by Steve Habrat
By far one of the most bizarre and disturbing grindhouse films you will ever see is Mondo cane (A Dog’s Life), an exploitative “shockumentary” that spans the globe and brings you some of the most bizarre rituals and customs from all walks of life. In spurts, Mondo cane is jaw dropping, funny, appalling, and mesmerizing in the way it constantly flips on the viewer. Made in 1962 by Gualtiero Jacopetti, Paolo Cavara, and Franco Prosperi, Mondo cane sparked a whole subgenre of Mondo documentaries whose main purpose was to exploit death, sex, and taboos at all costs, sometimes even going so far as to stage what you are seeing. Mondo cane is also the film that inspired the infamous Faces of Death documentary, which claimed to feature real footage of people biting the dust (only bits and pieces of Faces of Death were real, the rest was staged.). Unlike most documentaries that strive to educate the viewer, Mondo cane is simply interested in making you squirm, all while a leering Narrator sarcastically explains and dissects what the viewer is looking at. One thing is certain; you won’t come away from Mondo cane a better person consumed by thought, just a little sickened and shaken up.
Mondo cane is comprised of several seemingly unrelated sequences of oddities from around the world. In this hour and forty-minute trip, the filmmakers invite you to spend time with a “cargo cult” at Port Moresby, New Guinea, take in the nuclear contamination on Bikini Atoll, sip a few drinks in a rowdy German beer hall, step into a death house in Singapore, witness a Hula Dance in Honolulu, stop by a Good Friday procession that finds the male participants beating their bare legs with broken glass in Italy, and watch the beheadings of bulls in Nepal. Some of the sights are comical and some are guaranteed to stick with you the rest of your life, but it is truly a journey unlike any other.
As Mondo cane flows along, it becomes increasingly clear what the filmmakers are trying to convey to the viewer. The world can be a sick, depraved, brutal, unforgiving, and downright confounding place to live. The viewer is invited by the Narrator (Stefano Sibaldi) to look down upon the sights you are seeing (at times, literally look down), almost with repugnance and amusement as Riz Ortolani and Nino Oliviero’s dreamy score hums in the background. Even though we never see the Narrator, you can just visualize him sitting atop a swanky tower, dressed in a tuxedo, and sipping a martini as he chuckles over manhunting in New Guinea and swallows back his lunch as pigs are mercilessly slaughter by a primitive tribe for a big feast. The filmmakers slyly edit the sequences of primitive tribes beating and killing animals with footage of a flashy American pet cemetery, where the camera lingers on the tears of a woman burying her four legged companion, and geese being force fed for foi gras in France. According to Jacopetti, Cavara, and Properi, we are the true brute savages built for their own queasy entertainment.
As far as deep analysis goes, that is about all I can come up with for Mondo cane. It quickly becomes clear that the film is in love with irony (women go to a gym to loose weight in America while tribeswomen are force fed so they can marry the dictator of a tribe) and it gets even bigger kicks out of peering upon death and suffering. The exploration of the Death House in Singapore, a place where the homeless and elderly are left to live out their final hours, is every bit as disturbing as it sounds. Another shock comes when Gurkha soldiers behead bulls with one swipe of a machete, all while the camera pans down to capture the flowing gore at their feet. You will also cover your eyes as the religious men in Italy beat their legs to a bloody pulp for the Good Friday procession. Perhaps worst of all is seeing a man be gored nearly to death by a bull in Portugal, the camera just staying on the scene long enough to see a few people run out and clear the body from the street. The filmmakers have the good sense to not linger too long on the human death but they sure do make up for it with how much animal cruelty they show to the viewer. Dogs are killed and boiled, pigs are beaten with large clubs, sharks have sea urchins shoved down their throats, and snakes have their skin ripped off. It is almost a relief (but honestly no less humane) when we get to Italy and we see chicks being dyed pastel colors for Easter.
There certainly is a playful side to Mondo cane but even these scenes have a vaguely mean-spirited and perverse echo to them. The scenes in the German beer hall are comical but also pathetic as people stumble home, urinate in the street, vomit, and get into nasty fistfights. Another lighter moment comes when we arrive in Sydney, Australia, for a Life Saver Girls competition, where beautiful swimsuit clad women “save” male swimmers, drag them to the beach, and give them CPR, all while the camera pans down to the male’s crotch. You get the impression that some of the perversion comes from the deeply troubled Jacopetti, who was more than familiar with perverted scandals at the time, even landing in a Hong Kong jail for three months after he was caught with two underage Chinese prostitutes, ages 10 and 11. While this sinister perversion is merely hinted at in Mondo cane, it would come to a head in future installments of the Mondo series. If you can believe it, Riz Orolani and Nino Oliviero’s theme song for the film, “Home,” managed to earn an Academy Award nomination. Overall, Mondo cane was immensely popular when it came out and it certainly caused quite a stir when it hit theaters. Looking at it today, the film lacks profundity, which severely wounds it, but it still manages to pack a punch and, in true grindhouse fashion, will make you feel a bit sleazy while watching it. This is an essential film for exploitation fans and a pass for anyone else.
Mondo cane is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
For years, Quentin Tarantino has been hinting that he wanted to make a spaghetti western. He constantly gushes about Sergio Leone’s classic epic The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (it’s his favorite film) and he even nabbed a bit part as a Clint Eastwood type gunslinger in Takashi Miike’s tepid Sukiyaki Western Django. We knew his take on the gritty western was coming but we didn’t know exactly when. Well, that long rumored epic he has been hinting at is finally here and I must say, I think Mr. Tarantino has outdone himself and delivered one of the finest films of 2012. Red hot with controversy (the N-word is used A LOT), Django Unchained is a firecracker of a film that finds the talkative director at his wildest and craziest. For years, audiences have been split over his kung-fu/spaghetti western mash-up Kill Bill, some saying he flew too wildly off the rails (I hear many describe it as “weird”) while others smack their lips at the cartoonish carnage. Me, I was all for a Tarantino western and I couldn’t be happier with the results. Yes, Django Unchained is a difficult pill to swallow with its harsh look at slavery but remember that this is Tarantino’s version of history and that alone should tell you everything you need to know about the film. Django Unchained is ultimately a valentine to a genre that Tarantino adores, which makes it easy to forgive some of the edgier moments of this masterpiece. I would go so far to say this is Tarantino’s strongest film and the one that seems to be the most alive with the spirit of 70s exploitation cinema. Maybe this should have been the film he made for his portion of Grindhouse.
Set two years before the Civil War, Django Unchained begins on a cold Texas night with a group of recently purchased slaves being transported through the countryside by the Speck brothers. As the group shuffles through the night, they are approached by Dr. King Schultz (Played by Christoph Waltz), a German dentist turned bounty hunter who is looking for a specific slave named Django (Played by Jamie Foxx). Schultz is hunting for a trio of deadly gunslingers known as the Brittle brothers and Django is the only one that can identify them. Schultz and Django make a deal that if Django takes Schultz to the Brittle brothers, he will help Django locate his long lost wife, Broomhilda (Played by Kerry Washington), who has been sold to a sadistic plantation owner named Calvin Candie (Played by Leonardo DiCaprio). As Schultz and Django bond, Schultz realizes that Django has a talent for the bounty hunting business and he begins showing him the ropes. The two form a deadly alliance that sends them to Mississippi, where they begin devising a way to infiltrate Candieland, Candie’s ranch that is protected by his own personal army and houses brutal Mandingo fights.
Just shy of three hours, Django Unchained covers quite a bit of ground during its epic runtime. It is jam packed with Tarantino’s beloved conversations, something that he knows he is good at and just can’t resist. The conversations are as fun as ever, but sometimes Django Unchained is just a little too talky for a spaghetti western. It is just odd to me that Tarantino would be making a tribute to spaghetti westerns and then never shut his characters up (For the love of God, his favorite movie is The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly!). I would expect someone like Tarantino to know that the gunslingers from Sergio Corbucci’s west sized each other up through razor sharp stares and not through constant chatter. No worries though, as I am sure that most audience members won’t pick up on this so it doesn’t really damage the overall product. Despite this minor nuisance, if you are a fan of westerns or exploitation cinema, you will be bouncing off the walls with delight. Tarantino zooms his camera in and out of action suddenly (it is hilarious every single time), getting right in a characters face or zooming out suddenly from a close up to reveal a jaw dropping landscape behind them. He laces his film with tunes from Ennio Morricone and Riz Ortolani, two instantly recognizable names if you’re up and up on your Italian westerns and cannibal films from the 60s into the 80s. When the gore hits, it is cranked up to the max. The blood often looks like the red candle wax goop that poured from gunshot wounds or zombie bites in the 70s. Hell, even Franco Nero, the original Django from the 1966 film (if you’ve never seen the original Django, you might want to get on that), shows up for a brief cameo! Are you exploitation nuts sold yet?
Considering this is Tarantino’s show, the performances are all top notch and instant classics. I was a little worried about Foxx starring as our main gunslinger Django but he is on fire here. He channels Eastwood and Nero’s silent heroes like you wouldn’t believe while also adding a layer of quivering mad sass to the character (Get a load of the delivery of “I LIKE THE WAY YOU DIE, BOY!”). I loved it every time Tarantino would zoom in to give us a close up of his scowling mug as it chewed on a smoke through tangled whiskers. He wins our hearts through his heartbroken stare and his determination to get poor Broomhilda back from Candie’s clutches. He instantly clicks with Waltz’s Schultz, a devilishly funny and clever bounty hunter who packs a mean handshake and can talk himself out of any situation. Waltz brings that irresistible charm that he brought to Inglourious Basterds and settles into the character quite nicely, a cartoonish cowboy who nabs all the best dialogue. When Foxx and Waltz are on screen together, the chemistry between them unbelievable. One is strong and silent, a pupil who is eager to learn and win back his life while the other is chatterbox joker who is deadlier than anyone could imagine. They alone will lure back for seconds.
As far as the rest of the cast goes, DiCaprio practically steals the film away from Foxx and Waltz as the bloodthirsty Calvin Candie. He is sweet as sugar one minute and the next, he is ordering his men to feed a terrified runaway slave to a pack of hungry dogs. You won’t fully appreciate the power of his performance until you get to the dinner sequence, which finds tensions rising to the point where Candie snaps and cuts his hand on a champagne glass. I honestly think he will earn an Oscar nomination for the hellish turn. Then we have Samuel L. Jackson as Stephen, an elderly house slave that spews more profanity than his character in Pulp Fiction. Along with Waltz, Jackson gets to deliver the feisty lines of dialogue and you can tell he loves every second of it. He disappears in the role to the point where you can’t even tell it is him. The role also serves as a reminder of just how good an actor Jackson truly is. Washington gives a slight and sensitive performance as Broomhilda, Django’s tormented wife. Keep your eyes peeled for an extended cameo from Don Johnson as Big Daddy, another wicked plantation owner who leads a bumbling early version of the Ku Klux Klan. Also on board are Michael Parks, Tom Savini, Jonah Hill, Bruce Dern, Franco Nero, and Tarantino himself, all ready to grab a chuckle from those who will recognize them.
As someone who has been a fan of Tarantino’s work for years, I have to say that I firmly believe that Django Unchained is his best film yet. It is unflinching with how it handles slavery while also staying shockingly lighthearted at the same time. It packs a gunfight that features more blood, guts, and gore than anything he threw at us in Grindhouse and it manages to tell a touching buddy story that creeps up on your emotions. I just wish Tarantino would have paid the extra dough and digitally scratched the film to make it feel even more like an authentic exploitation film. Overall, Tarantino proves that there is still some life left in the western genre and he gives it a massive shake up by fusing it to the blaxploitation genre. It may not be historically accurate but Tarantino has the good sense not to sugarcoat this dark chapter of American history. There are some tough moments but he never shies away from having fun and slapping a big smile right on your face. Long live Django and long live the spaghetti western. Django Unchained is one of the best films of 2012.