Sunday, 27 November 2011

The Worst of the Worst

Well, I've reached 100 blog posts with this text. Much as I hate to be self-congratulatory or celebrate meaningless milestones, I still figure it's as good time as any to do something cool I've wanted to do for a while. The clip here (by Schulte Fiajo) has been watched in YouTube for over 2 million times – and that's just for this crappy-quality version. The scenes in it are certainly amazing, but how are the actual films? Luckily I've seen every one of them, so here's the rundown. Hope you haven't stuffed up on Thanksgiving, because there's a big plate of Turkeys coming your way right here!

Enter the Ninja (USA, 1981)
Director: Menahem Golan

This film was actually one of the first reviewed for this blog (back when I had little to no idea where to go with it). So it stands to reason to take a fresh new look at it. Actually, compared to most of the other films on the video, Enter the Ninja is quite coherent. In fact, even compared to Golan's two other ninja films starring Sho Kosugi, Enter the Ninja is practically art.

Franco Nero stars as army vet Cole, who has decided to join a ninja academy. Because he's white, he dresses up in a white costume. Disposable evil ninjas dress in red, and Cole's chief rival Hasegawa (Kosugi) dresses in the classic ninja black. The film begins as Cole runs through a forest, killing off red ninjas and outsmarting Hasegawa. Cole's goal is to fake-assassinate the school's sensei. He succeeds, earning him to graduate with flying mark. This earns him the envy of Hasegawa.

And with these ten opening minutes, we have nearly all the ninja content that is actually contained in the film. The rest plays more like a western, with Cole helping out his land-owning war buddy Frank Landers (Alex Courtney) in a ranch in the Philippines. As it happens, the evil plantation owner Charles Venarious (Christopher George) wants the land and sends groups of thugs to persuade Landers to change his mind or die. When Cole always beats 'em up, Venarious comes up with more and more nefarious plans, finally just hiring Hasegawa.

There isn't much note-worthy about the film. It's an OK friday-night film if one doesn't expect anything much. Characters float in and out of the picture with little to no explanation. Cole gets away with a lot of assaults and murders, but then again, the police force in the Philippines is either non-existent or owned by Venarious. Franco Nero has laughably horrible dialogue, but manages to pull the character off. Nero proves himself to be multiple times cooler than many other Golan-Globus main actors such as Chuck Norris, for example.

★★ 1/2

Scene and context: Worst Death scene

This is a big spoiler as it is what happens just before Cole's final showdown with Hasegawa. Venarious has his usual main-bad-guy threat-speech while Cole is lurking behind a corner. But Cole proves that a ninja star is faster than a revolver. My DVD version had this scene cut shorter. I suspect it is a cut version, which would explain why the film never showed what happened to the fat, one-armed thug boss.

Alluda Mazaaka...! (a.k.a. Alluda Majaka, India, 1995)
Director: Satyanarayana E.V.V.

As mad as Bollywood films might be, they hold no cake to the cheery insanity that goes on in the films made in the Southern Telegu territories. Chiranjeevi is the biggest star of the area. During the mid-90's he was so popular that his fans threatened to kill themselves by setting themselves on fire in front of movie theatres if his new film would not be released. The problem with Alluda Mazaaka was not it's magnificent action scenes, but rather the sexually suggestive banter. The film's plot itself was pretty hard to understand (for me, at least), so I have to rely on second-hand sources to make sense of it.

Sitaramudu (Chiranjeevi) is the son of a village leader and the owner of a kick-ass moustache. One day in the countryside, he encounters the two daughters of a wealthy businessman. The city girls are spoiled, snotty and picky, so he decides to teach them a humiliating lesson. While he's playing around with them, both the girls fall in love with Sitara. At the same time, Sitara's sister Malliswari (Ooha) has gotten pregnant with a sleazy lawyer Shivaramakrishna (Giribabu). This makes Sitaramudu's father kill himself, and the boy to vow revenge and to get the two legally married. But Shivaramakrishna is only after the lands owned by the family, and plots to get rid of both brother and sister. Malliswari is framed as a prostitute and Sitara as a cop killer. Sitara thus decides to disguise himself as the wealthy Mr. Toyota to find out Shivaramakrishna's plans and which of the girls truly loves him.

The three-hour film has so many plot twists, scheming and romantic relationship tangles that it's hard to keep up. It also moves along at a lighning speed, and only stops to have some pretty funny coreographed song-and-dance numbers. They also pretty liberally borrow from western music, and it's worth to hear at least the Indian version of Queen's We Will Rock You. But all of the film's action stunts are absolutely fantastic, with some very cool stunts, explosions, car flips and horseback chases you wouldn't see in any Hollywood film (one of the reasons why is probably because the horses have to do pretty painful-looking falls). It is constantly inventive, crazy and badass. Another very popular scene is the tractor stunt. The film climaxes in a boat chase so massive and so cool, thet Face/Off and Miami Vice pale in comparison. The film is nothing short of amazing during these scenes, but after the mid-film break, there is a little too much talking and following of the too-hard-to-follow plot. The comedy in the film doesn't really work for me, altough I do know people who laughed their asses off even to those.


Scene and context: The worst stunt

The stunning chase scene which features this stunt, starts off the film. The chase itself also features a number of other fancy things you can do with a horse. There's also incredible car flips and explosions so big, even Michael Bay would think they'd be overkill if he wasn't so busy masturbating. At the beginning, Sitaramudu (Chranjeevi) in police custody. When he hears the girl he loves is about to marry, he does a daring escape to stop the wedding. We then step back in time to see how we got to that point.

Troll 2 (Italy, 1990)
Director: Claudio Fragasso (as Drake Floyd)

So legendary is this film in badness, that documentaries have been made from it. While director Claudio Fragasso (of Zombi 3 and Scalps fame) claims that his film is strongly ironic, what is clear that the cast and crew of the film had no idea of it at the time of the shoot. Blame the language barrier between Italians and Americans, but we got some of the worst acting, weirdest logic and oddest looking creatures and set-pieces in entertainment history.

The young Joshua Waits (Michael Stephenson) is listening to a  bedtime story told by his Grandpa Seth (Robert Ormsby). He hears about the bloodthirsty goblins (there are no actual trolls in the film) that use trickery to lure people into their forest. There the foul creatures can magically turn their captives into half-man half-vegetable hybrids and eat them. The next day, Josh's family is going on a vacation to a country village called Nilbog. While Josh tries to warn that goblins may be after the strange countryhouse deal they've got, no one listens to him. Why? Well, Grandpa Seth has been dead all along and Josh has been talking to a g-g-g-ghost!

At the same time Josh's sister Connie (Holly Waits) is struggling with her boyfriend Elliot (Jason Wright). While she would want to just have sex with him, Elliot prefers to wear micro-shorts and hang out in a trailer-van with his buddies. Nevertheless, the teenaged boys follow the family to Nilbog, but soon most of them are preyed by the evil shape-shifting goblins and their queen Creedence Leonore Gielgud (Deborah Reed).

If the film has a message, it wants to say that vegetarism is bad and inhuman, and the only way to save the world is to believe in fairy tales and go straight for a baloney sandwich. Every time someone eats a vegetable in the film, something bad happens. Some campiness can be deducted from some character names (Sherrif Gene Freak?), but it's all so badly done, it's hardly relevant whether the makers had their tongue in cheek or not. The acting varies from incompetent (all of the Waits) to manic overacting in a Helena Bonham-Carter drag (Reed). The troll masks look like they were made by kindergarteners, and in every shot they're in it's fun to spot the single troll mask that has goofy eyeballs in it. The film is pretty funny to be watched with a couple of beers and a group of snarky friends. But as I've seen the bloody thing for three times, I can promise that it reduces in charm with every viewing.

★ (or ★★★★★)

Scene and context: Worst reaction

Arnold (Darren Ewing) is the horniest of the film's teenaged boys. When he sees a young girl running for her life in the forest, he attempts to tackle her. Only when he realized she's being chased by blood- (or sap-)thirsty trolls does he realize that they should run. They seek refuge in Gielgud's house and get a glass of fruit juice to drink, courtesy of their hostess. The truth is soon revealed as the girl melts into a pile of goo upstairs, and Arnold grows roots which render him immobile. Then the trolls come out...

Silent Night, Deadly Night Part 2 (USA, 1987)
Director: Lee Harry

While a little less known than Troll 2, SNDN2 has also the dubious honors of being named one of the worst horror films ever made. While I wouldn't actually go that far, it is better to not have seen the first film in the series in a while while watching this. For the first 40 minutes or so, Silent 2 is little more than the clip show equivalent of a horror film, reminiscing everything that happened in the first.

Silent Night, Deadly Night (which I will also be reviewing soon) ends as the killer santa is shot at the feet of his kid brother, Ricky Caldwell. This of course hinted at a sequel already. We open as the all-grown-up Ricky (Eric Freeman) is already captured and interviewed by the criminal psychologist Henry Bloom (James L. Newman). He reminiscens his brother's kill spree and his traumatic childhood, being terrified of the color red, sex and Santas. When he grew up, he also had a girlfriend, Jennifer (Elizabeth Kaitan). When jealousy takes the better of him, Ricky starts to kill everyone around him, until he is arrested by police forces. But while he has told the story, Ricky has also managed to escape from the interrigation room by figuring out how to kill Bloom. As it's Christmas, the recently released Ricky  decides to attempt to kill the one person in his background that he or his big brother never managed to kill yet: the sadistic Mother Superior (Jean Miller).

The Embodiment of Evil.
The film has two major problems which attribute to it's bad reputation. First is of course the pacing. At first the film seems to be the cheapest ever made, as it only contains two people sitting in a room and clips from another film. There are long, unnecessarily lingering shots that seem to only exist to waste time. It takes 40 minutes before there are any major new scenes. Fortunatelly, the film picks off from there. There's a sweet car flip and explosion which show that there was some money in making this, but perhaps they ran out of it in the middle of the shoot. The film also manages to have a good share of inventive and funny murders. A yuppy gets toasted with a car battery so his eyeballs pop. A guy is impaled with an umbrella, which is then opened. Not much of it has anything to do with Christmas.

The biggest problem is that Eric Freeman is a horrendous actor. He has two different methods in the film: one when he's supposed to be normal and thus tries to not react to anything too much. The second is when he's a manic killer, going as over-the-top as he can, spurring one-liners in a Duke Nukem voice or having a mocking tone. The end half of the film is still funny enough and close, oh so close to being so bad it's funny. At times this is still almost unwatchably terrible.


Scene and context: Worst line-reading ever

Ricky has just killed off her girlfriend and her yuppie ex-boyfriend brutally. When a cop tries to arrest him, he turns his gun back to his face and shoots him. As he now has a gun, he goes off in a kill spree around the neighbourhood, cackling to himself.

Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (Israel/South Africa/USA, 2002)
Director: David Worth

I know this post has so far had a lot of "it isn't really that bad". Well, try this on for size. This is a film so hilariously bad that it deserved two entries to the video list, and even one of them features three actual deaths. There have been a lot of shark-themed exploitation films, but this has got to be the most inept, the most brain-numbingly stupid and the most hilarious of them.

It's hard to be the white girl when all the ethnics get eaten around you.

Beach patrolman Ben Carpenter (John Barrowman) discovers a giant tooth in an underground cavern on the Mexican coast. The shark researcher Cataline Stone (Jenny McStone) becomes interested in the case and arrives to study. When her research ship and it's surfer boy crew is attacked by a gigantic shark, Carpenter must come to the rescue. It becomes clear that the shark in question is a prehistoric Megalodon, a huge shark with a never-ending appetite. But the greedy holiday resort owner wants to keep this quiet for fear of loss of money (as is always the case). He also has a local cable company in his back pocket, which has already lost a number of employees to the shark. Yet they are still adamant to keep a luxury cruise fundraiser for the rich and powerful. A lot of silly hijinks ensue.

I feel like having Mexican for dinner tonight.

Really, Megalodon doesn't seem at all different from a regular great white shark, except it is a lot bigger and meaner. It's size also hilariously varies during the course of the film. The shark scenes are just clips from nature documentaries and the film has a whopping three different ones at its disposal. When the shark is just peeking from the water, this is silly, but when thesame scenes are used with CGI to show the shark eating someone or something, it looks truly ridiculous. The only fully CGI scenes at the very end of the film look too horrible to be from Playstation 1 game demos.

The film's real gift to the world is the totally incredibly bad dialogue, which is delivered even worse than in Troll 2. Here, I don't think the filmmakers can back off from their creation by claiming they're doing a satire. This straight-to-video film is as much exploitation as they come, not content of feeding off just from the popularity of Jaws, but also from the really minor success of its rip-off Shark Attack. Needless to say, this sequel has nothing in common with the first two films of the series. Barrowman in the lead role seems to have quite a lot of fun. Getting a vacation in Mexico while pretending to be a dude that looks at bikini girls? No wonder.

★ or ★★★★★

Scenes and context:
Most random line ever:

Carpenter has been shown from the beginning to be both really horny, and a real asshole. Stone has pushed off anyone trying to get close to her so far in the film, but it appears that she has finally fallen for Carpenter's charms(?). Sorry, I really got nothing. This comes from out of nowhere. If you want to watch the film, I suggest that you don't watch YouTube clips and save it.

Worst CGI

The two sleazy businessmen are having their fundraiser interrupted by Megalodon attacking. Stone and Carpenter haven't made it to attack the beast yet, so it starts eating rich people like popcorn. The shark also has an uncanny ability to teleport from place to place. How else can you explain that it's already waiting for its escaping prey like a hungry Droopy Dog?

Monday, 21 November 2011

Lens Politica 2011

Lens Politica is one of the finest smaller-scale festivals Helsinki has to offer. The festival focuses on documentary films (also a few fictions) concerning different kind of issues from all over the world. It seems like this festival's precentage of foreign guests was bigger than with many bigger international festivals in Finalnd. I both visited Lens Politica for the first time this past weekend, and also wrote for the festival's catalogue. So I'll keep this post short and not overtly critical, because, you know, I might be politically biased.

Better This World
Directors: Kelly Duane, Katie Galloway (USA, 2011)

David McKay and Bradley Cooper seemed to be ordinary Texan teenagers, albeit quite left-leaning in their political opinions. But when they were caught attempting to disrupt the 2008 Republican Party Convention with fire bombs, a number of questions rose. What made the two friendly youngsters turn from political convictions to anarchism? In custody McKay and Crowder explained that the drastic measures were the last hope to get their message across and to end the inequal hard-line Bushist right-wing politics in America.

Although the subject is political with a capital P, directors Duane and Galloway have approached the subject from another point of view. The film is more a study of a co-dependent friendship. When each of the best friends feeds off the other's extremist views, nothing beautiful can happen. They both shield each other from the outside world and turns to the other. But that all makes the final half of the film all the more heinous. In custody, the FBI and Homeland Security start to play the two friends against each other. In custody, isolated and waiting for a trial while being fed lies about their best friend is an enormous strain on a friendship. The film's tension is built on whether this relationship can last in all the hubbub. It works on a morally grey area, where all the participants are equally heinous, and do things that have consequences on a lot of innocent people.

Director: Michael Barnett (USA, 2011)
In real life, you can't get spider-powers from being bitten from a radioactive arachnid. But you can put on a costume, get out to the streets and attempt to help people. In many urban centers around the world, real-life superheroes have started to emerge. Of course most of them come from America, but even Helsinki has our own Laser Skater, who was in attendence of the screening of this film. A lot of real-life superheroes are just entertainers looking to make people happy. But the guys the film covers are people fed up with the apathy and turning a blind eye towards suffering in a modern urban area. Even with no superpowers, you can help out the homeless, spread the word about a dangerous sex offender, not allow people driving while drunk, and stop fights.

But real-life superheroes are not just saints. Many of them are lonely people, without other hobbies, that live in their little fantasy worlds. So while it may be funny to watch a kid dressed in cape do extreme superheroic poses while going to ride in a subway, there is also a melancholic side to it. One almost gets the feeling that these superheroes were people that didn't get the help they would've deserved at some point in their life. Barnett's film plays a lot of the ridiculousness of the characters by doing comic-book panels of them and such. But at the same time he also looks at the phenomena from multiple points at the same time. Interviewed are other urban dwellers, cops, psychologists, Stan Lee (because what's a superhero film without a Stan Lee cameo), and of course, the heroes themselves. Their personalities vary from the timid Mr. Xtreme to the happy-go-lucky beer-drinking Master Legend. There may be a little too many heroes in the film, and thus the time doesn't last to go deep into the psychology of these characters. But the doc is entertaining, funny and makes the viewer ponder.

Um Shmum – Seven Hours to Death
Director: Gideon Gitai (Finland, 2011)

Um Shmum is what the high-ranking Israeli generals might say about the UN (Um in hebrew). The director Gideon Gitai moved from Israel to Finland years ago when he got fed up with his native country's aggressive politics and disregard for the international community. Thanks to the support from the USA, Israel has done numerous violent strikes to achieve its goals without having to listen to any critical voices. In 2006 this culminated when the Israeli military dropped a bomb in Khiam, which killed four neutral international observers. The outraged Gitai did a politcal documentary, that examines Israel's foreign politics from the early 1960's onwards, parallelled with various UN logs.

The problem with the film is that altough the subject matter is interesting, the film is very dry. Gitai is more of a journalist rather than a filmmaker. We hear testimonies from diplomats, politicians (including Finland's foreign minister Erkki Tuomioja, who has spoken against the tyranny posed by Israel towards the international community), and also war veterans and victims from Israel. But they are largely portrayed as mere talking heads, with just a minimal amount of archive footage thrown in. The film has been made very cheap, and altough one must admire its goals and attempts, it would work better as a reportage in a news programme.

The Death of Pinochet (La muerte de Pinochet)
Directors: Iván Osnovikoff, Bettina Perut (Chile, 2011)

When the former dictator, General Augusto Pinochet, died on a hospital bed in December 2006, a lot of different emotions were stirred in Chile. The leftists did a huge street party, laughing and dancing because a man they viewed as a murderer and as bad as The Devil himself had died. The rightists were stuck with grief, mourning the passing of a man they viewed as a father of the country, praying and visiting his corpse in a mausoleum. Needless to say, all that led to a lot of confrontations. But the film chorincling the events is colorful, almost carnivalistic. According to the co-director Osnovikoff, ithe whole ordeal is a satire.

The film really stretches the limits of documentary filmmaking. It doesn't feature talking heads but rather, talking mouths. Extreme closeups are mingled with footage shot during the days of Pinochet's passing. The camera might be in the middle of a crowd, or looking from the rafters of a large line waiting to pay respects to Pinochet's corpse. The film does take an equal look at the both sides of the ordeal. One gets the image that the leftists and the rightists are both as bad, taunting the other, going so far as to say thet they're glad a lot of the opposing side had been murdered during Chile's bloody contemporary history. There are a few characters featured that would fit right in with a Kafkaesque story or a film by Bunuel. A right-wing botanist loses to the bureaucracy and the partying her flower shop she needs to support her terminally ill husband and father. A leftist decides he would get a lot more of the word spred if he dressed like Santa Claus and passed pamphlets to soldiers. Chile was a truly crazy country during those days. The experimental film is not very long, but takes a while to pick up some steam. But once it gets going, it's quite good.

Red Forest Hotel
Director: Mika Koskinen (Finland, 2011)

One of the most talked-about documentaries of the festival was this film exposing the dirty businesses done by the part-finnish, part-swedish paper company Stora Enso in China. Extortion, violence, paying off politicians, and completely wrecking the environment are just some of the sinister acts the corporation seems to have their hands in in China. At the same time the company green-washes its image in the front page of major newspapers back home. Recently, representatives of Stora Enso have had a hard time explaining themselves in the media thanks to this film.

Director Mika Koskinen, a journalist specializing on Chinese subjects, originally set out to make a documentary about China's fight against global warming. He planned to interview also local representatives of Stora Enso, that are planting numerous eucalyptus trees near their paper-processing plant in rural provinces. But as soon as Koskinen arrived, he was questioned by representatives of Chinese government by what he is attempting to uncover. When the government and their spies started to tail Koskinen, he realized something fishy was going on with Stora Enso's businesses. But getting anyone to talk to him about it proved to be difficult, as he himself was grounded in the Red Forest Hotel and his interviewees getting kidnapped.

Much of the film takes place during Koskinen's stay at the hotel, with a lot of secretly shot footage of government officials speaking among themselves. This doesn't actually tell a lot other than that they wish to restrict what Koskinen might find out. That raises anxiousness that the film doesn't actually have anything other to say that Stora Enso doesn't allow reporters to find out about their business and while it's doing business with the local government, also has them in their back pocket to stop anyone snooping around. But Koskinen has packed the truly outrageous interviews to the end of the film, when he finally arrives to a small rural village to interview the locals. They have been forced to cut down the trees surrounding their own home by threatening to burn them if the wouldn't. Stora Enso's goons have gotten rid of all of the lower-level plantation and brutally beat anyone up that dares to demand for their human rights from the company. The eucalyptus forests planted in the openings have killed all the wildlife and sucked up all the water sources. All that is left is unnatural rows of similar trees, in a forest that is built to make money to a immoral corporation. While Koskinen's film isn't based very well for a cinematic piece, it is still a shocking revealation. The locals in the unnamed village reveal to hate us Finns. I fully understand why. This business is a shame for the whole country.

Tuesday, 15 November 2011

Brad Pitt to quit acting

Family man Pitt considers quitting.

This monday, the American actor Brad Pitt said in an interview he's considering retiring from acting when he turns 50, three years from now. It's a remarkable decision, and I'm more than a little saddened by this. Particularly this fall, I've been talking to a lot of my friends how I think he's a great actor and perhaps one of the best in Hollywood at the moment. Now that Johnny Depp has sold out on us, ironically Pitt seems to have turned to the completely opposite direction, only making interesting films with acclaimed directors. He'll certainly leave a lasting legacy behind him. Here's a selected list of some of the directors he's worked with:
  • Terrence Malick (The Tree of Life)
  • David Fincher (Se7en, Fight Club and The Curious Case of Benjamin Button)
  • Joel & Ethan Coen (Burn After Reading)
  • Quentin Tarantino (Inglourious Basterds)
  • Andrew Dominik (Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford)
  • Alejandro González Iñárritu (Babel)
  • Guy Ritchie (Snatch.)
  • Terry Gilliam (12 Monkeys)
  • Ridley Scott (Thelma & Louise)
  • Tony Scott (Spy Game, True Romance)
That list, as well as the roles he played on those movies, is certainly is something to marvel. Being at the top of the A-list does get you access to work with some pretty amazing, visionary directors. Some other Hollywood bigshots do have almost as impressive lists:
  • Matt Damon (f. ex. Clint Eastwood, The Coens, Paul Greengrass, Martin Scorsese, Terry Gilliam, George Clooney, The Farrellys)
  • Tom Cruise (f. ex. Brad Bird, Steven Spielberg, Michael Mann, Paul Thomas Anderson, Brian DePalma, Martin Scorsese, Ridley & Tony Scott, Stanley frickin' Kubrick!)
  • Johnny Depp (f. ex. Tim Burton obviously, Michael Mann, Robert Rodriguez, Jim Jarmusch, Terry Gilliam, Emir Kusturica, John Waters, Oliver Stone, Wes Craven)
Is this just a phenomenon of the modern superstars? With the exception of Cruise, they all are not only handsome, but talented as well. But how does this compare to more classical actors?
  • Al Pacino (Christopher Nolan, Michael Mann, Brian DePalma, Francis Ford Coppola, William Friedkin, Sidney Lumet, Jerry Schatzberg)
  • Dustin Hoffmann (Tom Tykwer, David O. Russell, Steven Spielberg, Sydney Pollack, Alan Pakula, Sam Peckinpah, Arthur Penn, John Schlesinger, Mike Nichols)
  • Robert De Niro (Martin Scorsese obviously, Robert Rodriguez, Quentin Tarantino, Matthew Vaughn, John Frankenheimer, Michael Mann, Brina De Palma, Terry Gilliam, Sergio Leone, Michael Cimino, Alan Parker, Francis Ford Coppola)
On second thought, if you look at those three, 50 might be just the right age to retire. So kudos for your past work, Brad, and hope we still see three years' worth of great movies. Give Fincher a call, at the very least.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

The Directors: Sergio Leone

Our spaghetti western weekend goes on. Sergio Leone (1929-1989) was one of the very few visionaries who both have an instantly recognizable style, and also shaped the face of cinema so strongly that it never really was the same after he was done. Leone started out by learning filmmaking by being a trusted second unit director, and went on to almost single-handedly creating the spaghetti western genre. With the success he got, he sought to create bigger and bigger epics, each taking more and more painstakingly accurate work and years to complete. It's too bad we didn't get any more films from Leone, but at least each and every one of them is highly worth watching, and they all give unforgettable experiences to the viewer. Leone is also one of the manliest directors out there, women rarely have a big part in his larger scheme of things. Not to throw the word around lightly, Leone is an icon, having created numerous images that stay in the collective unconscious and still shape cinema today.

The Colossus of Rhodes (Il colosso di Rodi, 1961)

Early in his career, Sergio Leone did second-unit directing a lot, and even allegedly directed some films credited to other people. But we'll start out with the first film that is solely credited to the man. This historical epic came from a time when the Italians churned out historical adventure movies of sword and sandals genre. The industry would have hits from more interesting genres by the middle of the decade, but at that point the way to go was with peplum.

Rhodes is a peaceful island, that has managed to divide itself from the raging wars of the city states of Greece. The proud citizens of Rhodes have finished a giant statue of Apollo, called the colossus, that works as a lookout for any war ships coming in from the sea. Darius comes from the battelefields of Athens to seek rest and relaxation. However, he soon finds himself soon tangled in a feud between the island's King Serse (Roberto Carmadiel) and a group of rebels that claim that the king is a tyrant. The feud also spreads beyond the limits of the island as Darius finds out about a sinister plot to conquer the entire island.

Leone's film does actually reflect on his later films, as the protagoinist is no larger-than-life muscle man that would solve all the problems with his sheer strength. The hero, Athenian war hero Darius (Rory Calhoun) is as powerless to stop war and carnage as Leone's heroes later on would be in the face of war and bloodshed. One man doesn't weigh much in the grand scheme of warfare. Leone is also as sadistic as ever, and has devised quite cruel contraptions that the captured rebels get tortured with. By the end, he also has a grandiose natural catastrophy scene that spares no people. Leone manages to shoot with his minimal budget scenes that wouldn't look out of place from that period's high-budgeted Hollywood films. The group shots are particularly wonderful. The director is clearly still young, eager, relentless and perhaps a bit angry. Plot-wise the film doesn't offer anything too amazing, but as a starting point it is not without its charms.


A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugnio di dollari, 1964)

Like many so-called firsts in cinema history, A Fistful of Dollars wasn't actually the very first western done in Italy, but it was the first significan piece and the first hit, which makes its mark. Genre filmmaking is funny in the way that certain elements go around the world as well as through different genres to come back where it started. The first film in the Dollars trilogy steals its plot ruthlessly from Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo. Kurosawa himself was inspired by American westerns which featured one man against a system, such as High Noon.

A stranger (Clint Eastwood) rides into a town. He notices not a lot of people are around and even a small child by a well gets beaten for being at the worng place. Indeed, the town is terrorized by two criminal gangs, the Rojos (mexicans) and the Baxters (Americans). The tough and smart stranger (who is called Joe, but doesn't actually give his name to anyone) decides to earn as much from the situation as he can, and plays the gangs against each other. But the plan doesn't go flawlessly and leads to a massacre or two. In the end, "Joe" must face off against the leader of the surviving gang in a big face-off.

The film is notoriously violent and cynical but hey, that's the way I want my spaghetti westerns. Leone created an iconic cinematic look for the film, where everything from the sets to the actors themselves looks shoddy, dirty and badly sunburn. But at least for me, the film isn't yet a masterpiece. In following Kurosawa's film's plot too closely, the film is uneven and drags at parts, where Kurosawa would have his philosphy about nobility and sacrifice. Of course, Leone's film lacks such subtexts, and the only motivation for the characters is greed, which can lead to pretty ruthless businesses.

The spaghetti western genre, started by Leone here, would later go on to inspire the new American action film genre in the 70's and 80's. Leone has as little dialogue in his film as possible, perhaps because while Clint Eastwood acted in english, most of his cast were italian. With as strong as possible visual sense everyone would understand the film without language. That's also probably why the film became such a crossover hit acroos the world.

★★★ 1/2

For A Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in piú, 1965)

The second Dollars film is the first one in Leone's career that feels completely his own. Instead of ripping off Kurosawa's Sanjuro, Leone decided to go with an original story and the world is richer because of that. Luciano Vincenzoni was his credited co-writer, but also acclaimed Italian screenwriters Fernando di Leo (director of Milano Calibro 9) and Sergio Donati worked for the script.

The stranger is back, this time he is called Monco (which means one-handed in spanish). For legal resons, Leone has had to explain that the protagonists in the two films were not actually the same person, but aside from the name, there's nothing that would separate the two. They are both played by Clint Eastwood, they both wear the same poncho, they both are low on words but quick with guns, both have a grim sense of humour and both are skillful bounty hunters, out to grab as much cash as they can. The cigarrillo-chewer sets his eyes on a group of bandits led by the notorious El Indio (Gian Maria Volonté). But he finds out that another skillful bounty hunter is after the same reward. Colonel Douglas Mortimer (Lee van Cleef) has also some personal businnesses to settle with Indio.

Also one of Leone's recurring themes is building his film on a three-way fight between characters. The embryonic Good, Bad and Ugly are at play here, but not yet as clearly defined and thus almost more interesting to follow. But the film is not merely a show for its three leads. With a bigger budget Leone managed to grab some interesting European character actors to play minor roles, not just any available italians. The most famous is of course Klaus Kinski as a hunchbacked henchman (try saying that as fast and many times as you can with a mouthful of chips) Wild. But other members of Indio's gang are also played by some greats, such as Mario Brega, Luigi Pistilli and Panos Papadopulos.

The key sequence of the film is the one where Monco and Mortimer attempt to intimidate each other to leave town. This includes scaring up a bellhop, stomping on each other's shoe, and shooting the hat off one another to further and further away. A group of children observes, noting "just like the games we play". Leone is having fun toying around with the western elements. Altough his films may be cynical and show that only money matters, it is the sort of ironic cynicism that should not be taken to be symbolic of the real world. Leone's films are pastiches, parodies and caricatures, distorting anything wholesome the American westerns may have had. They are in a sense, comic movies that work with the same logic as Italian western comics or pulp fiction would. The setting, characters and iconography is what's important. The rest is just for fun, and it's about as much fun as you can have with a movie.


The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo, 1966)

From the beginning you know what you're in for. The crude animation with stark colours plays as Ennio Morricone's iconic theme music is playing. All of the Dollars films have fine opening sequences and great music, but the one in the closing film takes the cake by not being as incredibly clumsy as before, and being properly cut to the main theme. The opening should tell you all you need to know: the film is sort of like pop art. It takes iconography that you know by heart and makes something altogether new with it. At the same time it makes fun of the original material and highly respects by raising it as a work of art. The end result should not be taken altogether seriously, but is not by any means a joke, either.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is the first major epic in Leone's career. The previous two Dollars films work just as well from a TV set, but from now on we are talking ablout HUGE movies that only really work from a big screen when the sound is up! The film has been a major influence to almost all action films since. The film's tongue-in-cheek philosophy would do well with many movie villains as well: "When you got to shoot, shoot, don't talk!"

The film is set sometime in the American Civil War.  Clint Eastwood's character is this time named Blondie, but is still the same as ever. He still doesn't talk very much and he'll still do anything for a fistful of dollars. But the real focus and the protagonist of the film is the Mexican bandit Tuco (Eli Wallach), a cruel, stupid, vengeful, greedy, two-faced, but somehow also a very lovable character. He also shows some signs of character development during the film. Tuco is Blondie's best friend, partner in crime and also the worst enemy. The assassin Angel Eyes (Lee van Cleef) completes the trio. Angel Eyes is a ruthless man, who'll not only kill a wanted man, but also his family and take their money when he only needed to get was one name. When he gets paid, he'll kill his employer, because he reckons, the previous body wanted to hire him to do so. Angel Eyes also works as a deputy leader of a northern POW camp. All three are after a grave filled with gold bricks confiscated during the war, and willing to betray and kill one another to get it.

As you can guess from the characters, the name is strongly ironic. In fact, Leone had considered using Inglorious Bastards as a title before Enzo G. Castellari swiped it for his own war movie. Although Blondie's namely the Good, he's not really a hero you can look up to. In fact he's only the least bad of the three main characters, who are all greedy and ruthless men,  prepared to kill anyone who stands in their way. But what sets Blondie above the rest of them is that he seems to be the only character  capable of some sort of empathy towards dying soldiers. The Bad is really bad, unredeemably so, but The Ugly shows that while he may be a real bastard, there are some good sides to him, too.

The movie also has a strong anti-war message. War brings out the cruelty of men and the value of the human life drops to nothing. While there are some epic war scenes, huge explosions and realistic sets, Leone uses them to critize the loss of human life. The POW camp could be a concentration camp just as well, as prisoners get beaten near death as the choir is forced to sing, so the voices of the beating couldn't be heard. You are put to the camp for simply rooting for the wrong side.

But really, the film excels in sheer cinematic storytelling. The scenes near the end at a cemetary are some of the strongest examples of pure style ever committed to film. The showdown relies almost solely to Morricone's score building up the tensions, with Leone's unique skills of intervowing long, landscape shots and extreme closeups bring out the anxiousness of the main characters to settle the schism between them and find out who gets the gold. But the film is by no means a hard watch, even with its violence, cynicism and anti-war stance. In fact, Leone has upped the comedy in this one, which is witnessed from the first scene to the in the immortal final line.


Once Upon A Time In The West (C'era una volta il West, 1968)

After the success of TGTBaTU, Leone set out to make the ultimate western, his last foray into the genre. He hired film critics Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci (who would go on to become iconic Italian film directors themselves) to write a script about every western archetype they could come up with and honor the history of the genre. The initial draft was too intellectual, so Leone started with the story and rewrote the script with his trusted friend Sergio Donati. Once Upon A Time in the West is a western film that is both traditional and also iconoclastic at the same time. It is consistently voted as one of the best western films of all time by both the critics and the audiences. The American Library of Congress has also decided to contain the movie in its library for its ”cultural, historical and aestehical” significance.

Sergio Leone cast his film with various western archetypes, but managed to tell their worn-out stories in a fresh way. He started out with hiring his idol from John Ford's westerns, Henry Fonda. Fonda had played generally good and noble characters, but Leone saw something distant and cool even in these roles, and thus cast him against his type as a ruthless killer. Fonda's Frank doesn't hesitate to kill, but is looking to retire and begin life as a businessman. His past deeds, however, come to haunt him. A quiet gunslinger who refuses to reveal his name appears to settle his score with Frank. He is known only as "Harmonica", and is played by Charles Bronson. Harmonica arrives as Frank is working as a henchman for the railroad tycoon Morton (Gabriele Ferzetti), probably the most melancholic character of the film. Morton is crippled because of a bone illness. He is slowly dying and wishes to see the Pacfic Ocean befor he dies. This is why Morton needs to rely on ruthless means to gain the properties where his upcoming railroad tracks will go.

One of such properties belongs to the recently widowed (because of Frank) Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale). The adamant woman balances on whether she should sell her ranch or not, and thus lives in the threat of getting killed by Frank. She is being protected first by Harmonica and later, also the notorious bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). Cheyenne's part in the story is to have the basic redemption story. He starts out as a feared and dangerous outlaw, but his image grows softer during the movie (perhaps due to him falling in love with Jill).

Although these characters are archetypes, they begin to show signs of breaking their molds. Thus, they are a lot more three-dimentional than similar characters in many other westerns. The film strongly emphasizes the loss of the old-fashioned western gunslinger, as the railroad tracks will bring more physically weak, but cunning men of new order such as Morton. The alienated, isolated, archetypal Real Men of the film are simply incapable of the complex, subtle, emotionally and physically tortured inter-relationships which characterise bounty hunters in many other revisionist westerns. The characters are either friends or foes, although these alliances can switch once in a while.

Leone himself has stated that the characters know their doom is impending, with the only exception being Jill. Leone's interests are depicting this Dance of Death between the characters, the rituals leading to violence. Especially in these instances Leone uses a lot of extreme close ups of his characters, the ”face as a landscape”. It allows Leone to emphasize the underlying emotions and thoughts of the characters without too much dialogue. This is all a part of the rituals preceding action, and character types fulfilling their pre set functions. At the same time these rituals are the ones that link them into the larger vein of western movies.

The film is long, and everything in it is long-winded. Yet the audio-visual perfection, the grandiose operatic of it all make sure that the viewer won't feel a single moment of boredom and three hours just fly by. When it's all over, the viewer is left wanting to spend more time with these, essentially dead characters. The cast of Once Upon A Time In The West live and die in the middle of a transition. As in many westerns, this also will finish the old west, hence the title. The other reason for the title is to emphasize that this is a sort of fairy tale, a tale of myths. This may very well be my favorite film of all time.


Duck, You Sucker a.k.a. A Fistful of Dynamite a.k.a. Once Upon A Time ...the Revolution (Giú la testa, 1971)

Like Sergio Donati told in his Q&A, The initial idea of Duck, You Sucker was his and Leone had to be persuaded to direct after he couldn't find another suitable candidate for the job. The film is often dismissed as one of Leone's lesser efforts, and has only now begun to gain interest from film critics and historians. I think a lot of reason why this has gotten so little acclaim is that it was marketed as a good-natured romp, a buddy movie and a comedy (like the english title would imply), while in fact the subject matter is dealt as heavily as in the other two films in the America-trilogy, and also a lot more political than in any of Leone's other films. The only reason this didn't get its initial title Once Upon A Time ...the Revolution was that the producers feared the film would be confused with Bernando Bertolucci's Before the Revolution.

The film is set in the Revolutionary war of Mexico. An IRA explosives expert, calling himself John Mallory (James Coburn) is on the run from the british. He happens to meet the mexican bandit Juan Miranda (Rod Steiger), who figures that John's skills with dynamite might make him able to rob a few Mexican banks. But when they do, it turns out in the vaults there is no money, but rather prisoners of war. By freeing them, John and Juan become heroes of the revolution. John has been interested in aiding the revolutionaries from the beginning, but the father of a large family Juan has to adjust to being a freedom fighter a little bit more.

Again, Leone has created a true epic, with massive crowd scenes. In fact, the director openly idolized David Lean, and like him, always wanted to make the biggest epic known to man with his each subsequent film. The film has a great deal of comedy, coming from the awkward buddy relationship of John and Juan. Yet the film has a melancholic undertone, with John harboring sad secrets within him, and Juan realizing just how much his country is hurt with the bloodshed and carnage of the war.  The film returns to the anti-war message of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but also reminiscens more clearly actual historical war crimes, from World War II and the bloody history of Italy itself. Also the power-hungry politics of Italy of that day are cynically addressed, showing that things will not get better over time, but that the greed, wrath and selfishness of people will always lead to cruel wars.

Unusual for Leone, the film doesn't have a clear villain beyond this realization. The men of honor are a dying breed, and when they realize this, the film gains more melancholic undertones. The only problems the film has is the awkward union of this sad sack politization and Leone's goofy buddy-film humour. But otherwise, it's up there with his best.


Once Upon A Time in America (1984)

Leone sought to make his grande finale, a gangster epic bigger than no other, for years and years. During that time, he also refused to direct The Godfather, which would ensure that his film would be compared to it. Perhaps Leone tried to bite down more than he could chew. His 4-hour mammoth of a film is still excellent, but not nearly the best gangster film ever made.

Once Upon A Time in America begins in an opium den, where the aging gangster David "Noodles" Anderson (Robert De Niro) reflects upon his life and his friendship with Max Bercowicz (James Woods). The entire thing can thus be seen to be a fever dream and the seeking of the American dream, whether by crime or by honest work, to be just a hallucination. The actual story spans almost 40 years and has three main decades we follow almost choronologically. First, we are taken back on New York in the 1920's, where packs of pre-teen hoodlums scheme to earn a few bucks and to pop their cherries. Eventually, the boys come into adulthood, and make the relationships that will form the rest of their lives. The ordeal, however comes with a price and the traumatic event of witnessing a violent death of a friend.

Almost ten years later, at the time of the prohibition, Noodles is released from prison and helped out by Max by allowing him to join in his illegal businesses. And those businesses come aplenty at the time of the prohibition and low morales. But altough money comes flowing in and the gangsters become successful, they aren't as lucky with relationships. Things cet even more complicated when the prohibition ends and the gangs has no work. For attempting to do a too outrageous bank job, Max is arrested and thrown into jail. In the late 1960's Noodles comes back to Brooklyn from hiding and tries to come to terms with the people he used to love.

The film sure is complex, but some of Leone's weaknesses start to shine once he's out of the comfort zone of shooting a film of a purely masculine world. He can't do good female characters, and the women in the film exist solely to be either fucked or pined upon. They don't have any other function to the story and remain flat. The gangsters also have a worryingly misgynistic worldview and we have to endure a couple of iffy rape-scenes that don't get punished within the film. 

But with the bank heists, planning of crimes and shooting the scenes of decadence, Leone is as apt as ever. However, the best sequence is the one set in 1920's, and it's like no other adolescent coming-of-age tale I know. Amoral, more than a little dirty, but at the time warm, nostalgic and highly credible, Leone has painstakingly recreated the 1920's New York. The entire film was shot in a studio, which makes some of his trademarked long landscape shots all the more impressive.


Sergio Leone scores the staggering 4,14.

Friday, 11 November 2011

Notes from a Q&A with Sergio Donati

Late in August, the legendary screenwriter Sergio Donati visited Finland and hosted screenings of his films For A Few Dollars More and Once Upon A Time in the West. There was also a Q&A session with Donati, with the film expert Lauri Lehtinen interviewing. Here are some of the most interesting tidbits from that Q&A. Sorry it took so long to transcribe this, I think this is best done by just bulletins than attempting to write a news article or an interview.
  • Donati got his major influences after the end of World War II when he was in his teens. He read the best American novels available, books from Hemingway and Steinbeck. When he met Sergio Leone, they also watched American films, such as John Ford's westerns, together.
  • Donati started out as a novelist, and published several crime novels first in -55 and -56. Film producer Ricardo Freda first optioned him to write a screenplay based on one of the novels. Donati made a "beautiful" adaptation of his crime novel, but never got paid from it. The script was also never made into a film.
  • During this time he also first met Sergio Leone, who was a second unit director back then. As an assistant director, he had an unique style in relation to the story even back then. Leone also had the economic sense to stretch the budget to his likings. He told Donati that he wanted his story to happen within one hotel. Donati later found out that the film's producer owned that particular hotel.
  • The two Sergios bonded because they had the same ideas about movies. When Donati moved to Milan to work as a copywriter in an advertizing agency, Leone still called him all the time to discuss movies and upcoming projects.
  • In 1963, Leone told Donati to go see Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and write the film's plot into a western. When Donati asked whether that would be a copyright infrigement, Leone responded that Kurosawa would never see his version of the movie. However, Donati was too busy with the advertizing business to be able to write the script. Leone had to get other screenwriters for his film A Fistful of Dollars.
  • Confirming the rumours, Donati remembers that Leone attempted to get a lot of bigger Hollywood actors for the main role before he settled for Clint Eastwood, known at the time from his roles on TV westerns, such as Rawhide. The last option before Eastwood was Cliff Robertson, who demanded for too much money.

  • Of course, A Fistful of Dollars became a huge success and eventually Leone would get into trouble for his borrowing from Kurosawa. For Leone's next film in the Dollars-trilogy, For A Few Dollars More, Donati was able to revise and doctor the script. He added some elements, such as the old man who informs Clint Eastwood's Monco about Colonel Mortimer. Donati had the sense of humour to make the character hate trains because the tracks were laid right next to his house. Whenever a train passed by, the house shook violently. The old man himself was driven off the rails by this development.
  • Donati wasn't straight-forwardly involved in the writing of The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, but helped out in the editing of the film. As Donati points out, the editing is 50% of Leone's films.
  • During the shooting of GBU, the relationship between Clint Eastwood and Sergio Leone started to become strained, according to Donati. Eastwood had become a big star, and thus started asking for more and more money. This led to Leone to insult that Eastwood had only two expressions – with a hat and without a hat.
  • In the end, Leone agreed to pay Eastwood what he wanted, but had Eli Wallach become the real star of the movie, and to make faces at the background when Eastwood was acting in the foreground.

  • Donati got called in to help revise the script for Leone's magnum opus, Once Upon A Time in The West, because Leone was unsatisfied with the script he wrote with Dario Argento and Bernando Bertolucci. Leone found that script to be too intellectual in its deconstruction of the western myths. 
  • Leone didn't take notes during script meetings, he had the whole film planned out in his head.
  • Donati's contribution includes the fleshing of the character of Jill, about the only real female character in any of Leone's films. Donati laughed that for Leone, a woman was most often either a bitch or a nun. That may be seen in the background for Jill as well, as she's an ex-prostitute.
  • In the original script, Charles Bronson's Harmonica was out avenging his father, not brother. In the finished film, the role of Harmonica's brother was played by the film's production manager.
  • Bronson had problems saying the letter "f". This called for numerous script changes on the set. Luckily, Donati was available. In fact, it was the only time he had been on a film set for a longer period of time. He spend 40 days on the set.
  • The film was shot in accordance of the score by Ennio Morricone, which was played in the set. Donati remembers particularly the scene where Jill leaves the train station and the camera pans to reveal an entire western city. The camera movements were made according to the music playing in the background.
  • Donati debunks the myth that Leone had considered Lee van Cleef, Eli Wallach and Clint Eastwood to play the three bandits in the opening scene. He recalled that the relationship with Clint Eastwood was so strained, that Leone had trouble getting the star even to dub his lines for The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in New York.

  • Donati wrote the story for Duck, You Sucker, which had references to Italian history, World War II and Italian politics. Leone was initially only interested in producing the film. He was done with the western genre and while Donati's script wasn't a straight-out western, it had plenty of the genre's iconography and sets.
  • The film was offered to Sam Peckinpah and Peter Bogdanovich. Leone wasn't happy with the latter's refusal to ever use zoom in his films.
  • During the first week of shooting, Leone had to succumb and direct the thing himself. He wasn't very interested in political issues, he was more a visual storyteller.
  • The main role was written originally with Eli Wallach in mind. However, he wasn't interested so the part was given to Rod Steiger instead.

  • For Once Upon A Time in America, Donati was with Leone at location scouting in New York. However, he wanted out of the partnership with Leone as he thought it was beginning to be too tight. In the end, all the film's sets were built in Rome.
  • There was talk of a TV series produced by Leone, called Sergio Leone's Colt, where we would follow a single gun that goes from the hands of dead people to the next users. This never came to fruition.
Sergio Donati (right) with The Finnish Film Archive's Kirsi Raitaranta and the film director Dome Karukoski. Photo by Janne Mikkonen.
    • Donati also wrote screenplays for Sergio Sollima for his films The Big Gundown and Face to Face.
    • Donati didn't enjoy working for Sollima as much as Sollima wanted to have more dialogue in his films rather than just stage directions. Sollima was also very political in his films, whereas Leone was a little more defective. Donati thought that the political ideology was better told with images than to have the characters say straight quotes.
    • Donati compares working with a director to a marriage. He had fights with Sollima about the content, and Sergio Leone cast the screenwriter out when his work wasn't needed any more. Donati's very favorite director to work with was Michele Lupo, who he collaborated with in six films. These include The Weekend Murders (1970), Escape From Death Row (1973) and Buddy Goes West (1981).
    • Donati also remembered fondly the trashy horror film Holocaust 2000 (1977), directed by Alberto De Martino.
    • He remebered how the film's star Kirk Douglas was a great guy. He was proud of his son Michael, who had at the time just won an Oscar for producing One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest. However, he talked less of his other sons. When one of them (presumably Eric Douglas) came to visit the set it became clear why, to Donati, as Kirk's son was as queer as christmas, and a real prodical son, asking for money.
    • Donati also remembers Arnold Schwarzenegger very fondly from the shooting of Raw Deal (which he wrote original story for). At the time he thought Arnold was very smart, as he didn't choose to take just any role suggested to him. Arnold had to have a layer of irony in his movies.
    • Donati still writes and his latest film, The Sicilian Girl, opened in 2008.
    • He thinks, however, that Italian cinema is dead. Silvio Berlusconi controls the media and any upcoming movie projects have to be suitable for prime-time television.
    • He thinks that the reason Italy became such a big producing country of western films is that it was the country in Europe with the second-biggest movie production. The French may love westerns, but to Donati, they don't understand them completely and thus don't do any.

    Tuesday, 1 November 2011

    Night Visions Maximum Halloween 3011 End Report

    What wouldn't one do to stay awake at Night Visions?

    So here's the report on the final night of this autumn's precious Night Visions Festival. You'll excuse me if I keep these talks short, because I have a lot to cover (and I actually left one movie out because there was so little to say about it).

    Red State (USA, 2011)
    Director: Kevin Smith

    The screening of Kevin Smith's latest film went really well with the audience. The most hilarious thing about it was that all the laughing made one audience member shout out in frustration "SHUT THE HELL UP! THIS IS NOT A COMEDY!" By the time the end sequence rolled along, I assume he saw the error of his ways. Red State is as much a comedy as any of Smith's previous films. Unlike most of Kevin Smith's previous movies, however, it is also pretty damn funny and good.

    In an ultra-conservative small town, the local preacher Abin Cooper (Michael Parks) is practicing drastic measures in his crusade against gay or otherwise sexually "unnormal" people. The teenage boys Travis, Randy and Jarod couldn't care less, instead browsing the internet, looking to get laid. Little do they know that they are playing straight into the sinister plans of Cooper and his deranged family.

    The script is among the very best things Kevin Smith has ever done, among Clerks I and II. What appears on surface to be a simple torture-porn horror film quickly changes into something else altogether, but revealing it would be spoiling things. Suffice to say the actual protagonist of the film is John Goodman's no-nonesense FBI agent Joseph Keenan who only comes into the movie about 45 minutes in. Among Smith's usual dick and shit jokes there is a clear political statement against fundementalist hate-groups. Also, Smith's humour is pitch-black this time around and he isn't tiptoeing around his characters, allowing many of them to suffer quick and surprising demises. The film's flaws are found in his lack of directorial skills. Some of the action sequences are confusingly edited, and the film does end in a big deus ex machina, albeit a funny one at that.

    It is a sort of modern postmodern genre-combining, tribute-giving genre piece, but it is well-made, acted, structured and entertaining. I wouldn't have thought Smith had it in him. Let's hope he makes more of these rather than romantic comedies.

    ★★★ 1/2

    Morituris (Italy, 2011)
    Director: Raffaele Picchio

    While the smart people that purchased the ticket to the Surprise Movie (which turned out to be Attack The Block), I had the big idea to check on the modern Italian exploitation cinema. This film is about Roman Gladiator Zombies who come to life and use their inexplicable superpowers to kill off a bunch of twentysomethings. Sounds like a surefire plan, right?

    Well, it failed. The trailers of the film showing before some screenings earlier already made me dread for the film in advance. The trailers were nothing but dimly-lit forests and people running around them. No jokes, no action, no gore. The splatter effects in the film were made by Sergio Stivaletti, known from special effects in such films as Demons and Cemetary Man. Also what was funny for a while was the horribly bad subtitles that seemed to be in Borat English. These two things were by far the best part in the film, and even they felt like too little too late.

    For the exploitation film totally screws its stupid concept by making us watch as five bad actors talk their way into a rave in the middle of a forest. It is all a ruse, however, and the three Italian men plan to brutally rape and murder the two Romanian tourist girls they had picked up. And we have to watch about twenty minutes of them brutally beating the crying women before the killing starts. Now, I'm far from being a moralist, but I do feel that rape is such a painful subject that it should only be used in films that treat it with the gravitas, such as Irreversible or Boys Don't Cry. Of course there are exploitation films such as the original I Spit On Your Grave that feel disgusting but even they have something to say about the subject. Here it is used just to make the audience want to reach catharsis by watching the rapists get brutally killed. As of such, there is no entertainment value to this thing.

    ★ 1/2

    Viva Riva! (Democratic Republic of Congo/France/Belgium, 2010)
    Director: Djo Munga

    Viva Riva has been getting praise ever since its screening at the Berlin Film Festival last spring. Indeed, it is a clear sign on the rising talent from the middle Africa. But it was also mildly disappointing because it's not that particularly original. This kind of gangster story has of course been told numerous times before. Of course there is certain exotism and African flavour among it. Sex and violence come of course with the deal.

    Riva (Patsha Bay) is a petrol dealer in Kinsasha. He finds a huge supply of precious barrels with his sidekick J.M. (Alex Herabo). He gains a good profit, selling off the drums, but his riches also attract attention from various lowlifes who want in on the cut. Riva himself is more interested in wooing a married woman, Nora, who has an abusive husband. When the gang boss Azor (Diplome Amekindra) finds out about his businesses, Riva has to walk on thin ice to avoid a full-scale gang war.

    The film does earn its title of African Scarface, as the themes of sacrificing friendship and love for excessive luxury and over-the-top consumption. As you may guess, it does not end good for Riva. But the real stars of the film are the colorful cast of minor characters, to the female soldier masquerading as a nun to the ruthless crime boss.


    High Crime (La polizia incrimina la legge assolve, Italy 1973)
    Director: Enzo G. Castellari

    Enzo G. Castellari is first and foremost a self-described entertainer, and a very good one at that. But it was a hugely pleasant surprise to find out that he had managed to direct at least one lean and mean crime thriller that also has ponderous subtext, political messages and very arty editing. The end result was so good, much of the film was remade by Castellari himself into 1980's much more action-oriented Revenge of the Cobra. You recognize a true exploitation master from allowing himself to exploit even his own work.

    In Genoa, the police is closing in on a large-scale drug operation ring. Comissario Belli (known from 1969's Un detective, still played by Franco Nero) in particular is fond of using drastic measures to catch the culprits. So, he engulfs in car-chases and beats up suspects, much to the annoyance of the police commissioner Aldo Scavino (James Whitmore). But the criminals are also particularly ruthless, and won't hesitate to kill their own or to threaten the police force's families. They are also well-prepared enough to carry out their threats.

    The ever-young Castellari was also present at the screening, and remembered that the film's initial idea came from a real-life crime headlines. He also claimed that the ruthlessness of the fight against crime and corruption is still as ruthless as it is in the film, particularly in Italy. Much of the action takes place among the labor protests and the mafia also has connections to the unions. But by the end the workers realize which is the worse of the two evils and allow Belli to do his job. Even though Castellari trusts in the little people, there is some cynical views on authorities who are either corruptible or in a position where they can be offed easily, while the culprits get away with it. The film has a very postmodern editing style that at part mixes events to the dreams of the characters and alternative happenings that turn out to be false. The end in particular is left open and it's left for the viewer to decide whether the outlook is really cynical or whether there's a glimmer of hope within it.

    Castellari is still very proud of the film, as he should be, and the film was a huge success at the time. It was also the first of many crime films he came to direct.

    ★★★★ 1/2

    Trespass (USA, 2011)
    Director: Joel Schumacher

    If Night Visions has a Nicolas Cage film in its programme, it is usually worth seeing. And noticing that it was directed by none other than Joel Schumacher, expectations were either on über-camp or at a reasonably bleak thriller. At the end the film delivered a mostly serious and working thriller, that also has really over-the-top performances that will work for any fans of Cage's raging on screen.

    Cage plays the diamond-dealer Kyle Miller, an all business and no play -family man. He lives in a remote mansion with his wife Sarah (Nicole Kidman) and teenaged daughter Avery (Liana Liberato). He is hardly ever home, which has taken its strain on his marriage, and setting the rules straight to Avery (in Hollywood movies it's always the parents' fault if a teenager wants to go to a party). But the high-end security that the house has, also has a few flaws that are exploited by a team of high-end burglars that kidnap Kyle and Sarah and demand them to get them to open their safe. But what happens when Kyle very adamantly refuses? 

    Schumacher is actually a pretty good thriller director, and his films tend to work better in a restricted area. Most of the film's plot takes place in the Miller's house. Cage's Kyle is no coward but he is hardly heroic, being calculating, bargaining and altogether slimy in other ways as well. He is playing with the life of his family after all. So it's a bit hard to swallow that the film's events are supposed to bring the family together. Kidman has happily laid off the botox and is capable for two expressions now, and has finally started to show some signs of age. But the best part of the film are the criminals, who are a desperate bunch, but played off as real characters with problems, not merely as a tour-de-force obstacle in the way of our protagonists. It may have not been Schumacher's intention, but the film actually works up a pretty grey area on its portrayal of good and bad guys.


    Rabies (Kalevet, Israel 2010)
    Directors: Aharon Keshales, Navot Papushado

    The first horror film to ever be produced in Israel shows promise. The directors Aharon Keshales and Navot Papushado were set to appear on the festival, but the pre-production of their next film prevented that. Or maybe they just boycotted Valley of the Wolves: Palestine, I don't know.

    Rabies follows a few groups of people who are all driven to one mysterious forest. First, there are two teenagers from a rich family on the run, a brother and a sister who have ickily fallen in love and escaped their parents. While running through the woods, the sister falls into a trap set by a mysterious huntsman. While looking for help, the brother gets ran over by a car driven by tennis-players (two boys and two girls) on their way to a game. Luckily the crash victim doesn't die, but instead insists on going to find his sister. While the boys go out to the woods, the girls call for the police. Too bad the worst officers, a sex-hungry pig and his melancholy partner, happen to come to the scene and start harassing the tennis chicks. All the while a ranger has found the wounded girl in the trap and attempts to take her back to his cabin. But seemingly something also makes people in the forest very aggressive, and due to bad communications, each of the groups will engulf in bloodshed.

    I really like the rare horror film where the actual threat is kind of vague. The name implies that a virus is spreading in the woods that makes the people act so blood-thirsty. But it doesn't manifest in red eyes and foaming mouths, so it's always a surprise when a character suddenly resorts to violence. But they can also snap back at being reasonable and be horrified to see what they have done. Bad communications lead into a lot of trouble, as do dysfunctioning relationships, which to gether make people push each other further and further. A lot of anger comes through these characters and their petty woes. They don't realize that their heartaches aren't so bad as to die for, and that makes them all the more tragic.

    The different segments in the film compliment each other, much like in Alan Moore-scripted comics. The editing works well, altough there may be a little too many people to keep track of. At first it seems that the film is satirizing macho attitudes as wanting to get a girl most often leads to caveman-like violent outbursts. But the girls get to act violent by themselves later on, too. The film also contains a lot of humour, and suitably it is pitch-black. This actually is a rare thing nowadays: a horror film set in a forest that does work!

    ★★★ 1/2

    Deadball (Deddobôru, Japan 2011)
    Director: Yûdai Yamaguchi 

    Alongside Cage, what usually works in the middle of the night are the goofy japanese splatter films from the studio Sushi Typhoon. The films do tend to be hit-and-miss, but what sets Deadball on the right path is that its jokes come thick and fast, Airplane! -style. So altough there are plenty of humour that doesn't entertain, it goes over fast and we are off to the next moronically hilarious set-piece.

    Jubeh Yakyu (Tak Sakaguchi) is a juvenile delinquent, charged with dropping 53 televisions on people's heads. The Clint Eastwood-modeled chain-smoker is put to the Pterodactyl Juvenile Reformatory. The prison is led by actual Nazis, they greet you by anal fisting you all the way to the elbow, and for supper, vomit is served. It soon dawns to Jubeh that he must get out of there as soon as possible. The best way would be to join the prison's baseball team, but ever since Jubeh crushed his father's head with a superpowered pitch and his brother went crazy, slaughtering people with balls, he has made a vow never to throw a ball again. But he may soon need to, since the nazis are planning to get rid of their prisoners by making the game a lot more violent.

    The japanese do a lot of cartoon-like comedies and this is pure Tom & Jerry humour but with real people. The film is very crass, and its gory kill scenes are far from convincing. But the best way to watch this kind of crap is in the middle of the night with an audience howling with laughter. It does run out of steam at one point, but saves a lot by offering a truly outrageous finale. One has to ponder what did the regular japanese citizens think about that one.


    Valley of the Wolves: Palestine (Kurtlar Vadisi Filistin, Turkey 2011)
    Director: Zübeyr Sasmaz

    By outrageousness, however, nothing beats this Turkish action film. It is the latest adventure of the Turkish agent Polat Alemdar (Necati Sasmaz), who would be best described as the muslim Steven Seagal. Polat travels the world to where-ever the muslims suffer oppression, and doesn't hesitate to brutally murder whoever is to blame for that. He has already set things right in Iraq, by killing lots of yankee scum, so now he heads to Palestine. The Turkish commando team runs into problems already at the border where they refuse to recognize that they have come to Israel. They state that their business is to kill the military leader of the Jews, the über-zionist Mosche Ben Eliezer (Erdal Besikcioglu). When the border guard refuses to take them to him, they start to shoot up soldiers. And won't stop until all the bad Jews in Palestine have been killed.

    During the old days, Turkish films were mostly hilariously clumsy rip-offs of big Hollywood pictures, since no copyright laws were held in the country. Nowadays things are different, altough the spirit remains the same. Valley of the Wolves 2 looks expensive enough and has a somewhat original story. But the core is exactly the same as in the most over-the-top right-wing revenge fantasies of the 80's and 90's, mostly starring Chuck Norris and Steven Seagal. Like those guys, Sasmaz doesn't quip too many one-liners, but when he does, they are suitably awful. All the Turkish action films I've seen have nearly invincible leading men. It's also true here. It is impossible to kill Polat and his two brothers-in-arms, but they slaughter Israeli soldiers by the hundreds. That's probably why the Israelis have to kill so many palestinian civils and Hamas fighters to compensate.

    So the film is nearly only killing people, and to boot it is an unbelievably serious affair. Too much joking would've taken some of the edge off this. Now, the end result is repetitive and awful, but one must admire its ruthless attitude. And it worked, too: The film became the most watched film of all time in Turkey.


    Ator – the Fighting Eagle (Ator l'invincibile, Italy 1983)
    Director: Joe D'Amato

    Needless to say, the film isn't nearly as awesome nor expensive as the poster.
    And then we got to the real meat of the festival, about 7 AM in the morning. Joe D'Amato is known as a real godfather of sleaze in Italy. He directed hunderds of films, most of which didn't shy away from nudity, gore and sex. But when the early 80's came, he saw a market for an adventure movie for children, and copied the adventures of Conan, so memorably brought to screen by John Milius. Ator the Barbarian was a series that spawned three films, and we had the good fortune to see the very first one.

    In a needlessly detailed backstory (which is told no less than twice) we learn that according to the prophecies, the newborn Ator will be the chosen one to throw the evil High Priest of the Spider (played by a bearded burly black dude named Dakar). The warrior Griba (Edmund Purdom) takes the baby to be raised in a remote village and hides his birthright from the Armies of the Spider. Things do not work as good as they should, as Ator grows up to be played Miles O'Keeffe, and neither looks or acts like anything is working inside his head. When Ator has grown of age, he brings back a bear cub as a pet for his step sister. 

    As you can see from this clip, he also decides that the siblings must marry. Somehow, his foster-parents happily agree, but as they are about to complete the ceremony, the Armies of the Spider attack, kill all the villagers except Ator, and steal his sister. He appears to be a little bummed by this. But then Griba appears and promises to train Ator to be a true warrior. Somehow for an 80's movie this is done without a montage, and Ator learns all the necessary skills in one afternoon. When taking a break, he spots a beautiful female thief (Sabrina Siani) fighting against aggressors. Luckily, everyone else in Ator's world is as smart as a lima bean, and Ator manages to best them. The female who refuses to reveal her name (altough it is actually Roon) joins Ator on a quest to defeat the High Priest of the Spider, and the Spider as well.

    And treasure.
    As you probably notice, the film's plot seems to be written by a five-year-old. Ator and Roon bumble from one fantasy cliché to another just because and escape because they were supposed to. Following them is Ator's pet bear, and D'Amato spends an uncanny amount of time just shooting it running from one place to another. Seems like he almost would've wanted to make a film about cute baby animals instead. That might explain why all the action in Ator is so horribly shot that it look just like five-year-olds fighting with plastic swords. In the end we get a betrayal that makes absolutely zero sense, the worst giant spider I have ever seen (it looks like a big hairy arse with dangling legs, caught in a corridor), and Ator choosing his sister over the fair, corageous and dying Roon. He's not just stupid, he's an asshole too.

    The film is slow as hell and so stupid I think I suffered some sort of brain damage. But if there is one time of the day when this kind of thing makes you giggle, it's at 7 in the morning when you have stayed up all night.

    ★ or ★★★★★

    Lady Terminator (Pembalasan ratu pantai selatan, Indonesia 1989)
    Director: H. Tjut Djalil

    But even Ator's magnificent stupidity remains second to this masterpiece, which will surely be hailed as one of the best closing films Night Visions has ever seen, alongside Pieces and Super Typhoon. Lady Terminator is something truly incredible. Altough the title might give you such an idea, the film doesn't actually contain any robots, cyborgs or androids. But it is a pretty clear-cut copy of James Cameron's The Terminator otherwise. It is a true trashy exploitation film from Indonesia, where such things hardly matter.

    According to an Indonesian legend, there was once a sex-hungry queen who couldn't be satisfied by any man. She then bit their penises off with her vagina dentata in the heat of passion. But one man realized what was the problem, and pulled a snake out of her tush. This angered the Sea Queen so much that she vowed revenge on the disciples of the man in the future. Cut to the modern day, where a spunky young anthropology student Tania Wilson (Barbara Ann Constable) decides to visit the island where the Sea Queen used to live. But while diving, she is surprised to see herself fall into a comfrotable bed and getting her legs spread. Then an asp slithers into her pussy and thus she is possessed by the spirit of the Evil Queen herself. When she returns to shore nude, she stumbles upon a couple of horny Indonesian youths. They soon get their penises bitten off and are VERY dead bodies.

    And this is where the similarities to James Cameron's sci-fi classic begin. Tania is now utterly unstoppable and she targets the young nightclub singer Erica (Claudia Angelique Rademaker), who's a descedent of the young man who wrecked the Sea Queen's powers way back when. A widowed American cop in Singapore Max McNeill (Christopher J. Hart) tries to help her to survive. In the film's action, Lady Terminator doesn't lose at all to even T2, as more and more rounds are shot. Seriously, every single character that gets shot in the film gets shot into swiss cheese. The script doesn't care one bit that Lady Terminator isn't a robot, so she hilariously does very robot things just because. When she cleans her eyeball under the sink in one scene, it actually looks better made than with Arnold Schwarzenegger's puppet head.

    Go with them if you want to live.
    The film's dialogue is ludicrous, and howlingly funny. It doesn't sound like anything anyone would say in any circumstances. The characters have almost no logic in their decisions, so they might go shopping when they know an unkillable murderer is on their trail. The finale une-ups all the craziness that has gone before it, by bringing in helicopters, surfer dudes, laser eyes and the lot. I haven't laughed so hard for a very, very long time.

    ★ or ★★★★★

    Thanks a million for the unforgettable memories again, Night Visions. Can't wait for what's in store in the spring!


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