" in the title.  The only "official" sequel with Nero came two decades later with Nello Rossati's belated, dismal, RAMBO-inspired DJANGO STRIKES AGAIN (1987), but starting with Giulio Questi's insane DJANGO, KILL! (IF YOU LIVE SHOOT!) (1967) with Tomas Milian and going into the early 1970s, there were no less than 50 so-called DJANGO films, starring a ton of different leading men, not to mention other knockoffs like DJURADO (1966), DRANGO (1966), RINGO (1967), CJAMANGO (1967), GARRINGO (1969), SHANGO (1970), and about 20 different SARTANA films, including several that teamed Sartana with Django.  And it gets even more confusing when you consider that future Django Anthony Steffen starred in the practically interchangeable DRANGO, RINGO,  GARRINGO, and SHANGO, and that DRANGO was also released as SOME DOLLARS FOR DJANGO.  In short, the Italian habit of making unofficial sequels to blockbuster successes wasn't limited to just influential American hits (George Romero's DAWN OF THE DEAD was released in Italy as ZOMBI, which led to Lucio Fulci's ZOMBI 2, which was released as ZOMBIE in the US; Ridley Scott's ALIEN led to Ciro Ippolito's ALIEN 2: SULLA TERRA;  and Michael Cimino's THE DEER HUNTER was released in Italy as IL CACCIATORE, which begat Antonio Margheriti's IL CACCIATORE 2, aka THE LAST HUNTER in the States), but also to their own.  The huge Italian success of DJANGO led to an entire "Django" genre.  Timeless Media, a division of Shout Factory, has just released two budget-priced double feature sets with four DJANGO obscurities.  Each set lists at $6.99, and while they certainly aren't Criterion-level transfers, they look much better than the list price would indicate, all in anamorphic widescreen and looking positively pristine compared to the usual public domain YouTube-level stuff you get on those $9.99 "50 Western Classics" cheapie sets. With only one outright clunker over the course of these two releases, cult movie nerds and spaghetti western completists will definitely want to pick these up.

(Italy - 1967)

(Italy - 1971)

DJANGO KILLS SILENTLY (aka DJANGO KILLS SOFTLY) stars Eurocult fixture George Eastman (aka Luigi Montefiori) in one of his earliest films. The 6' 9" Eastman, best known to Italian horror fans as the cannibalistic killer who rips the fetus out of a pregnant woman and eats it, and later devours his own disemboweled entrails at the end of Joe D'Amato's THE GRIM REAPER (1981), gets a rare good guy role here as Django, riding into the small town of Santa Anna and getting involved in a turf war between the powerful Thompson (Luciano Rossi, billed as "Edwin G. Ross") and the outlaw El Santo, which, if the performance of Mimmo Maggio is any indication, is Spanish for "Almost Tuco."  Django has a score to settle with El Santo, who killed an old friend, and he doesn't care much for Thompson either, so--stop me if you've heard this plot before--he decides to play them against one another.  Written by BLACK MAGIC RITES auteur Renato Polselli (as "Leonide Preston"), and directed by Massimo Pupillo (1965's BLOODY PIT OF HORROR) under the pseudonym "Max Hunter," DJANGO KILLS SILENTLY looks and sounds like a spaghetti western, but aside from the Leone-esque opening credits and Berto Pisano's blatantly Morricone-inspired score, it plays a lot like a western from the 1940s or 1950s.  Lots of saloon brawls and standard-issue shootouts, and certainly none of the nihilism or political subtext of even the Corbucci or Questi films.  Still, it's an enjoyable enough western on its own terms, with Eastman (dubbed by Tony La Penna) a likable Django, and there's a scene-stealing, hilariously twitchy performance by spaghetti western regular Federico Boido (as "Rik Boyd") as The Nervous One, an exceptionally edgy Thompson gunman.  1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen. (Unrated, 94 mins).

DJANGO'S CUT PRICE CORPSES (aka A PISTOL FOR DJANGO) is a bit more in line with the rougher, more violent post-DJANGO spaghetti scene.  Directed by veteran sleaze merchant Luigi Batzella (THE DEVIL'S WEDDING NIGHT, NUDE FOR SATAN, and the vile Nazisploitation "classic" SS HELL CAMP, aka THE BEAST IN HEAT) under the name "Paolo Solvay" (one of several pseudonyms he used), CUT PRICE CORPSES has bounty hunter Django (Jeff Cameron, dubbed by Frank von Kuegelgen) riding into a Mexican town in search of the four nefarious Cortez brothers, led by Ramon (Edilio Kim).  Ramon, his brothers, and his gang are on the run after a Silver City bank robbery and the kidnapping of a young woman (Dominique Badou).  Also pursuing them is bank investigator and steely card sharp Fulton (Gengher Gatti), who switches alliances as quickly as anyone else in this thing.  Django briefly joins forces with outlaw Pedro (future screenwriter Gianfranco Clerici, credited under his acting name "Mark Devis"), who used to run with the Cortez gang, but it goes nowhere when Pedro tries to kill Django maybe ten seconds later and gets shot in the gut for his trouble, making about 12 minutes of screen time utterly pointless (except for the fact that the ruthless Django seduces Pedro's wife to get to him).  The very low-budget CUT PRICE CORPSES is pretty average as far as these go--watchable and diverting but cliched and predictable.  Almost everything is ripped off from other movies--Django even tells the town undertaker to "get four coffins ready," which is in no way similar to Clint Eastwood's introduction in A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS; Gatti is obviously meant to be a Lee Van Cleef stand-in; and Django's eventual sidekick Pickwick (John Desmont) is the burly sort of which Bud Spencer had been playing for a few years and would continue to in the TRINITY movies and its various knockoffs.  And the big, meaningless plot twist--SPOILER--that the fourth Cortez brother is actually a woman (Esmeralda Barros) is obvious from the first moment she's onscreen. 

Really?  You're not supposed to be able to tell this is a woman?

The fashions are a bit more 1971 than you'd expect, with Django sporting a Peter Fonda-in-EASY RIDER hairstyle, and Pedro's hilarious white-dude afro and bellbottoms.  It's silly and inconsquential, the sets are laughably cheap, a lot of it doesn't make sense (why does a confused Pickwick totally lose his shit and attack Django for no reason?) and Cameron isn't the most charismatic Django (he had a very busy few years in spaghetti knockoffs, playing Sartana on a few occasions and starring in other ripoffs like the same year's COFFIN FULL OF DOLLARS before disappearing from movies in 1973) but DJANGO'S CUT PRICE CORPSES is OK enough for spaghetti western die-hards and enjoyably dumb if you're in the right mood. 1.85:1 anamorphic widescreen (Unrated, 82 mins)

(Italy - 1971)

(Italy - 1970)

Anthony Steffen (real name Antonio De Teffe) is best known to American grindhouse fans for the 1971 Italian horror film THE NIGHT EVELYN CAME OUT OF THE GRAVE, but he was enormously popular in his native country for his many spaghetti westerns that came in the wake of DJANGO.  Steffen had already played Django twice before 1971's A MAN CALLED DJANGO! (aka W DJANGO!, aka VIVA, DJANGO!) in a pair of Sergio Garrone westerns from 1969: A NOOSE FOR DJANGO and the supernatural western/horror hybrid DJANGO THE BASTARD (aka THE STRANGERS GUNDOWN).  Prior to that, as mentioned above, he also had the title roles in the DJANGO ripoffs DRANGO (aka SOME DOLLARS FOR DJANGO), RINGO, A TRAIN FOR DURANGO (1969), and SHANGO. A MAN CALLED DJANGO! was directed by Edoardo Mulargia (as "Edward G. Muller"), who himself was not a stranger to the world of DJANGO ripoffs,  having previously directed SHANGO, CJAMANGO, and 1967's DON'T WAIT, DJANGO...SHOOT!  The intense Steffen is a terrific Django in this violent, cynical, and downbeat film, obsessively pursuing the men responsible for the murder of his wife.  He rescues about-to-be-hanged horse thief Tuco, er...I mean, Carranza (Glauco Onorato, dubbed by Ed Mannix), who used to run with the men responsible but was in jail at the time of the murder, and two form the usual unholy alliance when Django agrees to help Carranza get revenge on his own enemy, the sadistic Jeff (Stelio Candelli), a vicious thug who controls the town.  Of course, the various threads intersect and double and triple crosses ensue in somewhat predictable ways, but A MAN CALLED DJANGO! benefits from a legitimately devastating finale--complete with a nicely-done final shot that borrows from Sam Peckinpah--that Steffen plays wonderfully, making him probably the most effective Django after Nero and Milian.  This one probably deserves to be better known.  2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. (Unrated, 90 mins)

DJANGO AND SARTANA'S SHOWDOWN IN THE WEST stars American actor Jack Betts as Django.  Betts, who's still active today in small roles on TV and in movies, was a TV actor in the late 1950s and early 1960s who started going by the name "Hunt Powers" in 1964, and relocated to Europe in 1967, where he became a busy spaghetti western fixture.  He played Django in several films, including 1972's marvelously-titled DOWN WITH YOUR HANDS...YOU SCUM!  He frequently worked with director Demofilo Fidani, regarded by some as the "Ed Wood of spaghetti westerns." Though there's only a little about SHOWDOWN IN THE WEST that's terrible from a technical standpoint, it's certainly the low point of these double feature sets, even with Fidani hiding behind what might be the greatest fake American-sounding pseudonym ever:

Dull and confusing, DJANGO AND SARTANA'S SHOWDOWN IN THE WEST (aka DJANGO AND SARTANA ARE COMING...IT'S THE END) dithers around and doesn't even bring the two heroes together until an hour in, and even then they don't ever work side by side and don't exchange words until the last scene.  Crazed outlaw Black Burt (Gordon Mitchell) kidnaps a young woman and plans to take his gang to Mexico when word gets out that Django and Sartana (Franco Borelli, credited as "Chet Davis") are both separately coming for them.  Instead of fleeing, Black Burt sticks around, ranting and raving and playing poker against his reflection in the mirror.  Mitchell's insane performance is really the only reason to watch this, and it drags badly when he's not around, feeling about twice as long as its brief 83 minutes.  Betts is appropriately stoical as Django, but Borelli's Sartana is barely in it, and the film is so meandering and incoherently edited in the early going that it was a full 40 minutes before I was entirely sure that Betts was Django and Borelli was Sartana (the DVD packaging and IMDb both have it wrong, crediting Betts as Sartana and Borelli as Django).  I think the dubbing crew might've even been confused as well on a couple occasions.  The film's low budget is apparent during the climax, when Django is shooting a bunch of different members of Black Burt's gang and the shots of Betts firing and the gang members being shot don't even match, with the gunshot outlaws obviously culled from stock footage from other movies.  Betts is an alright Django, but DJANGO AND SARTANA'S SHOWDOWN IN THE WEST is pretty bottom-of-the-barrel stuff.  1.85 anamorphic widescreen (Unrated, 83 mins)

Monday, December 10, 2012

Cult Classics Revisited: THE NICKEL RIDE (1975)

(US - 1975)

Directed by Robert Mulligan.  Written by Eric Roth.  Cast: Jason Miller, Linda Haynes, Bo Hopkins, Victor French, John Hillerman, Richard Evans, Bart Burns, Lee de Broux.  (PG, 99 mins)

As the critically-acclaimed KILLING THEM SOFTLY sets new standards for mainstream audience alienation and looks to be out of theaters altogether by the end of its second week, it's clear that it will find a cult following in due time.  Based on a 1974 novel but updated to 2008, KILLING THEM SOFTLY is a close relative of similar "working stiff" mob dramas like 1973's THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE (Walter V. Higgins wrote both source novels), and like KILLING THEM SOFTLY, it too failed to catch on with general audiences and made a quick exit from theaters only to be reappraised in subsequent decades.  These days, THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE is ranked with the essential mob thrillers of the 1970s.  There's another somber, character-driven mood piece from the 1970s that tanked upon its initial release and is held in higher esteem by its fans today, but even now, it's still much lesser-known than THE FRIENDS OF EDDIE COYLE:  the riveting, quietly powerful Los Angeles-set THE NICKEL RIDE.

Playwright-turned-actor Jason Miller followed his Oscar-nominated debut performance in THE EXORCIST with a starring role in this low-key character piece from TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD director Robert Mulligan.  After a brief run in theaters, it was in regular rotation on late-night TV well into the 1980s before largely disappearing over the last 25 or so years. Shout Factory released it on DVD last year as part of an "Action Double Feature," strangely pairing it with John Frankenheimer's 99 AND 44/100% DEAD (1974).  THE NICKEL RIDE finally being available on DVD (in 2.35:1 anamorphic, not 1.78 as the packaging erroneously indicates) is a great thing, but pairing it with one of the weirdest major studio films of the 1970s, much less as part of an "Action Double Feature," does it few favors in its quest for some long-overdue recognition.

Miller is Cooper, a weary, longtime L.A. mob middleman who's earned the nickname "The Key Man," for his ever-present ring of keys to all the mob-owned warehouses he oversees for boss Carl (John Hillerman, a few years away from MAGNUM, P.I.). With the appearance of Carl's new protege, a cowboy hat-wearing good ol' boy named Turner (Bo Hopkins), Cooper's careful diligence turns to overwhelming paranoia as he fears he's outlived his usefulness, and that perhaps Carl wants to make some changes and shake things up since Cooper's been around so long and knows so much about his associates and the inner workings of his operation.  The increasingly edgy, agitated Cooper takes his girlfriend Sarah (Linda Haynes) and goes on the run once he starts to get the very real feeling that he may be a dead man walking.

Anyone looking for action will undoubtedly be disappointed, but THE NICKEL RIDE is a gripping film that's one of the unsung gems of its decade. A writer first and actor second, it's no surprise that Miller (1939-2001) was drawn to such a project.  He brings the same dark intensity, piercing stares, and brooding melancholy that made his work in THE EXORCIST so effective (you can see a lot of Miller in his actor son Jason Patric). He was a strong actor who rarely got a chance to shine after the 1970s, though he did direct the acclaimed 1982 screen adaptation of his play THAT CHAMPIONSHIP SEASON, was brought back for 1990's THE EXORCIST III, and had a nice supporting turn as Notre Dame football coach Ara Parseghian in 1993's RUDY.  Haynes, an extremely charming actress who should've been huge, had roles in films like COFFY (1973), THE DROWNING POOL (1975) and ROLLING THUNDER (1977), before getting her sole starring turn in the 1980 exploitation film HUMAN EXPERIMENTS.  After two more supporting roles in the TV-movie GUYANA TRAGEDY: THE STORY OF JIM JONES and the Robert Redford vehicle BRUBAKER (both 1980), she retired from acting at just 32, settling down in her native Florida where she became a legal secretary.

THE NICKEL RIDE was one of the first scripts by Eric Roth, who went on to win an Oscar for his FORREST GUMP (1994) screenplay, in addition to writing or co-writing such films as THE CONCORDE: AIRPORT '79 (1979), THE HORSE WHISPERER (1998), THE INSIDER (1999), MUNICH (2005), THE GOOD SHEPHERD (2006), THE CURIOUS CASE OF BENJAMIN BUTTON (2008), and most recently, EXTREMELY LOUD & INCREDIBLY CLOSE (2011). Mulligan makes very good use of seedy L.A. locales like dive bars, old warehouses, fleabag hotels, and smoky pool halls. THE NICKEL RIDE definitely belongs in that subgenre of blue-collar, nickel & dime, working stiff mob pieces that inspired KILLING THEM SOFTLY, and is a small classic worth discovering.