by Steve Habrat
Just under seven months ago, Quentin Tarantino proved that there was still some life in the western genre with his bold and brutal Django Unchained, which nabbed two Academy Awards and a nomination for Best Picture. Not only did it leave this viewer hankering for more from Mr. Tarantino, but it also left me hoping that more westerns would gallop into theaters. Now we have director Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, a bloated, erratic, and downright frustrating summer blockbuster from Disney, a studio that should have stayed far away from this title. For many months now, I have felt that most critics and audience members have been eager to approach The Lone Ranger with knives drawn, which I thought was a bit hasty and unfair. I thought the trailers showed potential even if it did seem like Disney was forcing this project to be another Pirates of the Caribbean, which was a huge mistake. The truth is that The Lone Ranger isn’t nearly as awful as some are claiming it is and that there is, in fact, quite a bit of potential here, but there are a myriad of problems with the film that should have been addressed before Disney gave it the okay. The biggest flaw is that Disney just couldn’t settle on a tone for the film. Is it supposed to be a dark and violent ode to Sergio Leone and the spaghetti westerns of the 60s and 70s, or is it supposed to be a winking action movie with heavy doses of slapstick camp? You just can’t have it both ways.
The Lone Ranger picks up in 1869, with mild-mannered law student John Reid (played by Armie Hammer) returning to Colby, Texas, by train to visit his brother and Texas Ranger Dan Reid (played by James Badge Dale). Also aboard the train is the sadistic outlaw Butch Cavendish (played by William Fichtner), who is being transported to Colby to be hung by Dan, and a mysterious Indian named Tonto (played by Johnny Depp), who has been tracking Cavendish. After Cavendish escapes from the train with the help of his loyal gang, Dan makes a vow to railroad tycoon Latham Cole (played by Tom Wilkinson) to track down the outlaw and bring him to justice. Dan recruits John as a Texas Ranger and together, they set out to find Cavendish, but they soon run into a trap set by the Cavendish gang and the Reid brothers are both gunned down. Several days later, Tonto discovers the bodies of the Reid brothers and he begins an elaborate Indian burial ritual. Near the end of the ritual, Tonto is shocked to find a white “spirit horse” standing over John’s grave. As it turns out, John is still alive and Tonto is convinced that he is a “spirit walker” sent to aid him on his quest to track down Cavendish. Tonto explains that John can’t be killed in battle and that he must wear a mask to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Together, they join forces to capture Cavendish and make him pay for his horrific crimes.
The Lone Ranger opens with a crackling train robbery that really gets the viewer’s adrenaline pumping. It has hints of the humor that was found in Pirates while never skimping on the rollicking action we’ve come to expect from Mr. Verbinski. It seems like everything is balanced but once the sequence ends, the tone splits off into multiple directions, never to come together again. There are scenes that are effective grotesque and sinister, especially a scene in which Cavendish slices out a man’s heart and devours it, only to be followed up by a some cutesy joke from Depp’s peculiar Tonto. This duel continues on for two and a half hours, and it concludes with a finale that is so mad cap, it almost feels like it belongs in another movie. While one could point the finger at Verbinski, it really should be pointed at Disney, who seems like one day they would tell Verbinski to make the film a bit edgier and then get cold feet about the decision the next day. When things do get dark, it feels more like Verbinski’s heart is in it, but when he is forced to pull back, the whole project seems to flat line, which yanks the viewer right out of the moment. It’s just exhausting.
Then we have the storyline, which suffered from multiple rewrites during the rocky production stage. While I’m sure the rewrites contributed to some the awkward shifts in tone, it also feels like the writers are unnecessarily trying to convolute the film with hazy side plots that could have been trimmed out and saved for the director’s cut Blu-ray. There are glaring plot holes (How did Tonto break out of jail and track down the Reid brothers?), obvious plot twists that you can see coming a mile away (There is one character in particular that you know is up to no good), and a slew of characters that, yes, are very colorful but ultimately useless in the grand scheme of things (I’m looking at you, Helena Bonham Carter). It is the same problem that plagued the second and third Pirates movies and you’d think that Disney would have learned their lesson, but I guess not. Mind you, The Lone Ranger never hits the confounding heights of those films, but it seems like the filmmakers are allowing it simply to trick the audience into thinking there is more depth here than there actually is. In a way, you hope that this is Disney’s way of really making the film worth the ten bucks you paid to see it, but I seriously doubt that Disney is being that generous.
Perhaps the biggest draw to The Lone Ranger is the performances, especially from the eccentric Depp, who also serves as executive producer here. While Depp’s name has been used to draw audiences in, the real star here is newcomer Armie Hammer, who made a name for himself in David Fincher’s The Social Network. While it was risky to cast someone like Hammer for the role, he does a fine job with the material he is given. The problem is, the material makes his character highly unlikable and extremely difficult to root for. His character doesn’t really do much, and he is constantly at odds with killing someone, even though the man he is tracking is a known psychopath with a taste for human flesh. While it is nice to see a character grapple with the decision of taking another human being’s life, I don’t think anyone under the sun was going to blame him for putting a bullet between Cavendish’s eyes, especially when he is threatening an innocent little boy. As far as Depp goes, he fares okay as Tonto, but for all the enthusiasm that he showed for the project, it is tough to really see it in his performance. As far as the supporting players go, Cater has some fun with her pointless role as Red Harrington, a brothel maid who packs heat in her ivory leg. Wilkinson is the usual burly business man as Latham Cole and Fichtner steals nearly every single scene he is in as the bloodthirsty Cavendish, a villain that is way too evil for a film that plays a nice as this does. Ruth Wilson also turns up in a small role as Dan’s widow, Rebecca, who is here to give the film a puny and pathetic love story.
For all of its problems, The Lone Ranger still has some brilliant little nods to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone. There are two particular sequences that brought to mind Once Upon a Time in the West and the close up shots of scarred, sweaty, and thickly hairy gunfighters are evocative of Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy. The score from Hans Zimmer is also pretty atmospheric—something that I’m sure would make Ennio Morricone smile. There are also a few funhouse moments, especially a kaleidoscope detour into Hell on Wheels, where fire-and-brimstone preachers shout about the apocalypse and sideshow barkers plead with drunken railroad workers to step right up and marvel at a parade of freaks. I guess it is the little moments that really make the movie. Overall, while the credits of The Lone Ranger say, “directed by Gore Verbinski,” the film feels like the work of several different parties, all of which were on completely different pages. It is too dark to really appeal to children but too goofy to fully appeal to adults. If the Lone Ranger and Tonto do end up returning to a theater near you, let’s hope that they make the wise decision to get serious and remain consistent.
by Steve Habrat
Most spaghetti westerns that emerged from Italy between the mid 1960s and mid 1970s didn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel. Most directors saw the success of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy or caught a glimpse of Sergio Corbucci’s coffin-dragging gunslinger in Django and they quickly began trying to capitalize on the success of those cowboy epics. They poured in all the familiar ingredients and sometimes they even slopped on a bit more of the red sauce (blood) to cater to the exploitation crowds who ate up these foreign dishes. Yet every once and a great while, a formulaic spaghetti western would gallop along that had just the right amount of attitude to make it a minor and entertaining triumph. One of those formulaic but fun triumphs would be Giulio Petroni’s moody 1967 offering Death Rides a Horse, an odd-couple revenge tale that has a particularly dark opening sequence and an apocalyptic climatic shootout that will most certainly lodge itself in the viewer’s memory. It may not have the epic reach of a film by Corbucci or Leone, but Death Rides a Horse can be lively and menacing enough to lure spaghetti western nuts back for a second and even third viewing if they so desire. I’ve personally seen the film three times and I have to say, it has never lost my interest even if I have seen all of this done before.
As a young boy, the baby faced Bill (played by John Phillip Law) watched as his family was brutally murdered in cold blood by a group of masked bandits. Just before the bandits depart, they light the family’s house on fire and leave Bill to be burned alive. At the last second, another stranger who wears a skull necklace pulls the young Bill from the flames. Fifteen years later, Bill has grown up to be a deadly gunslinger searching for the men responsible for the death of his family. Meanwhile, the aging gunslinger Ryan (played by Lee Van Cleef) has just been released from prison and is searching for the gang that framed him. Ryan’s search leads him to nearby town where he meets Burt Cavanaugh (played by Anthony Dawson), one of the men who framed Ryan and who was also present the night that Bill’s family was murdered. Ryan demands $15,000 dollars from Cavanaugh, but he is reluctant to pay such a large sum of money. Just before Ryan has a chance to kill Cavanaugh, Bill shows up and guns the thug down. Realizing that they are after the same gang, Bill and Ryan begin racing each other to track down the rest of the gang. As they try to stay one step ahead of each other, they begin to realize that they may actually need each other if they want to stay alive.
While much of Death Rides a Horse is riddled with clichés, there are two parts of the film that are really allow it to stand out from the countless other spaghetti westerns released during this time. First is the opening sequence, which has to be one of the most gripping and terrifying scenes in any spaghetti western out there. You will be holding your breath as a group of masked bandits ride up to a small house in the middle of a thunderstorm, burst in on the happy family, gun down the man of the house as he reaches for a rifle, and then savagely rape the women on the dinning room table, all while a terrified and innocent young boy looks on. Then, to put the finishing touch on their heinous work, the bandits light the house on fire and ride away into the night. It is a scene that you would expect to open a really great horror movie rather than a rollicking cowboy picture. Then there is the climatic gunfight set right in the middle of a dust storm. It is ripe with apocalyptic doom as thick sheets of sand billow around and silhouette the gunfighters while they try to put each other six feet under. For as unsettling as the gunfight is, Petroni breaks it up by lacing it with a number of chuckles that have really held up over the years. While both of these set pieces send a chill, they are made even better through Ennio Morricone’s yowling score, which sounds like a terrifying Indian war chant erupting from the surrounding mountains. Good luck getting it out of your head.
In addition to these two sequences and Morricone’s hair-raising score, Death Rides a Horse is also worth the time for the performance from the always-welcome Lee Van Cleef. While he played second fiddle to Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he is sneering and scowling front and center here. From the moment we see his aging and graying gunslinger, he shoots his viper-like gaze right through us and he continues to keep us on the edge of our seat with gravelly warnings like “revenge is a dish that has to be eaten cold.” For all his toughness, Van Cleef does show a softer side in Death Rides a Horse and it comes through when he is forced to play mentor to the young gunslinger Bill. As far as John Phillip Law’s performance goes, he does okay as Bill but he doesn’t hold us like Van Cleef does. Law is a fine enough actor, don’t get me wrong, but sometimes he seems like he is trying too hard to deepen his voice or look like a fierce bad boy (sounds sort of like Lou Castel in A Bullet for the General). You could see other spaghetti western tough guys laughing him out of the saloon if Law dared show up to their poker table. The bond that Van Cleef and Law’s characters form is certainly solid and multi-layered, at times being emotional and at times played for laughs. Law doesn’t miss a chance to bat an eye at Van Cleef’s aging wisdom and Van Cleef doesn’t shy away from chuckling at Law’s naivety.
There isn’t much depth to Death Rides a Horse but there is plenty to keep the viewer entertained and coming back for seconds, especially if they are fans of the Italian westerns. Quentin Tarantino fans will find plenty to like, as the spaghetti western-loving director littered Kill Bill: Volume 1 with numerous references to this particular film. The most obvious will be the use of Morricone’s stomping war-cry score, which is used during the showdown between the Crazy 88 and the Bride in the House of Blue Leaves. They’ll also notice that the flashbacks that Bill suffers from when he spots one of the bandits responsible for the death of his family look suspiciously similar to the flashbacks that Bride suffers from when she stares down one of her old colleagues. Oh, and how about the name “Bill?” I’ll leave the rest for you to discover on your own. Overall, almost every single supporting actor blends in with the scenery and the villains are so cookie cutter, they could have been borrowed from any other spaghetti western, but there is enough action, suspense, and charms here for me to give Death Rides a Horse a solid recommendation if you are in the market for some retro action. Just remember that this isn’t Leone or Corbucci territory you’re riding through.
Death Rides a Horse is available on DVD, but it is very difficult to find a good transfer of the film. It is currently available on Netflix Instant Watch.
by Steve Habrat
While the Italian spaghetti westerns of the mid-60s and 70s dealt with some minor political issues, mostly American capitalism, there was a separate subgenre of the spaghetti western called Zapata westerns that dared to go deeper. Zapata westerns were usually dealing directly with the Mexican Revolution of 1913 and were much more politically charged than the regular spaghetti westerns, which would often set the Mexican Revolution in the background. These Zapata westerns would usually be critical of US foreign policy, the Vietnam War, fascism, capitalism, and were usually made from a Marxist point of view. Perhaps one of the most popular and recognizable Zapata westerns aside from Sergio Leone’s Duck, You Sucker is the 1966 film A Bullet for the General, which was directed by Damiano Damiani. Relentlessly thrilling, refreshingly comical, and unafraid to embrace plenty of action, A Bullet for the General is not only the first Zapata western, but also one of the most fun spaghetti westerns out there. Beautifully shot, sharply written, and carried by unforgettable performances from Gian Maria Volonté, who found stardom through Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More, and Klaus Kinski, the man who played the creepiest Dracula the world has ever seen, A Bullet for the General is an epic and sweeping journey with a powerhouse climax. And I can’t forget to mention that it features Kinski dressed in monk’s robes and gleefully tossing grenades. You really don’t get much cooler than that!
A Bullet for the General centers around a group of banditos led by cunning El Chuncho (Played by Gian Maria Volonté), who are tasked with collecting weapons for the revolutionary leader General Elias (Played by Jamie Fernández). Early on, El Chuncho attacks a government munitions train, but the mission gets messy as the soldiers on board begin fighting back against the trigger-happy banditos. During the attack, El Chuncho happens upon a mysterious American traveler named Bill Tate (Played by Lou Castel) who goes out of his way to help out the attacking banditos. El Chuncho and his gang, which also consists of his religious brother El Santo (Played by Klaus Kinski) and beautiful gunslinger Adelita (Played by Martine Beswick), take an immediately liking to Bill and they invite him to join their gang. Naturally, Bill accepts their invitation and is quickly given the nickname “Nino.” Bill is eager to get rich quick and he immediately starts plotting multiple attacks with El Chuncho, but as time passes, El Chuncho gets increasingly interested with the Mexican Revolution and the idea of making a difference. El Chuncho slowly evolves into a vicious freedom fighter, but his relationship with Bill takes a rocky turn after he discovers a gold bullet in Bill’s travel case.
Early on, A Bullet for the General wins over the action crowd with nearly forty minutes of nonstop gun battles, massacres, and rollicking attacks set to an uppity score from Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Ennio Morricone. The opening attack on the government train is about as epic as action scenes can be, with director Damiani using widescreen compositions of bodies falling, banditos charging, and innocent passengers ducking for cover as bullet and wood splinters around them. Damiani and screenwriters Salvatore Laurani and Franco Solinas slow the action down very briefly to allow Bill to join El Chuncho’s gang and then it snaps back into the breakneck action complete with a massive machine gun. Forts are attack, men are executed, and Kinski’s wildly entertaining El Santo screams Bible versus and lobs grenades at scattering soldiers. After all the adrenaline has worn out, Damiani and company begin pumping in the politics, whispering warnings about the United States meddling in the conflicts of other countries and even calling to mind the raging Vietnam War. It also flirts with an anti-capitalist message, especially with the character of Bill looking to fill his pockets off the Mexican Revolution. It is hard to fault A Bullet for the General for trying to send a message and it is interesting to see an outside perspective on these issues, but it begins dragging its feet while doing it, coming almost to slow crawl as it drives its point home. It is definitely an awkward shift after all the gunfire and explosions that set the stage, but Damiani dares to keep these slower moments light and comical.
A Bullet for the General also benefits from some seriously entertaining and unforgettable performances. Volonté, who made his name playing sadistic gunslingers in Leone’s first two entries in his Dollars trilogy, is an absolutely delight as El Chuncho. His character’s progression is certainly interesting and he throws himself into it with a devil-may-care grin on his face. You just can’t help but love him as he tries to train bumbling peasants to fire a rifle, only to grow more and more frustrated with each passing second. It should also be said that the final image of his character is about as prevailing as they come, as it solidifies his character’s radical shift. Castel is grossly miscast as Bill, who tries to disguise his boyish face with icy glares and short monotone responses that are supposed to make us believe he is a grade-A hardass. Luckily, Volonté picks up his slack and really makes their relationship work. Kinski threatens to steal the show from Volonté as the deeply religious yet bloodthirsty El Santo. Kinski would go on to embrace that wild intensity in Sergio Corbucci’s grim and snowy spaghetti western The Great Silence, but here he embraces macho action star complete with bared chest and headband. Rounding out the players is Beswick, who wows with her natural beauty yet keeps us all in check with her skills with a weapon. She isn’t afraid to ride with the boys, which prevents her character from seeming like just a romantic distraction.
As far as spaghetti westerns go, A Bullet for the General may be one of the most entertaining of the genre. It packs a shocker of an ending and a pretty impressive twist with one of the main characters, one that really takes an emotional toll on the viewer. While you do hate to see the film slow down in the middle, it never misses a beat. It will have you chuckling and also hanging on the deepening relationship between El Chuncho and Bill. My favorite sequence of the entire film was the touching and pivotal moment between Bill, who is struck ill with Malaria, and El Chuncho, who plays doctor and protector while also discovering a dark secret about his friend. Overall, it may not be as well known as it should, but it is hard to wave off A Bullet for the General as a small effort in the spaghetti western genre. It may be stuck in the shadows of such films as the Dollars trilogy, Django, Duck, You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in the West, but it matches the epic scope of Leone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West while keeping the action, the politics, and the character development flowing freely. Perhaps its biggest flaw is the casting of Castel, who just can’t really sell his character, but everything is so good, you’ll overlook it. A Bullet for the General is a groundbreaking film and a must-see for anyone who loves film or westerns.
A Bullet for the General is available on Blu-ray and DVD.
by Steve Habrat
Before Italian filmmaker Lucio Fulci became known as the “Godfather of Gore,” the grindhouse/horror legend dabbled in a number of non-horror film genres. In the late 1950s and 60s, he directed a handful of comedies and then set his sights on thrillers and gialli in the early 1970s. In the mid to late 60s and early 70s, Italy was enamored with spaghetti westerns and it comes as no surprise that Mr. Fulci decided to contribute a few westerns of his own to the booming subgenre. Near the end of the spaghetti western craze, Fulci released Four of the Apocalypse, a surprisingly sensitive but brutal trip into the Wild West that plays by its own set of rules. Lacking a strong, silent hero going to war with a pack of snarling gunslingers, Four of the Apocalypse is heavy with character development and shockingly light on gunplay. If you’re a fan of Fulci’s gory later work, rest assured that Four of the Apocalypse has plenty of the blood and torture that many of his fans expect, but you will also be surprised to find that you get attached to the four main characters before you are blindsided by the pitch-black tragedy that looms over the second half of the film. It really proves to those who wrote off Fulci as a horror hack that the “Godfather of Gore” is capable of making films with some serious substance.
Four of the Apocalypse picks up in Salt Flat, Utah, with a big time gambler named Stubby Preston (Played by Fabio Testi) arriving in town looking to make some money. Shortly after arriving, Stubby has a run-in with the Sheriff and he winds up thrown in jail with a beautiful prostitute, Bunny (Played by Lynne Frederick), the town drunk, Clem (Played by Michael J. Pollard), and the local loony, Bud (Played by Harry Baird). That very evening, a group of masked bandits attack Salt Flat and leave the town a bloody mess. The next morning, Stubby cuts a deal with the sheriff and the four soon find themselves traveling to the next town, which is 200 miles away. As they make their way down the dusty trail, the colorful group gets to know each other and Stubby begins taking a liking to Bunny, who also happens to be pregnant. The lighthearted trip is soon interrupted by a mysterious bandito that calls himself Chaco (Played by Tomas Milian), who wishes to join and travel with the group. Chaco claims that he is an expert hunter and that he can defend the rag-tag group from raiders and bandits. All seems well at first, but Chaco soon reveals himself to be a sadistic bandit that leaves the group for dead. With no food or water and one of their group severely wounded, Stubby vows to track down and kill Chaco for what he has done.
While the spaghetti western was known for delivering plenty of shoot-em-up action, Four of the Apocalypse shies away from the relentless violence that made the genre so popular. While a gun is fired here and there, the only real action comes from the beginning of the film, with the masked bandits turning Salt Flat into a war zone. This early scene has plenty of Fulci’s signature gore, with holes blown through the bellies of drunken cowboys and gunslingers hung from buildings. It is actually a fairly creepy sequence, especially since the bandits seem to be attacking for no reason and they are sporting white masks with eyeholes torn into them. From there on out, Fulci leaves most of the gunplay behind and focuses on the sunny relationship between our four likable travelers. The downside to this opening explosive action is that the pacing is thrown off and the film seems to come to a screeching halt when the group hits the road. While the all-out action is pulled back, Fulci does darken the whole affair when Chaco rides into the frame. Chaco is certainly a captivating character, but with him comes torture, rape, and death, all of which shatter the innocence of the group. Things really get grim when cannibalism rears its ugly head in one of the darkest moments of the entire film.
Four of the Apocalypse also features some truly exceptional and memorable performances from nearly everyone involved. Fabio Testi really casts a spell as Stubby, the handsome and outgoing gambler that everyone seems to be familiar with (Even Chaco has heard of him!). A clean-cut guy who can’t say no to a good shave, Stubby is far from the conventional spaghetti western hero. When he mingles with a group of hardened outlaws near the end of the film, he is glaringly out of place but we can see that he may be considering going down the path that these men have chosen. Then we have Frederick’s Bunny, the beautiful prostitute who strikes up a romance with Stubby. Despite her line of work and her growing baby bump, she retains a youthful innocence that is rare when it comes to spaghetti western prostitutes. Pollard’s Clem is a pitiful soul, one who is a slave to the bottle and will literally do anything for a swig of whiskey. Fulci really focuses on his sad eyes, which easily pierce your heart. Baird’s sweet but simple Bud was probably the most sympathetic and naive character as he rambles on about speaking with ghosts in a graveyard. Yet the one that stands high above all these characters is Milian, who is absolutely unforgettable as the unpredictable Chaco. As sadistic as they come, Chaco is like a gun slinging Charles Manson, one who manipulates and violates with the aid of peyote.
What I absolutely loved about Four of the Apocalypse is that it really seemed to be playing by its own set of rules. The final confrontation between Stubby and Chaco is subtle and minimal yet strangely poignant and satisfying. You’ll also find yourself hanging on the hope and tragedy that blossoms out of Stubby and Bunny’s arrival in the town of outlaws, all of whom melt over the arrival of Bunny’s child. You will find yourself wishing that Fulci had paced his film better and that he would have pulled the distracting folk score from the film and replaced it with a jangly Ennio Morricone track. Over the years, Four of the Apocalypse has become sort of a midnight movie for some of the violence peppered throughout, but the film never seems overly interested in exploiting the bloodier moments, something that is very rare for Fulci. Overall, Four of the Apocalypse is an absorbing and emotional journey across a bleak and hopeless landscape. There are a few dry spots to be found but end result is a wildly disturbing character study that allows the film to set itself apart from the other films of this subgenre.
Four of the Apocalypse is available on DVD.
by Steve Habrat
After some of last year’s massive releases (The Hunger Games, The Avengers, The Amazing Spider-Man, Prometheus, The Dark Knight Rises, The Hobbit), you had to wonder if 2013 could even hold a candle to what blockbusters blasted their way through the local Regal Cinemas in 2012. It turns out that 2013 looks to be packing some seriously entertaining movies that will be luring us in droves to the theater throughout the year. So, without further ado, here are ten movies I just cannot wait to see this year. I’ll see ya at the theater.
10.) Monster’s University
Let’s be honest, in the past two years, Pixar has sort of been tanking. Absolutely no one but a rabid bunch of seven year olds was asking for a sequel to Cars and Brave had its heart in the right place but it fell short of being a true classic. Enter those lovable spooks Mike and Sully from Monsters, Inc, who may just be able to shake Pixar out of their frustrating funk. If you haven’t seen the trailer for the movie, do make sure you check it out. It’s absolutely hilarious. Acting as a prequel to Monsters, Inc, Monster’s University shows us all how Mike and Sully met in college and how they formed their friendship. There is a lot riding on this, Pixar, so don’t screw it up.
9.) Pacific Rim
Since 2008, visionary director Guillermo del Toro has been busy playing the role of producer to some middle of the road horror movies and some lackluster animated features. This summer, the director of Hellboy and Pan’s Labyrinth returns to the director’s chair with Pacific Rim, an apocalyptic science-fiction epic about giant monsters emerging from a portal under the sea and ripping humans to shreds. Well, it just so happens that the humans have developed giant robots that are capable of kicking monster ass. The trailer looks like the coolest B-movie you will ever see and the action looks like it will shake down the walls of the theater. Count me in, Mr. del Toro. I’ll be there wearing a pair of 3D glasses and a smile from ear to ear.
8.) World War Z
Everywhere you look these days, it is all about zombies, which isn’t a bad thing. Naturally, Hollywood is taking notice (again) and bringing World War Z, the zombie epic from Max Brooks, to the big screen. Yes, the trailer isn’t a complete knockout and it is directed by Marc Foster, the director of the forgettable Bond movie Quantum of Solace, but it did appear to have some MASSIVE zombie action. If you’re looking for another plus, look no further than Brad Pitt, who is starring as a terrified family man in this epic adventure of the undead. While I don’t expect it to match the quality of the book, it has been a while since there has been a really great zombie movie in theaters. It’s about time we got another zombie fix!
7.) Evil Dead
Initially, I wasn’t sold on this spiffed up remake of Sam Raimi’s horror classic but then I laid eyes on the gore-drenched trailer. My jaw was on the floor and I considered jumping onto Fandango to grab an advanced ticket right then and there. Produced by Raimi, original star Bruce Campbell, original producer Robert G. Tapert, and directed by Fede Alvarez, Evil Dead looks like it will be THE horror movie to see this year. The trailer has it all, the boomstick, arms being sawed off, showers of pus, firehose blasts of blood, tongues being cut in half, and, yes, those frisky trees. If you are a fan of horror or Raimi’s terrifying original, you’re probably already in line. I’m going to call it now and say this movie is going to rock.
6.) The Great Gatsby
Originally supposed to be in theaters on Christmas day 2012, this lavish interpretation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic story looks like it is going to pack enough eye candy to fuel a dozen blockbusters. It’s directed by Baz Lurhmann (Romeo & Juliet, Moulin Rouge), so you know it will be hip and stylish, and it stars none other than Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, which automatically makes it a must see (Did you see him in Django Unchained?!). Certainly an odd release for summer 2013 (and in 3D?), it should be interesting to see how the film lands with critics, especially since it is never a good sign when a release date is tinkered with, and how the film stacks up against its superhero (Iron Man 3, The Wolverine, Man of Steel) and science fiction (Star Trek) competition.
5.) Kick Ass 2
I’m a superhero nut. If you haven’t figured it out by now then there may be something wrong with you. I absolutely LOVED 2010’s Kick Ass, a film that ended up making my ten best of that year. It was bizarre, controversial, funny, smart, exciting, and just plain unique. With director Jeff Wadlow (Cry Wolf, Never Back Down) taking over original director Matthew Vaughn (X-Men: First Class, Layer Cake), I fear the film may not hit you across the face like the first film did, but with Jim Carrey signing on as ex-mobster-turned-superhero Colonel Stars and Stripes and even more of Chloe Grace Mortez’s foul-mouthed Hit Girl, how could you not be intrigued?
4.) The Lone Ranger
Many people are already trashing Gore Verbinski’s The Lone Ranger, labeling it a dud before it even hits theaters. Give it a chance, people! I understand that Cowboys vs. Aliens left a bad taste in your mouth but this should be infinitely more fun than that piece of trash. With the very talented Armie Hammer (The Social Network) behind that famous mask, Johnny Depp bringing heaping amounts of weird to Tonto, and plenty of smashing and crashing trains, this should be a big, loud, and rollicking adventure across the west. Plus, the first Pirates of the Caribbean movie was really good and Rango proved that Verbinski is up-and-up on his westerns. So, can we stop judging this before we see it?
3.) Star Trek: Into Darkness
If you are one of the people who has yet to see J.J. Abrams’ first Star Trek movie, you may want to just run out and pick up the Blu-ray now. It’s THAT good and I’m not even a Star Trek buff. After a lengthy wait, we FINALLY get a follow-up that looks like it will smash the first film to smithereens. Cities are leveled, Pine’s Captain Kirk looks like he has finally met his match, Zachary Quinto’s Spock looks like he is finally getting with Zoe Saldana’s Uhura, and Benedict Cumberbatch looks like he is going to make your skin crawl as Khan. Who’s up for the midnight showing?
2.) Iron Man 3/Thor: The Dark World
A tie at number 2?! Come on, guys, we can kinda lump these two together. The Avengers kicked major ass and you know full well these two films will be working hard to both set up The Avengers sequel and sort of tie in with each other. Plus, the first Thor was a pleasant surprise and Iron Man 3 looks like it will have some rip-roaring action that will have you jumping back in line for seconds. I mean, did you SEE the Super Bowl trailer for Iron Man 3? I thought so. We have yet to see a trailer for Thor: The Dark World but I’m confident it will be just as impressive. Keep up the good work, Marvel. Don’t let us down now.
1.) Man of Steel
Being a massive DC comics fan (my favorite superhero is Batman), I’m always rooting for their movies but I think we can all agree that they have produced some major duds over the years. The last time we saw Superman, he was hovering around Metropolis in Superman Returns, sulking over Lois Lane, fighting Lex Luthor (again), and creepily watching a kid he believed to be his son. It was a huge disappointment and also the cure for insomnia. Thankfully, Brandon Routh and Bryan Singer are out and Zack Snyder and Christopher Nolan are in for Man of Steel. Yes, I know Snyder has directed a few questionable films (300, Sucker Punch) but he did a bang up job with Watchmen (I’m sure many will disagree with me there), and Nolan managed to produce the greatest superhero trilogy of all time (The Dark Knight Trilogy). Together, it appears that they may have successfully reinvented Supes and made him exciting again. The two trailers we have seen so far have suggested a darker atmosphere and a brooding tone, but boy, does this movie look exciting. With an all-star cast in place and General Zod being the villain (excuse me while I nerd out for a minute), Man of Steel is shaping up to be the must-see film of the summer.
Didn’t see the movie you’re looking forward to on this list? Leave a comment and tell me which movie you can’t wait to see. I love hearing from you!
by Steve Habrat
After the success of Sergio Leone’s violent 1964 spaghetti western A Fistful of Dollars, a whole slew of Italian directors scrambled to emulate Leone’s reinvention of the western. While many of the spaghetti westerns that were made in the wake of A Fistful of Dollars were overlooked or forgotten, some managed to recruit a following and for good reason. In 1966, director Sergio Corbucci released Django, which really sent Europe into a western frenzy and at the time happened to be the most violent film every made. By today’s standards, Django is rather tame aside from a certain scene featuring a man having his ear sliced off and then fed to him, but it still manages to get the adrenaline following for an hour and a half. Along with Leone’s Man with No Name trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), Django stands as a shining example of the spaghetti western and one of the more fun exploitation films out there. It does have some shoddy craftsmanship in places (the dubbing leaves a lot to be desired, the cinematography is so grainy that the picture almost flashes at certain points, the music is a bit cheesy in places) but you can honestly say you’ve never seen a western quite like it. If the reckless violence and bad attitude don’t lure you in, wait until you get a load of Franco Nero’s brooding gunslinger Django, a nasty piece of work that tugs a mud-caked coffin behind him that conceals one hell of a deadly weapon. He almost looks like he stepped out of the coolest comic book you’ve never read.
After saving a prostitute named Maria (Played by Loredana Nusciak) from two bloodthirsty gangs, former Union soldier turned gun-slinging drifter Django (Played by Franco Nero) takes Maria under his wing and leads her to a nearby border town that is largely abandoned. Behind him, Django drags a mysterious coffin that he never lets out of his sight. Django and Maria take shelter at the town brothel, which happens to be the haunt of the two gangs that Django saved Maria from. It turns out that the two gangs, one being a KKK style cult led by Major Jackson (Played by Eduardo Fajardo) and the other being a trigger-happy gang of Mexican banditos led by General Hugo Rodriguez (Played by José Bódalo), are locked in a battle for the dying town and Django has unfinished business with the heads of both gangs. After a nasty confrontation with Maj. Jackson’s men, Django teams up with Gen. Rodriguez for a robbery that will make both Django and Gen. Rodriguez very wealthy men. Little does Gen. Rodriguez know that Django has plans of his own and that Maj. Jackson is responsible for the death of Django’s wife.
Quick to get into the savage gun battles, fistfights, and staring contests, Django is certainly a different breed of western, even when compared to Leone’s patient and thoughtful work. Corbucci doesn’t appear to have anything deeper on his mind and he is more concerned with getting to the next brutal confrontation between Django and anyone dumb enough to make him angry. Is there really anything wrong with this? No, not really. The film consistently keeps you glued to the action and you just can’t wait to see what is hidden inside Django’s coffin of death. In between the bloody showdowns, Corbucci builds a menacing and slightly creepy atmosphere in the confines of the ghost town and the local graveyard where most of the action takes place. The streets are muddy, the buildings collapsing, and the fences twisted beyond repair as storm clouds loom in the distance. It is the type of place that is so rough and tough, even the prostitutes get into muddy brawls in the streets. The graveyard is just as worse for wear, a dusty wasteland where jagged graves and dead trees barely stand against the howling winds and walls of dust. It certain is a grimy and vaguely apocalyptic vision where there are no heroes to make things right, just those looking out for number one and those who want to kill everyone in sight. Hell, these guys are so vicious; they don’t even flinch when they gun down the kindly bartender Nathaniel (Played by Ángel Álvarez).
While no one in Django gives an A-list performance, the players are all very memorable mostly because their characters are so colorful. Nero is the one in charge here as Django, a stone cold gunslinger who has hidden his heavy heart behind a brick wall. He has little use for Maria, who he saves from certain death and then largely ignores (Yeah, I haven’t quite figured that one out either.). He spends most of his time sitting in the brothel, sipping a glass of whiskey and waiting for Maj. Jackson to show up and pick a fight. Naturally he does and Django kills a shocking number of his men in the span of maybe five minutes. We don’t learn too much about this mysterious drifter, only that he is out for blood and that he fears no man. Nusciak is quiet and haunted as Maria, a beautiful prostitute who finds herself in love with the consistently distracted Django. We learn that Fajardo’s Maj. Jackson is one wicked guy as he picks off innocent Mexicans in the muddy streets just to let off a little steam. Bódalo’s Gen. Rodriguez is a sweaty brute that is constantly being saved by Django yet is quick to dish out a little revenge despite all he owes to the heartbroken drifter. Álvarez is sweet and timid as the shaky bartender who tries so desperately to keep the peace between everyone. His fate is the only moment where the viewer’s emotions are put to work.
Despite its stunning brutality, Django was a massive hit in Italy and it inspired a huge number of unofficial sequels that all managed to work Django into their titles yet have very little in common with Corbucci’s film. There was only one official sequel, Django 2: il grande ritorno, that did star Nero but wasn’t directed by Mr. Corbucci. For fans of exploitation cinema, it may interest you that Ruggero Deodato, the man responsible for Cannibal Holocaust, served as assistant director on Django. If you’re looking to jump into the spaghetti western subgenre, Leone’s marvelous trilogy and Corbucci’s Django are great places to start. You may want to ease in with Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars to really see if this is your bowl of pasta but if you are big on action, Django will really have you on the edge of your seat. It’s also worth checking out for the super catchy theme song that plays over the dreary opening credits (Good luck getting it out of your head!). Overall, Django is flawed but it also happens to be a gritty, savage, pulpy, and highly influential ride through the Wild West. If you’re a cinema geek, western fanatic, or exploitation guru, you may want to seek this sucker out. It truly is one of a kind.
Django is available on Blu-ray and 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.
by Steve Habrat
For many years, it has been said that the western is a dead genre. It may not be as popular as it once was, but every so often, the genre rides back from the sweaty cinema graveyard and sternly reminds us all that it is alive and well. Take John Hillcoat’s 2005 Australian western The Proposition, a clammy, existential stargazer of a picture that appeals to both aging fans of the genre and the wine-sipping art house crowd. There is an echo of Leone here and maybe a faint whistle of Peckinpah there but gently rolled into the center of The Proposition is an apocalyptic rumble that refuses to quit. There are many layers to The Proposition, from a story about the complex relationship between a trio of outlaw brothers to the idea of taming the unruly Australian outback through violent force. Don’t be fooled by the film’s sensitive side as The Proposition can turn on you in an instant, almost like a whiskey-drenched outlaw who has just been disrespected in the local saloon. Yet the real shock comes in the way the film warns us that in a place this wicked and gray, even the most innocent soul isn’t immune to the horrors that can blow in from the plains.
The Proposition takes us into the unforgiving Australian outback of the 1880s, where a savage gang led by the Burns brothers roams about causing mayhem. It is rumored that the Burns brothers gang is responsible for the horrific massacre of the prominent Hopkins family, who appear to have been beloved by the local community. After two of the Burns brothers, simpleton Mikey (Played by Richard Wilson) and clever Charlie (Played by Guy Pearce), are apprehended by lawman Captain Stanley (Played by Ray Winstone), Captain Stanley cons Charlie into riding into the outback and finding their eldest brother Arthur (Played by Danny Huston), who is said to be the deadliest of the Burns brothers gang. Captain Stanley warns Charlie that he has nine days to find and kill Arthur and if he doesn’t, Mikey will be executed. Charlie reluctantly accepts and rides out into territory that is savagely defended by Aboriginal tribes that kill any white man that dares set foot on their land without an army. With the clock ticking, Captain Stanley soon finds himself fending off protests from the community and his fragile wife, Martha (Played by Emily Watson), who was very close with the Hopkins family. As the protests turn violent and his job slowly slips out of his hands, Arthur learns of the plot to bring him down and he sets out to find Captain Stanley and innocent wife.
Set to a gulping bass line and whispery chants from Nick Cave and Warren Ellis, The Proposition hints that a storm of fury is gathering on the horizon, just waiting for the right moment to rain down on the dusty town. The whispers in the score ask “when”, “why”, and “who” as all three of the brothers gaze up at the fiery sun and the twinkling stars. The build up to this storm doesn’t hesitate to linger on the beautiful Australian outback even though we know that this untouched land is slowly being gutted by senseless bloodshed. Nick Cave’s screenplay may use a different location for this squinty showdown but he doesn’t mind drawing from the good old western tradition of waiting around for death to come riding into town on a rusted horse. The outlaws pass the time chatting about love and starring out at the landscape while the military men grunt about the sexual acts they would like to perform on Martha while the Captain is away. We do have to wonder who the real savages are in The Proposition and that question is easily answered as the film moves into its second act. The outlaws use violence to protect their freedom while the Aboriginal tribes are using violence to protect what is rightfully theirs. The military uses senseless slaughter and overkill to send a message, all while flies gather on their sweaty backs. Yet Cave and Hillcoat don’t ever squander an opportunity to show us how senseless all this violence really is. It is written in the reactions of those who pound a drum for it.
With the weighty script in place and an atmospheric score pondering about how this will end, Hillcoat and Cave give their actors plenty of room to really develop their characters. Pearce is a marvel as he silently rides through the rocky terrain, sipping from a bottle of liquor and touring the smoldering ruins of the Hopkins’ home, ruins that now lie empty as their spirits cry out in agony. He is eerily similar to Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I’d dare you to find me a modern day gunslinger that doesn’t draw from that legendary cowboy. Huston is a slow burner of a baddie, a sadistic killer who only shows his true colors when he is prodded with a hot poker. You will fear for the fool who dares anger this slumbering beast. Winstone’s collapsing Captain Stanley is desperately trying to provide a safe place for both his wife and himself to call home. It is emotionally draining to see the dim light of hope die in his eyes as things go from bad to worse. Watson brings her fragile gaze to Martha, who only wishes to have a cozy Christmas with her loving husband. You can see the naïve gears in her head turn as she silently tries to comprehend the violence in these outlaws. When this delicate soul is smashed in the final moments of the film, it shatters into tiny pieces that will never be able to be put back together. David Wenham rides into town as Captain Stanley’s boss, Eden Fletcher, who dishes out one hundred lashes to poor Mikey, leaving him a sobbing, bloody heap. Also present is David Gulpillil as Jacko, an Aboriginal tracker who tries desperately to understand the viscous nature of the white man and John Hurt as Jellon Lamb, a sloshed old bounty hunter searching for Arthur.
The Proposition boils down to a bond between brothers, and what they will end up doing for one another. Despite their shocking actions, they stand by, loyal even as they hold a gun to each other’s head. When the bullets fly across the screen, The Proposition remains ever thoughtful of the situation in front of it. Yet any good western boils down to how affecting the story truly is and I must say that The Proposition is one that sticks to your ribs long after the last gunfighter falls to the ground and a defiled woman shrieks in horror. With an ending as black as night, The Proposition is certainly not a Hallmark western, one where the sheriff walks away triumphant and the outlaw is led away with cuffs around his wrists. Oh no, it is far from it but that doesn’t even begin to spoil the ending of the film. In fact, it seems clear to me that all that time the western has spent out in cinema’s forgotten graveyard has only toughened the genre up and caused it to be a bit more philosophical than it already was before it pulls the trigger.
The Proposition is available on Blu-ray and DVD.