Monday, February 28, 2011

Capsule Review: Frenzy (1972)

The 70s films of Alfred Hitchcock tend to be alternately celebrated and reviled, and it's true that the garish fashions and increased bloodletting of the decade seemed at odds with Hitch's usual timeless qualities, but it would be a mistake to skip on his penultimate film Frenzy which features an interesting combination of some of the director's favorite themes in combination with the looser standards of the time. In fact, while wrapped in a fairly standard package of an innocent man accused of a series of rather gruesome murders, the film has a number of bravura set-pieces - most notably featuring the killer fumbling with a corpse in the back of a moving truck in an attempt to retrieve an incriminating tie-pin - and pitch-black humor which make its more predictable portions easier to tolerate. While not up to the standards of the maestro's classics, there's still lots of fun to be had in some of the film's quieter moments (the gastronomical disasters concocted by the police officer's wife are a delight) and the story comes to an enjoyable, though sudden, conclusion.

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Django 2: il grande ritorno (Django Strikes Again) (1987)

As I mentioned in my review of Sergio Corbucci's original Django (1966), the release (and success) of that film was followed - in usual Italian fashion - by dozens of tributes, rip-offs and imitations with names like Django, Prepare a Coffin (with future Trinity star Terrence Hill), Django the Bastard, and Django the Last Killer. Oddly, while original star Franco Nero appeared in a number of westerns - sometimes retitled to take advantage of his Django fame - neither Corbucci nor Nero made an official sequel to their film for another twenty years - long after the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns had faded. Even odder, this sequel abandons the muddy Spanish locations of the original for the jungles of Colombia and trades in Corbucci (who died a few years later) for the bland direction of Nello Rossati, who needlessly reinvents Django as an 80s action hero.

Following the events of the first film, Django has abandoned his life as a gunfighter for a quiet, peaceful life as a monk until he's visited by an unnamed woman (possibly Maria from the original film?) who tells him that she's dying, and that they have a young daughter named Marisol. However, by the time he decides to visit her, his wife has died and Marisol has been kidnapped by an evil Hungarian riverboat enthusiast (Christopher Connelly from Manhattan Baby (1982)) who is both forcing (really) young women to work in his bordellos while simultaneously forcing male slaves to work in his silver mine. Yeah, this guy is a real slime-ball. This time Django takes his licks very early, getting horribly beaten and enslaved during a weak attempt to rescue Marisol, but after an escape (aided by Donald Pleasance in a small role) he retrieves a familiar weapon from a gravesite (marked Django) and decides - with the help of a young villager - to get some revenge.

Despite the formidable presence of Nero, Django Strikes Again feels - literally - a world away from the Western environment of its predecessor. Indeed, not only has the location changed to boats, silver mines and jungles, but aside from the brief graveyard scene (which brings some welcome nostalgia for the original film) and the character of Django himself, there's very little that would mark this as a sequel. Even Nero, with his beard and slicked back long hair, looks little like the blue-eyed anti-hero that made him famous. He's been white-washed as a sort of low-rent Chuck Norris, with his final scene (where he basically devotes himself to fighting injustice wherever he can) feeling particularly removed from what we know of the character. We don't even get an echo of the famous Django theme music which was used to such great effect in the original film.

However, when removed from the context of the original film, there are a few things to enjoy here. While (badly) post-synced, it at least appears that we finally get to hear Nero's voice as the character, and he has a charisma that makes him significantly more appealing than the film that surrounds him. While the photography is quite flat - despite some impressive locations - there are a few interesting action scenes, and it's fun to watch Django trade a few quips as he does away with dozens of interchangeable baddies. Connelly is particularly demented as the "El Diablo" Hungarian leader, and is given a few odd quirks that at least make his eventual comeuppance feel earned, and they give him an edge of racism that at least ties him to the plot of the first film. These are all rather cheap thrills, however, and while some of the performances have inspiring moments, the accents on display are occasionally impenetrable.

Packaged on DVD with the original Django, Django Strikes Again makes for an interesting curio for fans of the character, but can only be seen as a rather massive missed opportunity. The decision to abandon much of what defined the character, as well as the Western setting, feels like it has much to do with the popularity of Jungle action films of the time (and the availability of the Colombian setting) and the whole thing ends up feeling painfully generic. In the end, it's sad to think that even the numerous films which borrowed and stole from Django paid more tribute to its influence than its own sequel.

Friday, February 18, 2011

Capsule Review: Rashomon (1950)

It's difficult to view Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece of perspective Rashomon without pondering just how influential it was - even as most of those works that tribute it miss the ambiguity that Kurosawa injects into his tale. Three men; a priest, a woodcutter and a rather good-natured commoner, discuss a recent murder of a samurai which involves both his wife and a rogue bandit, based on the testimony of all involved (even the spirit of the samurai as told through a medium). Each story includes many of the same details but are noticably different in terms of motivation and action, and in fact reveals a very cynical view of humanity that is only briefly overturned by an act of kindness at the film's end. It's the movie that broke Kurosawa in the West, an irony since it was initally rejected as too Western by Japanese critics, and holds up as an exciting and - even in light of its imitators (including The Outrage, a Western remake) - original piece that fortells many of the amazing films to come from the director. Amazing and original use of lighting, and a wonderful, manic performance by Toshirō Mifune as bandit Tajōmaru.

Friday, February 11, 2011

Capsule Review: Some Like It Hot (1959)

Often cited as one of the funniest films of all time, Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot seems to openly mock the conventions of the genre, playing early scenes featuring gangster 'Spats' Columbo (George Raft) totally straight. However, soon things turn ridiculous with musicians Joe and Jerry (Tony Curtis and Jack Lemmon) forced to dress in drag in order to join an all-girl musical band that is heading to Florida. It's less convoluted than that sounds. While plenty of laughs are wrung out of having the two actors walk around uncomfortably in drag - with Joe trying to court "Sugar Kane" (Marilyn Monroe) at the same time - Wilder has full control over the proceedings and dictates things with his usual skill. He's assisted ably by a great collection of actors - especially Lemmon who is totally giving his all - and a screenplay by I. A. L. Diamond (and Wilder) that totally goes for broke. Its edge has been dulled by decades of farces that go further and faster, but there's still plenty here to enjoy.

Monday, February 7, 2011

Django (1966)

Spaghetti Westerns have been defined by Sergio Leone's 60s output which focused on demystifying the American west while paying tribute to the films that inspired him as a youth - but while A Fistful of Dollars (1964) was the match strike for the genre, it wasn't the only film that captured international imaginations. Perhaps equally as influential, at least for the Italian film industry which went on to create dozens of unofficial sequels, was Sergio Corbucci's Django (1966) which is filled with iconic imagery and features an enduring performance from Franco Nero in the titular lead. While lacking Leone's stylistic close-ups (for the most part), Corbucci brings his own style to a surprisingly filthy (with mud) and brutal take on the "man with no name" antihero.

A civil war veteran with a mysterious past, Django wanders into a mud-soaked, isolated border town dragging a coffin behind himself. Stopping into a near-deserted bar/brothel, he discovers a local war between mexican bandits and former confederate officer racists - led by the steely Major Jackson (Eduardo Fajardo) - who clothe themselves with red scarves and KKK-like masks. After rescuing an escaped prostitute (Loredana Nusciak) who finds herself at odds with both groups, Django reveals a past with the Mexican general as well as the contents of his coffin: a machine gun with which he slaughters nearly all of Jackson's men. The two conspire to rob a nearby Mexican army fort to fund the bandits return to Mexico, and to help Django start a new life away from bloodshed - though things don't exactly work out as planned.

Far away from the pristine landscapes of the classic American westerns, Django takes place in one of the filthiest western towns imaginable, and the character of Django himself - who proves to be far more complex than his initial appearance suggests - starts out dirty and gets progressively moreso as the film progresses. This is a film that literally wallows in mud, and is all the better because of its embracing of this unique and hellish landscape. Corbucci lingers on the lone figure of Django from afar as he drags his coffin through the mud, to the point where he seems iconic before he's said a word. His first interaction with characters - watching the Mexican bandits whip Nusciak's Maria before then killing a group of Jackson's men who intend to murder her - show him to be quiet and brutal, while Nero's trademark blue eyes tell a different tale.

While notable at the time for its gruesome violence - this is still a couple of years before Sam Peckinpah re-wrote the rules with The Wild Bunch - it's Gatling gun massacres are fairly tame compared to the climax of that later film. Generally it's just characters clutching their chest and falling, with occasionally a spot of bright-red blood to accentuate things. However, a few scenes: the Mexican banditos severing the ear of one of Jackson's men and feeding it to him, Django's fate at the hands of the bandits, as well as the sheer body count, led to the film existing in numerous cut and truncated forms.

Corbucci never received the respect that Italian directors like Leone got, but his later output - particularly  The Great Silence (1969) - shows an intelligence and eye for detail that raises his work above many of his contemporaries. Franco Nero has continued to have an eclectic and consistent career, appearing in a number of other westerns before managing to break into the U.S. as Lancelot in Joshua Logan's Camelot (1967). Since then he's worked internationally, as well as making appearances in U.S. films like Force 10 from Navarone (1978) and Die Hard 2 (1990). Notably, second-unit director Ruggero Deodato went on to have a notable career in his own right, particularly in exploitation films like the legendary Cannibal Holocaust (1980).

As is per usual in Italian cinema, the resounding success of Django led to dozens of rip-off, tributes and copies, often featuring the Django name in the title. Some of these are actually quite good, like Django, Kill! (If You Live Shoot!) (1967), but most are only tangentially related to the film if at all. I've yet to see the only official sequel Django 2: il grande ritorno (1987), which is the only film to return Nero to the role which made him famous.

Not quite reaching the artistic and stylistic heights of Leone's Spaghetti Westerns, Django remains a tightly plotted and violent piece of pulp cinema. The grim spectre of death which seems to lurk outside every frame, represented by the coffin which the film revolves around, can also be seen in later westerns like Clint Eastwood's High Plains Drifter (1973), while echoes and references can be seen in many facets of pop culture - from the notable ear-slicing scene in Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs (1992) to Takeshi Miike's bizarre tribute (also featuring Tarantino) Sukiyaki Western Django (2007). A great piece of genre entertainment, and a terrific entering point for those interested in Spaghetti Westerns.