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TRAILER TUESDAY!

“Danger fits him like a tight black glove.” It’s the trailer for the classic 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone.

A Fistful of Dollars

Universal Movie Monsters Sequel Mini Reviews: The Creature from the Black Lagoon

by Steve Habrat

We have arrived at our final classic Universal Movie Monster and we end this series with a true legend. The Creature from the Black Lagoon moves away from the supernatural flavor that was favored by Universal Studios and embraced a scientific fear that was popular after World War II. He may not emerge from a coffin at night and he may not be a walking corpse but Gill-man is certainly a monster that will continue to haunt our dreams for years. Without further ado, here is the final installment in Anti-Film School’s Universal Movie Monster series. Read on if you dare…

The Creature from the Black Lagoon (1954)

Of all the classic monsters in the Universal horror line, one of the most iconic is Gill-man, the underwater terror from Jack Arnold’s classic horror adventure The Creature from the Black Lagoon. Made in 1954 and originally released in 3D, The Creature from the Black Lagoon was Universal’s attempt at trying to remain in the horror loop. After World War II, the genre had moved away from the supernatural beasts like Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster, the Wolf-Man, and the Mummy and embraced more of a fear of science, atomic age mutants, and extraterrestrials. Born out of the movement, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is one of the finest creature features from the golden age of drive-in spectacle, an A-list horror movie that steps out of B-movie assembly line. With a timeless creature that refuses to show his age and a rollicking adventure with plenty of brains to spare, The Creature from the Black Lagoon is a film that you just can’t pull yourself away from. And then there is Gill-man himself, a sympathetic specimen who was simply minding his own business when the men in the safari hats dropped in on his beloved lagoon and began desecrating it. In my humble opinion, he remains one of the most sympathetic of all the classic monsters that made their way out of Universal Studios.

After a geology expedition in the Amazon uncovers the skeletal remains of a link between land and sea creatures, a team of scientists is quickly put together and sent into the thick jungle to examine the remains. The team consists of leader Dr. Carl Maia (Played by Antonio Moreno), ichthyologist Dr. David Reed (Played by Richard Carlson), financial backer Dr. Mark Williams (Played by Richard Denning), Kay Lawrence (Played by Julia Adams), and grizzled captain Lucas (Played by Nestor Paiva). Once they arrive in the jungle, the team that originally made the discovery is discovered dead near the remains. As the new team tries to figure out the cause of the death, they come face to face with Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Ben Chapman), an amphibious creature that is extremely territorial. Having made the discovery of a lifetime, the group grapples with how to capture the Gill-man but the creature plans on putting up a hell of a fight. But after Gill-man lays eyes on Kay and falls in love with her, he begins plotting a way to abduct her from the group.

Featuring a number of jaw-dropping underwater sequences, The Creature from the Black Lagoon becomes a must see for these scenes, which I’m sure just astonish in 3D. The most beautiful of the scenes is when Kay decides to take a dip in the lagoon, only to be stalked by Gill-man, who swims just underneath her. When your eyes aren’t glued to Kay’s iconic bathing suit, you will marvel at the precise choreography of the scene, especially how Gill-man manages to mirror all of Kay’s movements. While the scene may make you swoon, there are plenty of suspenseful moments in that murky water that will have you holding your breath. David and Mark relentlessly hunt the poor Gill-man, who hides among the rocks and seaweed that cakes the bottom of the eerie lagoon. These scenes are given a shock from a hair-raising blast of horns that announce the Gill-man when we catch a brief glimpse of him. Arnold also allows his camera to take a plunge when the scientists use various methods to try to drug Gill-man. The camera lingers underwater as an array of chemicals trail down to the bottom of the lagoon, our monster hidden among the rocks and staring up in horror. It is scenes like this that make us feel for the slimy guy.

Then there are the colorful performances from the cast, who all do a bang up job with the characters they are given. Carlson’s David is the typical all-American hero who questions whether they are doing the right thing by capturing the Gill-man. His confliction makes him easily the most likable character next to Kay. While she is mostly asked to scream when she sees the Gill-man, Kay still is a stunner in that white one piece. In a way, it is tragic the way she fears the creature as he just has misunderstood feelings for Kay and no way to confess those feelings. The most monstrous of the human characters is Denning’s Williams, who is so desperate to capture the creature that it borders on obsessive. He is constantly at odds with David and he usually is the one who resorts to violence to solve their differences. Then there is Gill-man himself, who remains largely unseen for part of the movie. Still packing a mean visual punch, the Gill-man’s desperation to stay in his swamp and rid it of these human terrors is what ultimately tugs at your heartstrings. For a while, he just stays submerged and watches, reading the actions of these intruders. The creature does pop more underwater (when underwater, he is played by Browning and when on land, he is played by Chapman) as he glides around David and Mark. On land, he shuffles like the Frankenstein Monster, emitting guttural growls that sound vaguely like demonic pigs. He can truly be a frightening force, especially to those who have never been exposed to him.

There are points in The Creature from the Black Lagoon where the film ceases to be a great horror movie and becomes a great adventure into the unknown with plenty of action that will be enjoyed for many more years to come. It introduces us to a creature that will continue to grab our imagination and haunt our dreams. Over the years, many audiences and even critics (!) have been calling for a remake of the movie and there have even been rumors that Universal has been considering giving Gill-man a face lift. I sincerely hope that doesn’t happen and that the studio leaves the film alone. I fear that they will resort to senseless bloodletting, a CGI makeover for the green guy, and a slew of disposable pretty faces that can barely act their way out of a paper bag let alone the Black Lagoon. No, Jack Arnold’s film is perfect as is, one that still can pack a mean spook and white knuckle action scene with the best of them.

Grade: A

Revenge of the Creature (1955)

Apparently having survived the events of The Creature from the Black Lagoon, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Tom Hennesy) is once again preyed upon by nosy scientists eager to study him. This time, animal psychologist Clete Ferguson (Played by John Agar) and ichthyology student Helen Dobson (Played by Lori Nelson) capture him and have him transported to the Ocean Harbor Oceanarium in Florida. Soon, the Gill-man falls in love with Helen and he begins trying to escape from his tank. Naturally, he manages to free himself and he sets out to find his true love, killing anyone who gets in his way.

Lazily made and devoid of any suspense or atmosphere, Revenge of the Creature is a massive step down from the original Creature from the Black Lagoon, which happened to be one of the finest films in the Universal library. Originally released in 3D, it is fun to see the Gill-man terrorizing swarming masses of innocent civilians but yanking him out of his legendary lagoon may not have been the smartest idea out there. I found myself longing for the confrontations in the Black Lagoon and almost bored with the tedious scenes of Clete and Helen trying to communicate with the angry creature. Gill-man certainly does win our sympathy, maybe even more here than he did in the original film. The first time around, we saw his beautiful swamp desecrated by careless humans but this time, he is chained and forced to sit still as curious citizens swarm to his tank to point and gasp. Poor guy! No wonder he is angry when he breaks out of those chains.

The acting of Revenge of the Creature is certainly nothing to write home about, although do make sure you keep your eyes peeled for a cameo from a young Clint Eastwood. As the story plays out before us, it is easy to assume that the film is going nowhere fast. We are subjected to one bloated conversation after another as the Gill-man bobs around in the background. Director Jack Arnold seems to realize this and he frantically tries to make up for it in the final twenty minutes of the film with an extended chase. Basically, all he does is hit the lights and let the Gill-man wander the dark as police try desperately to prevent him from escaping with Helen in his slimy arms. Trust me, you’ve seen this sequence before in countless other Universal monster films. Overall, there was plenty of potential here but the lack of enthusiasm with the material hurts the final product. It’s obvious this was made simply to make money for the studio and it is a shame because Gill-man deserves better than what he gets. This film drowns right before our very eyes. Someone grab the life preserver! Grade: C

 

The Creature Walks Among Us (1956)

Somehow surviving the hail of gunfire at the end of Revenge of the Creature, the Gill-man (Played by Ricou Browning and Don Megowan) is once again hunted down by a team of scientists led by the deranged Dr. William Barton (Played by Jeff Marrow). After a lengthy search, the Gill-man is discovered and captured in the Everglades. During the capture, the Gill-man is seriously wounded, which forces the scientists to race to save his life. He undergoes a procedure that radically alters his appearance and has him using his lungs to breathe rather than his gills.

An even bigger dud than Revenge of the Creature, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the franchise sinking fast under a bizarre premise that has Gill-man evolving into a towering human being with vaguely human features. The beginning of the film finds some of that effective atmosphere from the first film creeping in but things go south quick when the film sails out of the swamp and arrives at a sprawling mansion compound where the Gill-man is forced to live behind an electric fence. Riddled with plot holes, The Creature Walks Among Us finds the human beings acting more monstrous than the Gill-man, who once again nabs our sympathy in his electric prison. Tour guide Jed Grant (Played by Gregg Palmer) lusts after William’s wife, Marcia (Played by Leigh Snowden), and he makes a very half-assed attempt to hide it. William relentlessly accuses poor Marcia of seducing every man she comes across, something completely untrue. The savage bickering and arguing finally ends with one of the men killing the other and then trying to blame it on the Gill-man.

Clunky and bogged down by a slew of rotten humans doing terrible things to each other, The Creature Walks Among Us is a messy and overwhelmingly bleak conclusion to the Creature franchise. What hurts the worst is seeing Gill-man edged off the A-list of horror icons and relegated to B-squad of atomic age abominations with very little intellectual purpose. Halfway through the film, Gill-man is stripped of his original trim appearance and morphed into a hulking brute in a Halloween mask that just stands around and stares at everyone. While it can be argued that there are minor traces of what once was here and there, the film wouldn’t scare even the jumpiest horror fan. Overall, I wish I could say it wraps everything up in a satisfying manner, but there is no muggy or buggy inspiration or creativity on the filmmaker’s part. I’m afraid that the Black Lagoon is all dried up. Grade: D+

 

The Creature from the Black Lagoon is available on Blu-ray and DVD. Revenge of the Creature, and The Creature Walks Among Us are available on DVD.

Yojimbo (1961)

by Steve Habrat

If you find yourself being the type of person that can’t force yourself to sit down and watch a foreign art house film, you should really make an effort to start with and see Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo (The Bodyguard). Yes, there are subtitles in the film, so you will have to do a small bit of reading, but Yojimbo, which was the film that influenced Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone’s groundbreaking spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, is such an entertaining film that you will find yourself forgetting that there are subtitles on the screen. Devoid of any off-putting pretension, Kurosawa puts more emphasis on limb-severing action and hearty comedy that will appeal to both average movie viewers and the art house crowd. A highly influential film, Yojimbo has been widely considered to be a true classic that finds its own influence in western cinema, creating a slightly surreal Japanese western that is ripe with dazzling black and white cinematography, packed camera shots, and some truly breathtaking showdowns that will leave you gasping.

Yojimbo follows a wandering, masterless samurai (Played by Toshiro Mifune) who happens upon a 19th century town that is caught in the middle of a war between two rival gangs. After dropping in to the local tavern, the elderly owner, Gonji (Played by Eijiro Tono), gives the samurai all the information about the rival crime bosses, Seibei (Played by Seizaburo Kawazu) and Ushitora (Played by Kyu Sazanka). Gonji warns the samurai that he should leave the town before one of the gangs confront and kill him but seeing an opportunity to make a hefty chunk of change and a way to clean up the town, the samurai decides to stick around and devise a way to trick the gangs in to destroying each other. After infiltrating one of the gangs by displaying how skilled he is with a samurai sword, he sets his plan in motion but certain members of both gangs begin to suspect that he is not simply interested in aligning himself with one specific gang.

For the individuals out there who are fond of cinematography, the resplendent whites and the charcoal blacks from cinematographers Kazuo Miyagawa and Takao Saito are an absolute must-see and perhaps my favorite aspect of Yojimbo. The film, which was made in 1961, has such a sharp, luminous picture that I absolutely couldn’t believe my eyes. For any film fan, the picture here will certainly have you dying to go out and pick up the Bu-ray for maximum picture quality. Complimenting this masterful cinematography is hack-and-slash action that sends a severed arm flying here and buckets of flowing blood there. The best “ewww” moment comes when a mangy dog trots through the streets up to the samurai carrying a severed hand in his dingy mouth. It comes as such a shock to the viewer that it becomes a combination of funny and appalling. The fight scenes in Yojimbo suddenly explode across the screen—a technique that catches the viewer off guard at first and then is suddenly over just as quickly as it began. This is a method that Leone would apply in his slow building gunfights that would begin and end in a loud crack in each and every one of his sweaty westerns.

While Yojimbo is impressive with its camerawork and white-knuckle action, Kurosawa doesn’t ever forget to keep you laughing and rallying behind our masterless samurai, who consistently toys with each gang. Yojimbo is a highly comical film, especially when the two gangs decide to go head to head in the deserted streets. Each gang has members who brag about how fearless they are and how feared they should be. When our hero approaches one gang, three young gang members approach him and boast how dangerous they are. Our hero chuckles in their faces and calls them cute, enraging them enough to have them draw their swords and lunge at the cool, calm, and collected hero. In a flurry of gore, the dangerous criminals are reduced to blubbering babies crying for their mothers. Yojimbo plays with this constantly, offering the audience hot-headed tough guys who are quickly revealed to be cowards who run off to their stern and commanding mothers (I think the women in Yojimbo are scarier than the men are!). It is a gag that constantly grabs a few belly laughs, especially the scene where the two gangs charge each other in the streets and then retreat back to their lines only to charge again and then flee. While all the charging and fleeing is going on, Mifune represents the audience, sitting back and howling at all the cowardice that has been revealed.

Mifune is an actor who is in complete control of each and every scene, playing the levelheaded hero who never seems to break a sweat, almost like all of this is second nature to him. Mifune’s samurai, who tells one gang leader that his name is Sanjuro Kuwabatake, is clearly the inspiration for Clint Eastwood’s cigar chomping Man with No Name. Hell, at times, Sanjuro is seen chewing on what appears to be a cigar, further highlighting the impact. Another standout is Daisuke Kato as the vile Inokichi, Ushitora’s dim, overweight brother who adds a few more laughs to all the action scurrying about the town and speaking through bucked teeth. Tono’s Gonji is another lovable character as the elderly tavern owner who doesn’t want trouble and reluctantly aids Sanjuro in his quest to clean up the streets. Isuzu Yamada is a nasty piece of work as Orin, Seibei’s wife who hovers over her husband’s brothel and takes control when Seibei is too afraid to. Tatsuya Nakadai shows up as Unosuke, Ushitora’s youngest sibling who carries a pistol and nabs the film’s coolest battle with Sanjuro, who attacks the gunfighter with nothing but a sword and dagger.

While Yojimbo’s plot gets a little too thin at times, there is never a tedious moment to be found in Kurosawa’s western. There is something for everyone in Yojimbo, from the people who are looking for a love-reunited story all the way to those who just want to see a fearless hero cut his way through countless bad guys. Yojimbo has been caught in the shadow of Leone’s equally entertaining spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars but I think both films are equal in their eminence. As far as I’m concerned, both films are classics in their own right and their impact on cinema is quite clear. Overall, Yojimbo is a flawless action film that will keep the audience on its toes from beginning to end and one hell of a significant action hero. A must-see foreign classic with incredibly wide reach and appeal. How can you deny a film that contains the line “I’m not dying yet! There’s a bunch of guys I have to kill first!”

Grade: A+

Yojimbo is available of Blu-ray and DVD.

Sukiyaki Western Django (2007)

by Steve Habrat

When you first hear about Japanese auteur Takashi Miike’s samurai/spaghetti western mash-up Sukiyaki Western Django, you can’t help but be intrigued if you are a fan of either genre. Any unlikely genre mash-up is going to grab the interest of cinema fanatics and when you say the unpredictable Miike is behind the camera, it becomes a must-see film. But, like most genre mash-ups/hybrids, Sukiyaki Western Django is immensely disappointing. Way back in 1964, Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone was inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo and he loosely based his first spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars off of Kurosawa’s film and ended up reinventing the genre. The east was the inspiration for the new vision of the west that was emerging out of Italy. With Sukiyaki Western Django, Miike pays tribute to the two classics and fuses the spaghetti western to the samurai film then attempts to conceal the line where he connected them. The result is a surreal and often times cartoonish vision that also attempts to weave in some traces of Japanese history. Unfortunately, Sukiyaki Western Django, which is named after a popular Japanese one-pot beef dish and Italian filmmaker Sergio Corbucci’s legendary spaghetti western Django, has a flavor that is tasty on the first bite but quickly begins droning on the viewer until Miike dumps a whole bucket of salt and pepper on the feisty gunfight at the climax.

Sukiyaki Western Django picks up in the small town of Yuta, Nevata, where two warring gangs, the Heikes (reds) and the Genjis (whites), are waging a battle for control of the town. One day, an unnamed gunman (Played by Hideaki Ito) wanders into Yuta and offers up his service to whichever gang will pay more. After demonstrating his skills, both make generous offers to this mysterious gunman but he isn’t entirely interested in their offers. The gangs are after gold that is buried somewhere near the town and one gang is importing a weapon that can give them the upper hand in their battle. The gunman begins playing to two gangs against each other in an attempt to wipe both of them out  and make off with the gold for himself. As the war grows more and more violent and the body count racks up, the gunman finds an ally in a legendary gunslinger that has been hiding in plain sight of the gangs. Her name is the Bloody Benton (Played by Kaori Momoi) and she happens to be an independent one-woman killing machine.

Sukiyaki Western Django opens with a nifty sequence that involves a lone gunslinger named Piringo (Played by Quentin Tarantino) who finds himself confronted by three cowboys who wish to kill him. Miike doesn’t make any attempt to hide the fact that his actors are on a soundstage with a painted backdrop behind them and a very visible string holding up the giant sun. The sequence is suggestive of films like The Searchers, Once Upon a Time in the West, and A Fistful of Dollars all in one breath. It is the most inspired sequence in Sukiyaki Western Django, Tarantino getting his dream role of emulating Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name. If Miike had run with this technique throughout the entire runtime, Sukiyaki Western Django would have no doubt been a much better and cooler film. When the film travels to Yuta, he switches over to real landscapes, intense color pallets, and lots of special effects which all get worn out before they even get going. Miike finally gets things back on track during the final shoot out where he slips in references to The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly, Django, and The Great Silence. This is a sequence that will have fans of the genre erupting in applause. It  is a sequence that also single handedly saves Sukiyaki Western Django from crumbling like one of the ramshackle buildings that dot the town of Yuta.

One choice that Miike makes that is very questionable is having his Japanese actors abandon their mother tongue and speak broken English. On one hand, it is understandable why he would make this choice, approaching the western genre that finds its roots in America, but it is clear that some of his actors are having a difficult time with the English language and that they would have been more comfortable speaking their own language. In my opinion, if he would have stuck to the Japanese language, Sukiyaki Western Django would have been a much more coherent film and much easier for the viewer to follow. At times, I found myself getting lost and finally switching on the subtitles so I could understand some of the actors and keep up with the plotline. Once I did this, Sukiyaki Western Django clicked together ever so slightly. Miike also makes the mistake of not fleshing his characters out enough, turning them into silly caricatures that look like they leapt off the pages of a comic book and left their back stories in the mind of their creator. You can’t particularly care about any of them and they all just fill the screen to become moving targets for shotgun blasts. The actors seem to be having fun with their characters but no one actually inhabits their character and brings them to life.

Sukiyaki Western Django exists simply to be an in-joke to the hip cinema crowd and I must admit that I enjoyed a few of those in-jokes. I found the references to Yojimbo and the spaghetti western classics to be comical but I wish that Miike’s film had created its own world rather than just cobbling together borrowed blood-dipped chunks of other director’s cinematic worlds. The film will also appeal to those who have a strong interest in world history, as the film makes a fistful of references to historical events including England’s Wars of the Roses and Japan’s Genpei War. To me, Sukiyaki Western Django turned out to be a middling film that left me dissatisfied because I thought it was capable of so much more but it wasn’t interested in aiming higher. I tend to enjoy Miike’s depraved work even though it makes me want to loose my lunch after it ends but this particular film never comes together when it needs to, especially when it is giving clunky, vague and longwinded explanations of its plotline that are ultimately forgettable. Miike does add a bit of kick with the awesome opening sequence, the very cool Bloody Benton character (the only one given an intriguing backstory), and the outrageous climatic showdown. If you find yourself to be the fanatic of Japanese cinema and history, a guru of westerns, spaghetti westerns, Yojimbo, Quentin Tarantino, Miike, and his entire body of work, you will eat up Sukiyaki Western Django. If you are only some of those things or none of those things, you’re going to find this film to be an incredibly uneven experience and a chore to endure.

Grade: C

Sukiyaki Western Django is now available on Blu-ray and DVD.

A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

by Steve Habrat

With the western genre beginning to loose steam in America during the 1960s, new interest in the genre was sparked with the emergence of Sergio Leone’s dusty A Fistful of Dollars, a rock-n-roll reinvention of the fatigued western genre. A Fistful of Dollars was the first spaghetti western to land in America and introduce audiences to the rising star Clint Eastwood and his iconic Man with No Name, arguably the best western character ever created. The spaghetti westerns that were coming from Italy were rougher and tougher than the ones America was churning out, westerns where the line between right and wrong were blurred and the violence was cranked up to the max. A Fistful of Dollars is one of my favorite westerns and perhaps one of the most influential, boldly breaking new ground and embracing a dark edge inspired by Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo. This is the first film that introduced many to the genius of Ennio Morricone and his whistling scores.

A Fistful of Dollars follows the Man with No Name (Played by Eastwood) as he arrives in a small town on the Mexican border. Once he arrives, the local innkeeper Silvanito (Played by José Calvo) informs him that the small town is caught in a deadly feud between two families—the Rojo brothers and the Baxters. The Man with No Name sees this feud as an opportunity to begin playing the two families against each other and make some large sums of cash in the process. The Man with No Name uses a group of Mexican soldiers mosey into town with a large shipment of gold as a chance to spark up a conflict. As the feud grows deadlier and deadlier, The Man with No Name pushes the malicious and clever Ramón (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), one of the leaders of the Rojo gang, a bit too far and puts his life in danger.

What is instantaneously atypical about A Fistful of Dollars is the fact that the film refuses to allow us to root for the sheriff of the small town, the ones who stand for law and order. It breaks the mold laid by the American westerns where you root for the honest, ethical, and steadfast. Here we root for a man who operates in a gray zone, someone only looking to benefit himself and no one else. He is better than the Rojo gang but the Man with No Name still operates outside the law. He is interested in personal gain and wealth, seeing the dispute as a game of chess, his squinty eyes carefully plotting his next move. He is shrouded in mystery, hidden in a poncho and always chewing on a cigar. What is his story? We find ourselves drawn to those we do not know and we actually like someone we know nothing about more than when we learn about their past, present, and future. This is precisely why the Man with No Name possesses a magnetism that in my eyes can’t be matched.

Leone’s portrayal of the west is another standout of A Fistful of Dollars, giving us a vision that is the furthest thing from romanticized. Much like the morals at their heart, the American western was concerned with presenting a glossed over version of the Wild West, a place where love stories flourished along with the good old boy heroes. Leone’s west wasn’t a place where the good guys wore white and flashed a badge and the mean old outlaw was dressed in rebellious black. Just like the fine line our hero walks, this west is shifty, deadly, and often repulsive. Here cowboys and outlaws chug whiskey, womanize, kill for entertainment, and pick gunfights out of boredom. For such a depraved place, Leone mirrors it in the run down builds that dot the town. Everything just seems like it is rotting away into the blowing sand right down to the sweaty close-ups that Leone loves to shove our faces in. Faces are weather worn, wrinkled, crack, toothless, and broken. It is a place where even the viewer keeps an eye on the gunslinger at the bar in the background, a place where apprehension rules every move we make. Leone, it appears, wouldn’t have it any other way.

Leone also finds beauty in silence and glances, a touch that would become increasingly popular in his work. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name talks more than he does in For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. Yet when dialogue is spoken, it is cynical and pessimistic, no one ever truly offering a word of hope that things will get better. Leone ties silence with tension, allowing faces and eyes to do all the talking and squinting to signal it was time to draw your pistol. These silences usually build up to explosive gun fights that last five seconds at their longest. This approach would go on to inspire Quentin Tarantino, who is very vocal about his love of Leone’s work. It is this approach that separates the loyal fans of Leone from the one’s who prefer films that are talkative. And yet the anti-social personality of his work mirrors the anti-social behavior of the characters he photographs.

In film school, one of my professors praised Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 epic The Wild Bunch as the film that captured the dramatic shifts in American society in the 1960s. He claimed that the film acknowledged the death of the conservative values and the beginning of a new era. I’ve always wondered where that left Sergio Leone’s work, especially his Dollars trilogy. Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was one of the first to truly acknowledge the violent shift in American during the 1960s. Leone presented a west that would run John Wayne out of the town the film took place in and gave us a hero with distorted morals. The film was made in 1964 but was released in America in 1967, right smack dab in the middle of an angry America that was facing an unpopular war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement, riots, protests, assassinations, the rising counterculture, and more. While I agree that Peckinpah’s film has a lot on its mind, I don’t believe that he was the first one to use the western to mirror the times and make a statement about the evolution of America. For a film genre that was American made, one where the good guys always prevail and the bad guys always loose, Leone was among the first to rip those black and white ethics to shreds, magnify our underlying violence, and in the process, created a classic film that is just as nasty today as it was back then.

Grade: A+

A Fistful of Dollars is now available on Blu-ray.

J. Edgar (2011)

by Steve Habrat

With Oscar season comes the unavoidable biography picture, one that zooms in on a controversial figure in history, a figure that is loathed by many and loved by few or vice versa. This year, just less than two weeks in and we have Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, which plops Oscar season veteran Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as the ornery innovator/director of the F.B.I. The film boasts an all-star cast of A-list actors and actresses in the forms of Judi Dench, The Social Network’s Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts, all firing on all cylinders and producing performances that match their A-list status. Sounds promising, right? Sadly, J. Edgar is a inconsistent, spotty, and finicky portrait, a film that is inebriated with facade and reckless with its emaciated narrative. Nothing really drives this film, slowly revealing that it has nothing to move it and worse, it instructs the viewer on how they should feel about a man who rose to be one of the most powerful individuals in American history. There is nothing that remains open-ended, nothing that allows me to form my own opinion on J. Edgar Hoover. An icon like Eastwood, who sits behind the camera here, should really know better.

J. Edgar is a film more interested with trivia, minuscule factoids about a multifarious man who was a mama’s boy, closeted homosexual, scheming brute, and devious manipulator. Hoover would stop at nothing to dig up dirt on everyone around him, leaving him with more skeptical enemies than close pals. The film begins with Hoover’s twilight years, all saggy cheeks, furrowed brow, and DiCaprio in the best looking elderly make-up the film has to offer. The reflective innovator is dictating his memoirs in the final years of his life, recalling his early years, awkward dates that lead to alliances, his formation of the Bureau of Investigation, his interactions with his loving mother Annie (Played by Judi Dench), his battle to create the finger print system, his first big case that involves a kidnapping, and more. The film also tracks the hiring of his loyal secretary, Helen Gandy (Played by Naomi Watts), and his number two man Clyde Tolson (Played by Armie Hammer), both who remained by his side until the end.

For a project that was whispered about for the past several years and the hype that built during the making of it, you would have thought that someone that was a part of the crew would have realized that the film lacks structure. It jumps all over the place, painfully lacking a driving storyline. It’s practically overflowing with moments rather than arching story. It feels as though Eastwood crammed as much as he could to the point where J. Edgar feels like it is about to burst at the seams. There is some fat that could have been trimmed from this bird, which also could have made the murky story a little less vague. I applaud screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s sharp dialogue and piercingly emotional personal moments, but when it shifts over to the technicalities, it stalls out violently, leaving the viewer squinting at the screen and asking, “What is going on?” or worse, “Who is this character?”. It has a burning desire to be an epic character study but falls victim to being too all over the board. It needed to narrow down its focus.

The other element working against J. Edgar is the enigmatic lighting scheme it has, which casts every single scene in heavy shadows to the point where it is impossible to catch a glimpse of an emotional reaction from the characters. At first I figured it was meant as an ode to the old film noir pictures and cast an old school ambiance over the film, but it is so frustratingly distracting that it pulls us out of Hoover’s stories. It was hell on my eyes. Why Eastwood settled on this specific choice I will never know. The make-up department also worked hard to make sure J. Edgar was a dud, placing Hammer’s Mr. Tolson in what appears to be the elderly man mask worn by Johnny Knoxville in Jackass. I can’t fathom why his make-up was approved, as it too is distractingly poor. An audience member in my showing actually exclaimed “IT LOOKS SO FAKE!” I couldn’t agree with you more Miss. Moviegoer. The rest of the art direction is superb, gloriously meticulous when it comes to detail, which makes me angry that the lighting was so awful and the make-up so artificial. Mr. Tolson looks like someone who aged badly after one too many plastic surgeries.

The acting carries J. Edgar over the finish line, giving it some Oscar potential in the acting department (We know it will be laughed at in the make-up department). This film captures DiCaprio at his absolute finest. He completely disappears into Hoover, regurgitating a miserable coot that trusts no one. He is a delusional grump who takes his anger and frustration out on those around him. If he is embarrassed by his agents in any way or shown any disrespect, he punishes by termination of their job. The only affection he shows is for his mother. Watts does a good job with the bit part she has here. She mostly fills the background but it’s always nice to see her. Hammer’s Mr. Tolson is a fascinating chap, one who loyally trails Hoover with wide-eyed wonder, always offering up his own approval of whatever Hoover does. I found myself rooting for him in the romance department, but ultimately Hoover shoots him down. It’s implied that Hoover was disgusted with his own homosexuality. I will give Hammer credit for forcing out some loving support for Hoover, even if he is hidden behind some of the worst make-up work I have seen in a major motion picture. Eastwood, Hammer deserved better than that!

My major beef with J. Edgar is it never let me sculpt my own judgment on the grimacing Hoover. He was a man set to destroy but without a real target. It’s well known he was a glum individual and Eastwood rubs our faces in it as if we were ignorant to this fact. You are practically forced at gunpoint to dislike him. Most of the time, Hoover is plotting who he is going to ruin next, be it Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy. The film does however let you form your own opinion on why he was miserable. Hoover himself suggests that it is because none of the men beneath him look up to him. Hoover was always looking down on them, brandishing his power right in there face. They probably didn’t dare look up because they would have their career destroyed. There is the slight implication that he wanted to be viewed as a superhero, one who was always swooping in and getting the bad guy. The invisible theory thread throughout J. Edgar is that he was living too many lies, which is the theory I side with in this debate.  He would never admit that he could sometimes be a fraud, both in the admitting of his sexuality or his cowardly tendencies. He wore a mask of overconfidence. At least his mask was more convincing than any given mask in J. Edgar.

Grade: B

Must-See Holiday Season Movie…GO!

Drive (2011)

by Steve Habrat

To anyone who is considering seeing Drive, the new action thriller starring Ryan Gosling, you should be warned about what you will be getting yourself into. I say this because this is a fierce film. There are moments that are downright repugnant and not for those who disconcert easily. I had to search long and hard for the picture I used above because I felt that the main picture had to convey what this film really turns out to be. This noir-inspired, 80’s influenced retro picture thrives on its breakneck action, dismal atmosphere, ethereal electronic score, head-stomping violence, and a performance from Gosling that should guarantee him a spot in the Best Actor category at the Oscars. It will no doubt leave you in a state of shock, as the beginning of the film is relatively patient and discreet. Much to the dismay of the audience, it displays moments of pure, pretentious splendor. However, once Drive kicks things into high gear and it revs it’s supped up engine, this baby means business. And so does Gosling’s Driver. It all adds up to one of the best films I’ve seen this year.

I’ll tell you straight, this is an art film dressed up in action threads. It prefers complex characters to walking clichés. Gosling’s Driver is a man of a few soft grunts and sparse words. He flashes the occasional preoccupied smile at his next-door neighbor Irene (Played by Carey Mulligan) and her son Benicio and he mostly keeps to himself. He effortlessly shrouds himself in mystery. The Driver (we never learn his actual name) drives stunt cars for movies, works in an auto mechanic shop, and also acts as a getaway driver for criminals. He has a strict line of rules that he lays down for the thugs that get in and out of his wheels. They have five minutes once they are inside, he does not carry a gun, when they are out, he belongs to them, and he only works for them one time. When Irene’s husband Standard (Played by Oscar Isaac) returns home from prison, some goons that are coming to claim protection money demand that he robs a pawn shop to get them their riches, or they will kill Irene and his son. The Driver offers his services, but during the heist, things go horribly wrong. It turns out that this is just a small piece of a larger crime puzzle that is being controlled by two mobsters, the Jewish Nino (Played by Ron Pearlman) and Bernie Rose (Played by Albert Brooks). The Driver gathers himself and sets out to protect Irene and her son from the mobsters who are slowly closing in on them and are hell bent on wiping everyone out who can link them to the heist.

Drive feels like a synthesis of David Lynch films (Lost Highway especially), Quentin Tarantino, a forgotten 80’s action flick, Clint Eastwood’s The Man with No Name, and Miami Vice swagger. It helps that the synthy score conjures up nostalgia every time it thumps over the speakers. The hot pink credits help too. But it’s Gosling’s unvoiced antihero that feels like the real relic. He feels like a lost hero from the Regan era. He’s emotionally complex, but also tough no matter what happens. Nothing fazes him and we play by his rules. He even nibbles at a toothpick, reminiscent of Eastwood’s cigar chewing Man with No Name. The film takes a hokey turn at the end when the Driver just begins finding all the mobsters he has set out to kill with little effort. Who knew it would be that easy? One would think that the writer and director would have added more of a build up before the end confrontation. The climax is sadly rushed, showing prominent similarities to Super 8 and Green Lantern (I understand they are drastically different movies, but their endings are extraordinarily similar). It just ends tersely. For a film that packs this much suspense and brute force, it left me wanting much more.

This film’s atmosphere, which is menacing and downright intimidating, adds to its own spellbinding success. At times, all you can do is laugh to soften the blow of its dead serious tone. It almost becomes a coping mechanism while watching the brutality of this film play out before you. The Driver always seems to lurk in the shadows. He works as a Hollywood stunt driver so it’s easy to assume he would live glamorously. Here the film evokes images that would seem appropriate in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, Mullholland Drive, or Blue Velvet. There is evil lurking below all that glitz. There is also an existential haze to the film. The Driver lives on the edge, in the thrill of the moment. Every day could be his last. Director Nicholas Winding Refn has called the film a tribute to Alejandro Jodorowsky, director of cult experimental films El Topo, The Holy Mountain, and Santa Sangre, whose films usually have a character on a quest for the meaning of existence. The viciousness of Drive certainly takes a page from Jodorowsky, as the film has some extreme gore, most notable is the elevator sequence. Gosling stomps a hit man’s face in to the point where it’s reduced to just red goop. Somewhere, French director Gaspar Noe is howling with delight.  The audience I saw this with was howling in horror.

Drive consistently makes us ask the screen “Are you really going to go THERE?!” It always does, but it does have an unpredictable streak to it. You can never fully envisage it even if it is familiar. The film doesn’t rely on its violence and action (there is plenty, but not enough to satisfy some action fiends), but instead allows the chemistry between actors do the heavy lifting. Though the dialogue is limited between Mulligan’s Irene and the Driver, the moments they spend together are tender. When the Driver confronts gangster Bernie Rose, they fight with words rather than bullets or fists. “You will spend the rest of your life looking over your shoulder,” Rose promises. It’s scenes like this that make every hair on your body stand up and churn your guts. Ron Pearlman’s Nino hams up the screen and he’s delightfully cartoonish. The film is the Gosling show, however, and with this role, I have to deem any project he is attached to in the future a must-see. He has become one of the most eccentric actors around.

Once you see Drive, you will never forget it. It’s like a parasite that worms its way in and posses you. I’ve found myself shaken up in the mere hours since I went to the theater to see it. The friends I went with were rattled and in a state of shock. You should know what you are getting yourself into when you see this. It’s not your conventional action film with clear-cut baddies and good guys. Everyone seems to have darkness in his or her hearts and cracked souls. Come year end, I will be singing its praises for all to hear. Drive is like a restored muscle car. It’s great to look at and when you see it, it pulls you in, but it’s what’s under the hood that counts. And Drive has a lot going on under the hood. Grade: A-

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