Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Punk on Film

This intro should be quick and go to the point like a kick to the balls. The central rules of punk rock state that we need to be LOUD, FAST, RUDE, AND TAKE NO PRISONERS! Gabba Gabba Hey! It's Punk on Film!

Rock 'n' Roll High School (1979)
Director: Allan Arkush

The legendary producer Roger Corman came up with the idea of making money doing a Musical Comedy for teenagers, but initially thought to tap into the Disco craze of the time. Director Allan Arkush, however, had a longer sight and suggested to make a Rock Comedy. The seminal New York Punk band The Ramones were chosen as the leads, not because they were popular, but because they were cheap. But nevertheless, it was a match made in heaven. The brutal, to-the-point and black humour-filled Ramones lyrics fit like a leather jacket on a quickly paced comedy. Like The Ramones themselves, the film gained quite a large cult reputation through the years.

One of the most iconic things about the film is it's hand drawn poster, drawn in the style used in MAD Magazine. There are millions of small details and the overall image of total chaos. It's style would go on to be imitated in billions College comedies including Animal House, but with that one exception, rarely bettered. Arkush's film is also a lot like a movie parody comic on the pages of MAD would be. Jokes come thick and often, there's a lot of stuff going on at the background, and the film is filled with colorful characters. The Ramones themselves can't act worth a penny, but happily they mostly just need to look cool and do their unique, manic performances.

Ramones audience.
The plot involves a new, strict principal Miss Togar (Mary Woronov) taking over Vince Lombardi High School. She believes that at the root of the student's disobedience is their love for loud Rock 'N Roll, and thus begins a crusade to ban the music altogether. This insidious plot includes forbidding any students attending a concert by The Ramones. Ramones' No. 1 fan, the rebellious Riff Randall (P.J. Soles) has other ideas, and sneaks into the concert with her friend Kate Rambeau (Dey Young). She gains the Ramones' attention because she's written a song for them called Rock 'N Roll High School. The star-struck Randall then begins to plot an uprising in the school with the help of her favorite band.

I like very much that most of the film's most visible and capable characters are all women. Soles is a convincing lead, being at the same time cunning, rebellious, a little naïve and cute enough to be lovable. Most of the film's men can't keep up with her, including the hapless Tom Roberts (Vincent Van patten), who would like to get in her pants, although she only has eyes for The Ramones. The scenes between Tom and his suave nerd mentor Eaglebauer (the always-silly Clint Howard) venture dangerously close to common teen comedy areas, yet Arkush as well as the perfect casting manage to keep things interesting. With such a big cast, Arkush (as well as uncredited co-director Joe Dante) manage to build comical, yet believable arcs and have enough focus on each one. With its machine gun fast comedy timing, it's a clear predecessor of the ZAZ comedies such as Airplane! and The Naked Gun. And there's also plenty of rocking scenes, which made the film's soundtrack popular to this day. This film has truly earned its cult reputation.

★★★★ (Film)
★★★★★ (Music)

The Great Rock 'N Roll Swindle (1980)
Director: Julien Temple

Malcolm McLaren managed to put Punk on the map (as well as name the whole phenomena) by discovering The Sex Pistols, the original UK punk rock band. Of course, punk's roots go way back longer than that but still The Pistols' effect on music can't be overemphasized. As The Pistols weren't a natural unit, and McLaren made sure that they hated each other, too, their reign would not last long. But since McLaren loved money, he wanted to put his protegés on film fast. The project was originally to be directed by boobsploitation maestro Russ Meyer. Meyer didn't last long with the quarreling Pistols, and left due to creative differences. The aspiring young documentarist Julien Temple was assigned to pick up the pieces.

The reason I dwell so deep into the process of making this film is because it explains why the result is such a confusing mess. The former title "Who Killed Bambi" (as well as presumably its plot) was scrapped, but the film still features a lengthy sequence where Sid Vicious plays a movie theatre usher singing the title over and over again for no reason. Instead, the film chronicles the history of The Pistols in a way that includes animations, dwarves, revolting peasants, McLaren in a fetish rubber suit and other quite random material. Although it's hard to make heads or tails about the film as a whole, it is undeniable that individual scenes in the film manage to be striking, odd, and way off the viewer's comfort zone. So, in a way, it represents the Pistols' music quite well. But Temple would do better later on with a full-scale documentary The Filth And The Fury.

★★ 1/2 (Film)
★★★★★ (Music)

Rude Boy (1980)
Director: Jack Hazan, David Mingay

Another major UK punk band who opted for the pseudo-documentary route was The Only Band That Matters, The Clash. Rude Boy follows one young punk, played by Ray Gange. He quits his job at a Porno Store when he sees The Clash perform at a small club at London. So he decides to become a roadie for them. Along the way, the band gets bigger, whereas Rude Boy has some ideas that Clash with the views of The Clash members themselves and as he isn't much good for the technical side, either they grow a dislike to him, but still allow him to hang around. The film is framed against some of the events surrounding England from 1977-80, such as the rise of Thatcherism, riots, parades against racism and The Clash's career.

Sadly, for everything the film has going for it, the mostly improvised film is quite boring. Gange's main character doesn't quite manage to captivate the audience in following him, and the grey, slow documentary style fits kitchen sink dramas better than a punk film. Inter-cut within it are various documentary pieces without comments. We would need something as fierce and in-your-face as The Clash was at the peak of their power. Lucky, then for the live performances of the band, which are so good that one can't take one's eyes off them even to blink. It is only a representation what it was like to go to a Clash show at the turn of the 70's and 80's, yet it is still a lot more fun than most actual live performances today. The energy, the enthusiasm, the skill, the message. All is top notch! Luckily, the DVD of the film features the porn-like feature of skipping the plot altogether and watching only The Clash.

★★ (Film)
★★★★★★ (Music)

Urgh! A Music War (1981)
Director: Derek Burbridge

Of course punk didn't stay pure for long and soon developed further into New Wave and various other music genres. The strength of punk was that anyone could do it, even freaks and weirdoes. That's why many punk and New wave bands did make a big deal of their differences and came up with various gimmicks. Also, as The Clash proved, punk and New Wave were extremely adaptive with also other style of music, be it reggae, rockabilly, funk, or even the dreaded disco. This British concert movie features a good cavalcade of various punk-spunned acts. The variety doesn't cover everything, but it gives a good idea of how much difference these bands developed.

The film's bands are being led by The Police, one of the biggest names of that time. Sting's band begins and ends the film with their hit songs. Other bands and artists featured include Oingo Boingo, Echo and the Bunnymen, Klaus Nomi, Joan Jett, Devo, the Gang of Four, 999, X and The Dead Kennedys. The stage acts aren't shot with any special innovation, and mostly take a step back to just feature the bands doing their thing. Not even the concert venues are common to all, since the film has been shot during two months in New York, Paris, London and Los Angeles. Even though the film is quite long, I don't think any viewer will be entirely satisfied with it, wanting to remove some acts and emphasize other styles or bands. But as it is, it's a good period piece of what was happening in music at the start of the 1980's.


The Punk Syndrome (Kovasikajuttu, 2012)
Directors: Jukka Kärkkäinen, Jani-Petteri Passi

But hey, punk really isn't actually dead yet! Its flame is being kept alive by the last people you would expect, a group of developmentally disabled Finns. But they won't let their disability stop them. The band Name Day, or Pertti Kurikan Nimipäivät to use it's finnish title, consists of four adamant, strong personalities that assume quite familiar band roles. There's the band leader, Pertti, a troubled songwriter who suffers from mood swings. There's the political guitarist, Sami, who campaigns for the Finnish Center Party, and often awakens anger in his band mates. The bass player Kari is the ladies' man, but figures he's done enough fooling around and plans to get hitched with his girlfriend. And the drummer Toni is an awkward young man taking his first steps towards freedom and moving away from his parents' house.

The quartet announces in their songs rebellion of having to live in an institution, fight spirit against the authorities, and also mundane stuff like having a cup of coffee and taking a dump. The documentary follows each of the players in their everyday life and their own problems, and on their first European tour. The film raises some questions about how the society treats the handicapped, but it isn't preachy and doesn't rub the viewer's face with them. One also gets a few good laughs at the silly stuff the punk rockers are up to, such as the race Kari loses when he drops his pants, or when the group gets a little too excited with the strip club windows in Hamburg's Reeperbahn.The groups's chief assistant Janne is left a little to the background, but he's having to deal with four rock stars who each have their own wants and needs, as well as having to deal with becoming a father. But the spotlight is kept promptly on the band, and rightfully so. They are people to easily identify with, to laugh and cry with. The biggest strength of the film is the same as with the band: it feels very real, as opposed to staged. It's a real slice of life with its ups and downs, highs and lows.


Saturday, 24 March 2012

The Directors: Terrence Malick

When talking about enigmatic film directors, the Illinois-born Terrence Malick (1943-) undoubtedly comes up. The overly shy director is known as a recluse, refusing to do any interviews or publicity for his films. In fact, there are even precious few photographs about the man. Malick is also a notoriously slow worker, having produced a body of five films during the course of almost 40 years.

But for a man we know next to nothing about, Malick's films are strongly personal and speak for their creator. They are strong, philosophical films, which ponder large questions about existence with almost poetic photography. Malick has strong connections to both nature and religion, and both are often represented in various situations in his films. His refusal to do straight-forward stories and broad-stroked art style has also earned a number of haters for his style. It is easy to think thickly voice-overed, highly symbolic films as pretentious, but every single image has a purpose and is all part of a big jigsaw puzzle of different symbols and their readings. This style of filmmaking has also been highly influential among arthouse directors, although few can make films as captivating in their mysteriousness as the grand old man. This is why I consider Malick to be one of the most important filmmakers alive today.

It's hard, even impossible to rate Malick's unique body of work with stars, so I won't attempt it here. Suffice to say, I consider two of them to be true masterpieces and the other three still pretty darn good.

Badlands (1973)

Malick could easily have been a member of the same movie brat generation that many of his age peers did, like Scorsese, Coppola and DePalma. His debut film is a incredibly powerful film, but still reflects much of the era when it was made and has Malick's usual vivid philosophication marginalized. The film is loosely based on a real life case of a young man and a woman going on a killing rampage through the American Midwest. However, Malick's film is not a thriller, a crime flick, a heist flick or even a chase flick. It can loosely be seen as a romance or a study on morale. But the fact of the matter is, that Malick did make a wholly unique film on his first try, and it's hard to fit it in any previously made categories.

Kit Carruthers (Martin Sheen) is a young punk, who doesn't quite fit into the society. He's working as a garbage man, when he meets the sweet young Holly Sargis (Sissy Spacek). Kit begins to court the girl, much to the dismay of her parents. Her father (Warren Oates) shoots her dog as a punishment for running off with Kit one time too often. The conflict culminates to the point where Kit sees no other option but to shoot Holly's father and escape with her to the wilderness. The pair look for a chance to be in peace at nature, at a farm and at a rich man's house, but they always get hounded by the police, and Kit has to resort to killing a lot more people.

It may sound like Kit is a total sociopath, and he does get over murdering people with a shrug. Yet at the same time he's a charming, witty and friendly man, and he's seen making friends with ease. It's the sort of normal-seeming young man that were sent to murder people by the thousands at that time in Vietnam. While Malick doesn't address this issue directly, there is some pondering on where the nation's youth is going. Holly herself is also smitten with Kit, although she's also shown to be so young and naïve that she doesn't fully realize her emotions, or make sense of the disturbingly sinister centre of Kit's facade. Her narration of the film likens her love to a story found in a cheap romance novel, and Kit himself to a rock star.

For a love story, Malick shoots his film coldly and tells the story matter-of-factly. He doesn't resort to melodrama, but rather lets the images tell story. At this point Malick was still more interested in the postures and expressions of his actors than the landscape they inhabit. The pop-culture grown youth attempt to go back to living in the nature as Adam and Eve, but can't manage to shake off neither their suburban habits nor the police on their tail. The scenes in nature look like they were shot in a park rather than a forest, which may very well be the point. There's no isolation, no true wilderness. There is some sense of melancholy in this realization that you can't go back again. Also depending on the kindness of friends and even strangers doesn't work for Kit and Holly's favor, yet they themselves only seem to think it's their forbidden love that has turned them into outcasts rather than the carnage they leave behind. This is a film about people who think they have figured life all out but in their shallowness and confusion are actually more messed up than anyone. And Malick seems to suggest that this kind of thing is not rare in the world.

Days of Heaven (1978)

Malick likes to develop his themes further in subsequent films he makes. Thus, his second feature film is another take of a couple on the run. This time, it concerns the hot-headed Bill (Richard Gere), his lover Abby (Brooke Adams) and their daughter Linda (Linda Mantz). Bill starts out as a factory-worker, but runs afoul with his foreman, and accidentally kills him as a result. The family runs away far to Texas, where Bill starts working as a hand in the harvest in the fields owned by The Farmer (Sam Shepard). The rich Farmer is terminally ill, and the prognosis is that he won't live to see another harvest. Initially the family tell nothing about their identities. But Bill sees an opportunity when The Farmer falls for Abby, and comes up with a plan to pose as brother and sister, and go on living in the farm. He plans for Abby to marry The Farmer, and thus gain all his money once he dies. But the love of Abby makes The Farmer last a lot longer than expected, never taking a turn for the worse. Thus, also the seeds of jealousy are planted.

The tale is narrated by the young Linda, and in that it seems like a film set inside a person's memories, much like Malick's later Tree of Life is. Days of Heaven is Malick's first Epic, with huge shots of fields with the tall farm house rising in the middle like a medieval tower. A lot of weight is also given to Ennio Morricone's wonderful score. The film is set in the beginning of the 20th century, yet there is so much vivid imagery that could also be interpreted to be Malick's own memories of his childhood in the countryside of Illinois. Malick also intercuts peaceful images of fields, where wind is playing, to swarms of locusts attacking and eating the crops, and farmhands burning the entire field, when his characters' feelings come into the surface and more and more intense.

This time around, Malick would offer his characters a peace of mind, but having them be deceitful, jealous and greedy, they ruin it altogether. Harmony can not be achieved when people are driven by their flaws. The bright young Linda is the one who has the best hopes for the future, as is shown in the final scene of the film.

The Thin Red Line (1998)

Malick broke 20 years of reclusiveness to film a war novel about World War II in the Pacific by James Jones for the second time. The resulting film, however was something wholly unique, unlike any other previous war films. It is a key film in Malick's career in that he evolved to being more and more interested in philosophy, such as metaphysicality, and man's relationship with nature. That's why more than battles, he likes to shoot light flickering at treetops or wind playing at the grass of a field. The film is laced with the voiceovers of soldiers pondering at their place in a world gone mad.

The film can roughly be divided into three parts. The first shows deserted soldiers living in harmony with the nature and the natives on a paradise island, until a ship comes by and the deserters are returned back on duty. The second part shows a major battle, as the marines must take out the Japanese troops stationed on the hills of a Pacific island. A major attack ensues and after a bloodshed, the men appear victorious. Yet their commandants can't even provide them with water and push them on more and more. The final part sees the tired soldiers in the jungle, not knowing where to head and where the enemy is. One patrol in particular gets into a sticky situation and have to escape the attacking enemy.

The theme of losing one's individuality is strong here. The soldiers follow the orders from clueless, merciless generals, who in turn have little concern for anything but reaching their set goals. Yet that idea is one seen in many a war movie before. More interesting is how Malick cross-cuts the war with a man's relation to nature. In the first battle scenes, it seems like Mother Nature is disapproving of the soldiers breaking its harmony by harming the peaceful landscape with their running, shouting and explosives. A key image is of a snake hissing at a pair of soldiers taking cover by a grassy knoll. But as the film progresses, Malick shows that nature doesn't really care. It just observes, like a swarm of fruit bats at the treetops. At the same time the jungle-set paradise by the water from the film's beginning has turned from to a living hell where the struggle of life and death is a reality. The cold mindset of a soldier is kill or get killed, so in actuality they get to experience nature as it is, as cold and ruthless, rather than just reaping its benefits.

Malick, if anyone, is a director whose films are born in the cutting room. The original cut of the film ran for six hours. When the film had to be cut into less than three, Malick didn't hesitate to cut certain major movie stars out of the picture, and reducing some others' roles considerably. The director doesn't want to over-emphasize any given soldiers, it is a story about humanity in general. Also, Malick willingly breaks every Hollywood war movie cliché and convention he can find. His war is a total mess, confusing, loud and raw. At war really are harmony and chaos, or empathy and nature. The same fighting pair Malick would ponder on later with The Tree of Life. But The Thin Red Line is more subtle, more thought-provoking, and perhaps even more beautiful.

The New World (2005)

Like said, Malick likes to amplify his last movie's themes with every subsequent film he makes. The New World was his first film that really split even the arthouse audience in two. At it's core is another battle between natural children and civilization. The western civilization is depicted as a cold, heartless place, whose residents are emotionally distant. At the same time the natives living in the middle of the nature are capable for mercy and love – to a point. Malick stages this conflict to the time of the first English settlement on American soil. He also has a sort of a plot to hang his thoughts to, taken from history books.

The English explorers come across the Atlantic ocean to what they conceive as West India, and build the settlement of Jamestown. Supplies are few, and many of the men are not too eager about their new habitat. Captain Christopher Newport (Christopher Plummer) agrees to set free Captain John Smith (Colin Farrell), a mutineer waiting for the death penalty, on the condition that he shall remain loyal. But the immigrants start having trouble with the curious American natives, and this culminates one of the "Indians" being shot. This drives both of the groups to an edge, and leads to Smith getting captured. But just as he's about to get executed (again) the beautiful young daughter of the Tribe leader saves his life. The young girl (Q'Orinka Klicher) comes known first as Pocahontas. She attempts to build peace between the two groups and grows fond of Smith. But Smith doesn't enjoy being in America and schemes about getting away. I'm about to dwell a little more on the plot (because while that's really not the key concern for Malick, it brings out the film's themes better), so look away from the next paragraph, if you don't wish to be spoiled any further.

Malick has a sort of one-sided romance going on during his film. No matter how much mercy Pocahontas shows, how much she helps the English, she doesn't get the love that she deserves from John Smith. After the distrust between the English and the natives culminates again to a brutal battle, she's banished from her Tribe, and starts living as a Pariah in Jamestown. A newly arrived recruit, John Rolfe (Christian Bale) falls for her and attempts to build her a common bourgeois life of being the wife of an English farmer. They build a house, a farm, give her English clothes and teach her manners. Finally, she is given a Christian baptism, and named Rebecca. But she still pines for the more adventurous Smith. Eventually, she is taken to England, where she comes to terms with her part in life and the fact that Smith didn't care for her. Rebecca insists she is happy within grey skies and tightly cut bushes and lawns that bear no resemblance to her native nature any more. The bittersweet ending also tells of her demise at childbirth.

So, at central, the film is a melancholic look at a paradise lost. Pocahontas' sense of connection with nature starts to dwindle during the course of the movie. She grows from a beloved child that wonders the moon and the stars, and runs across the grassy fields at dawn mist, to just another droll English midwife. She sacrifices it all by chasing a dream that was never there. It may be wondrous to her when she first arrives to London, of seeing so many people she couldn't imagine, but in the end she still seems to end up lonely and unfulfilled. Although Malick alludes heavily to the Christian concept of rebirth, it can not be seen to be only a good thing here. This sort of thing should be noted by those who see Malick's recent work of just pushing Christian values to their face. Malick doesn't see the religion per se as the savior. Rather, the individual also needs to find his or her own sense of mercy, a connection to nature, and of course ableness to stuck to the moment when they are the happiest.

Personally, I find the film a bit too long and repetitive, but it is still a lot more interesting than a lot of other filmmakers make during their entire careers.

The Tree of Life (2011)

Malick's latest film may be his most personal or perhaps not. However, it is clearly his most dividing film. Some viewers criticize Malick dropping the ball by going too far into naïve christian pseudo-philosophies, and pretentiousness. Others see a vivid, even poetic film that's bustling with ideas and multilayered symbolism. All can agree that this is a one-of-a-kind film that's made with an amazing visual style. Malick's central idea is that everyone on Earth must follow one of two paths in their life: either they follow nature and do things from selfish reasons, or they follow mercy and do things out of love. Cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki's beautiful, iconic imagery spirals around the film's main themes. The film may entirely take place inside the architect Jack O'Brien's (Sean Penn) head as he struggles against feelings of depression and worthlessness. He doesn't know his place in the world and inside God's grand plan. All the film's scenes are laced with how Jack experiences them, from his angelic mother (Jessica Chastain) to his strong father (Brad Pitt), a man with few words but a loving heart.

So, the film's plot is flimsy and serves as only the faintest thread with which to tie Malick's world-explanations. First, we follow the grief in an American family as one of their three boys has died from reasons not explained. From the grief we take off to the beginning of life itself billions of years ago in the sea. One-celled organisms eventually become dinosaurs, complicated creatures who rise from the life-giving sea and suffer for it. But for suffering, they also seem to conceive the concept of mercy (!). With a quick stop at brooding adult Jack's glistening, artificial city surroundings, we're back with the O'Brien family in the 50's or early 60's, before the upcoming tragedy. The eldest child Jack (Hunter McCracken) lives and plays with his two brothers in the nature, often somewhere near water. His mother and father embody the two life paths, and try to get young Jack to follow them.

Either way you choose, life may have infinite sadness and suffering in store. Life branches to unknown paths, just like God's Divine plan for the universe. We as a people may have difficulty seeing the whole of it. But Malick does offer hope with the ending. Everyone will get a chance for redemption and coming to terms with the past. Too bad it's presented so banally in the film it makes the whole thing a little cheesy. Altough Malick has a lot of christian iconography in the film, his concepts of mercy and redemption are more spiritual than belonging to any given religion. Nevertheless Malick and underlines this religious reading way too much, particularly in the final scene. If not for that, one could read the Tree to be whatever one likes.

It is widely suspected that Malick is taking a look back at his own childhood and suffering of over his brother's death. We know little about the author, and since he doesn't give interviews nor gives out guides how to read his films, one can take these claims however one likes. Nevertheless, much of the film taking place inside Jack's memories are full of vivid boyhood games with a reasonably nostalgic look at growing up. The film really shines with these warm and affectionate scenes. It is also undeniable that Malick is searching for reasons and coping methods for past tragedies (whether for his characters or for himself) through religion and a poetic approach on the Earth's development. 

Warts and all, Tree of Life is a jaw-droppingly unique vision of cinema by a true auteur. When the viewer leaves the theatre, he most likely has his head all blurry from this whole cornucopia of unforgettable images, unique ideas, colorful boyhood nostalgia, great underplayed acting, and, in two words, pure cinema.

It has been rumored that Malick would have another film ready for this year, known to some circles as Voyage of Time. There are also a few other films reportedly at various stages in production, as well as a 3,5 hour cut of The Tree of Life. I'll believe when I see them. Malick is notoriously slow worker, having edited ToL for years because he was not happy with the result. And we haven't even seen the longer cut of The Thin Red Line, like promised. But if they do exist, I am more than eager to see them.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Spaghetti Westerns I

The blog post I did about the films of Sergio Leone has been quite popular. I hope all of Leone's friends are aware that spaghetti westerns as a genre do not begin and end with Leone. True, he was a genius at the epic scale of the stories he was telling. But there are a number of italian westerns that were more cynical, comical, political, brutal and rebellious of the norms connected to westerns as a genre. And at least as action-packed, too. The best directors of these films were directors named Sergio. Alongside Leone his name-sakes Sergio Corbucci and Sergio Sollima made some ground-breaking and pretty darn good films. Let's take a look.

Django (1966)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

For a clear contrast between the styles between Leone and Corbucci, look no further than the latter's most well-known film. It basically utilizes the same story as Leone's A Fistful of Dollars, mainly the one from Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo. In both, a stranger walks into a town ruled by two rival gangs. The stranger decides to play the two gangs against each other for profit.

As to where the two films differ. Well, for starters, the protagonist of Corbucci's film, Django (Franco Nero) is a tad grimmer than Clint Eastwood's Joe. So grim, in fact, that he drags a coffin through mud and the prairie. He won't reveal anyone what's in the coffin, leading them to think he's some sort of a vampire or some other undead angel of death. But Django still has a beating heart, as he saves the prostitute Maria (Loredana Nusciak) from the clutches of Mexican bandits. Django takes her to the nearby town, where the Mexicans are in an open war with the local KKK branch. The leader of the bandits, General Hugo Rodriguez (José Bodalo) allows Django to show his worth by taking out a group of his KKK rivals. He also sees Django and his secret weapon as a road to gaining a revolution back in Mexico. But Django himself is only in it for the gold.

So, Corbucci takes the brutality of spaghetti westerns to the max, and people are getting mudered by the tenfold, if not hundredfold. The hero himself won't escape untouched. In fact, the brutally tortured Django may have the worst fate of them all. The raw violence has put off a lot of people, that have dubbed the film sadistic. At least the film is murderingly ironic. There's little to no place in classic heroism in Corbucci's west. Franco Nero with his baby blue eyes and seeming naïvety mixed with his brutal determinism fits the image like a glove. It's no wonder Nero is second only to Eastwood in the most legendary of spaghetti western leading men.


The Mercenary (Il Mercenario, 1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Django became a character recycled in countless unofficial sequels (particularly in Germany, where even non-related western films were translated to be Django films). Franco Nero rose into cult stardom and starred again in this, another Corbucci corker. This one was also wildly popular on its day, but nowadays its been overshadowed by other films, and best remembered from Ennio Morricone's score which was (as a lot of others) swiped by Quentin Tarantino for his own films.

Nero stars as the Polish bounty hunter Kowalski (still one of the toughest names anyone ever came up with, thanks to Vanishing Point). Again, he's tough and ruthless, only in the game for his personal gains, but this time his character also has a sense of humour. The film was made in a period where political undertones started to take over the spotlight from spaghetti westerns' cynicism, irony and shattering of genre imagery of traditional westerns. The other protagonist is the poor Mexican worker Paco Roman (Tony Mustante). The poor miner is mistreated at his work, and thus decides to humiliate his boss and rise to rebellion. Paco is soon wanted for murder, and also the notorious mercenary Curly (Jack Palance) has a score to settle with him. To survive, Paco must raise a group to fight alongside him against the capitalist landowners and the government who gives them their power.

The film mostly takes place in a flashback. Kowalski, masqueraded as a rodeo clown faces off against Paco in a bull-fighting arena, and we then get to see how things developed to this point. This solution would work, if the arena showdown were the actual climax or the last scene of the film. But as it's only a major turning point, the effect is less functional, as the film has to continue in real time afterwards. All in all, the film features plenty of memorable scenes, showdowns, some good action scenes and a couple of actually funny jokes (witness the roulette table scene). But as a whole it is an uneven film that feels like some powers that be got to have a shot at the editing room. All the three leads are excellent, but The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, this ain't.


The Great Silence (Il grande silenzio, 1968)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Even though the film wasn't very popular when it was first made, The Great Silence has since become Corbucci's most respected and beloved work. It is certainly a sort of peak in this phase of spaghetti western filmmaking. More cynical and cold-hearted films are hard to come by, at least. Rarely for a western film, this takes place in a snowy wilderness, rather than hot deserts. This emphazises the film's icy look at the world and it's unfairness.

The villages of the valleys of Nevada mountains are suffering from food shortage and famine. The people must resort to petty crimes to survive. This makes many an easy target to  a group of bounty hunters, led by the cold-blooded, sadistic, no-nonesense misanthrope called Loco (Klaus Kinski). The gang has no restrains in killing a black man, who happens to be the husband of the young Pauline (Vonetta McGee). The law can't do anything to help her case, but lucky for her, another strangers wanders off to the area. The mute gunslinger known as Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) is seeking vengeance on bounty hunters working above the law and has thus taken the law into his own hands. His plan is to provoke them to a duel, and then draw faster, to avoid complications with the law. Silence has long since lost his will to live. But he strikes a relationship with Pauline, due to them both having an interest in killing Loco.

While I think the film is very good, I still don't quite feel it's a masterpiece. The pacing is a little off, and there are certain boring parts in the movie. The relationship between Silence and Pauline in particular isn't quite as warm as it should be for the full effect. But nevertheless, Corbucci turns around some of the tropes of spaghetti westers, having the bounty hunter be the main villain and the murdering outlaw the only way to bring peace into the community. The film is melancholic by nature and no amount of violence can seem to upset its determined, cynical core. Law is as useless as ever, as evidenced by the character of the hopelessly outgunned Sheriff Burnett (Frank Wolff), and the west seems like a hellish place where even the rule of the survival of the fittest is too fair. The characters are manipulative, attempting to gain the upper hand in the upcoming showdown. The one who is the most ruthless will fare well in the game. It's an astonishingly pessimistic film about the human nature. Don't watch it if you're pondering whether life is worth living.


The Specialist (Gli specialisti, 1969)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

The 60's were a time where pop culture spread its wings and crossed multiple boundaries. Comic book panels became highly regarded art, and especially pop music and cinema intertwined to promote both of them. Movie soundtracks became popular records, and popular artists started to become also popular film actors. Italians also wanted a slice of that pie, and thus Sergio Corbucci decided to cast the French pop star Johnny Hallyday as a spaghetti western antihero. This decision works better than you'd think, as the actor doesn't need to speak much, but act ruthlessly and cynically, which seems to come naturally to Hallyday.

Hallyday plays Hud, an outlaw looking for the murderer of his brother. In the process he gets tangled in a three-way power-struggle. At one point is the corrupt law-enforcer of the town of Blackstone, known as The Sheriff (Gastone Moschin). There's also the notorious bandit leader hiding in the wilderness outside the town, El Diablo (Mario Adorf). And there is a group of young drifters, who don't swear allegiance to anyone, and just do nasty things for kicks. Evil western hippies, so to speak. All try to get Hud's shooting skills to meet their own ends, yet Hud only cares to find out what happened to his brother. And thus makes some very powerful people angry.

This film is not very widely seen, which is a shame. The film not only provides a good sense of what was going on at the time, but it's roaring good fun, too. The saloon fight is one of the best I've ever seen. The villains are lovably sleazy, particulaly Mario Adorf loves to chew the scenery. He also has a kick-ass fight scene with The Sheriff. And for all blood-thirsty spaghetti western fans the grande finale may come out as a surprise. In a way, that's Corbucci commenting on the genre that made his career. The film is as self-referential to spaghetti westerns as a genre as Leone's Once Upon A Time In The West was to John Ford's classic westerns.


Compañeros (Vamos a matar, compañeros, 1970)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

Another film at the crossroads of the genre developing, one can't say that Corbucci wasn't able to develop with the times. At this point, political westerns were still going strong, but also more comedic spaghettis (in the vein of Terence Hill & Bud Spencer buddy movies) were beginning to take hold. So, Corbucci managed to mix both of these distinct flavours up pretty decently. Corbucci seems to handle a revolutionary western a lot more confidently this time around than two years prior – and with some of the same key cast members, too.

Franco Nero stars again, this time as a Swedish gun dealer, Jolaf Petterson, better known as The Penguin because of his dandy wardrobe in the beginning. But Nero also can shut up hecklers, even if they are notorious Mexican bandits. He hands their leader El Vasco (Tomas Milian) a coin. Exactly why is a mystery for The Penguin to know and for Vasco and the audience to find out. The Penguin has arrived to Mexico to make a major deal, but as luck would have it, can't get his money from the city's safe. The only one to know the combination is Professor Xantos (Fernando Ray), a rebellious academic, who has been kidnapped by American troops. But as it turns out, El Vasco is a revolutionary, too, albeit a recluctant one. To save his hide from the wrath of the rebel general, Vasco agrees to lead The Penguin to find The Professor. But at their tail is also the greedy one-armed mercenary John (Jack Palance), Jolaf's former business partner out for revenge.

The film has a real buddy-film formula, with the two leads initially disliking each other, but growing more close on the battlefield on their way to riches and fame. In fact, the film is quite a clear predecessor to Sergio Leone's later Duck, You Sucker (or A Fistfull of Dynamite). However, this treats the subject with a lot more lightness and the comedic portions make up the majority of the film. For such cynicalism in The Great Silence, Corbucci surely bounced back, and made a western with more traditional characters that are easier to root for. In fact, the film is seething with warm humanism. There are still plenty of good shootouts to remind that Corbucci hasn't gone too soft on his audiences. But this time around, there's an actual heart of brotherhood beating in the middle of it all.


Sonny & Jed (La banda J.S.: Cronaca ciminale del Far West, 1972)
Director: Sergio Corbucci

From bromance to romance, Corbucci took a page from the book of Bonnie & Clyde for his next western. Basically it is a story of an abusive relationship set on the spaghetti western world. The film has an irrestistible Finnish title, along the lines of "The Beagle Boys of the West", but sadly the film can't live up to that title. Nevertheless it has a few good moments, too.

Corbucci regular Thomas Milian plays Jed Trigado, a bandit who only steals from the rich – and keeps the profits to himself. He is being chased by the hard-nosed Sheriff Franciscus (Telly Savalas), and only escapes when the young girl Sonny (Susan George) helps him. He subsequently kidnaps the girl. Sonny herself wants to become an outlaw, too and falls for the original bandit. Jed himself can barely stand the girl, and doesn't think she's worth much as a partner. He devices schemes to get rid of her, but eventually starts to fall for her, too. But are his former instincts still more powerful than love? More determined is Franciscus on catching the pair, and doesn't even let the fact that he loses his eyesight stop him on getting revenge.

The film borders on the boundaries of good taste. Corbucci isn't above laughing at attempted rape, or weird fetishes towards drinking breast milk. It's a little sad much of the style and determinism of his former work has switched to aimless blundering around for cheap laughs by now. The film is Sonny's story about growing up. Since Jed himself is so despicable from the beginning, we keep rooting for her to gain the moxie to stand on her own. Francisco is a good and a little intimidating villain, but in the end can't amount to much, and Telly Savalas feels wasted in the role. Sadly, at 98 minutes, this still feels a tad overlong. It could've used a few more action scenes, I think.


The Big Gundown (La resa dei conti, 1966)
Director: Sergio Sollima

Leone was the master of Epic, while Corbucci was the master of cynicalism and brutality. That leaves Sollima, the master of political allegories. Sollima often refuses to have clear-cut, good or bad characters in his films. Rather, all the characters represent an idea, and work according to it. The shades of grey he gives to his multidimensional cast overshadows anything seen in the works of Leone or Corbucci. And The Big Gundown, his first western, may also be his best.

Lee Van Cleef starts as a famous bounty hunter John Corbett. In fact, Corbett has brough so many low-lifes to justice that the powers-that-be start to plan a campaign for him to run for the US senate. Corbett agrees, as he sees that as a way to weed out crime. For his campaign, it is suggested that Corbett catches the notorious knife-throwing bandit Cuchillo (Tomas Milian). The Mexican is being blamed of raping and murdering a little girl. Cuchillo is easy enough to find, and not that hard to capture either. But he's as slippery as an eel and manages to escape time after time. At first glance Corbett thought the Mexican to be a little slow, but he starts to realize he's actually a lot brighter than he first figured. He also starts to suspect that perhaps Cuchillo is not as guilty to the crimes he's wanted for, after all. But every time Cuchillo manages to escape, he can't keep himself hidden for long, and always indulges into his favorite vices: women, drinking and stealing.

Like said, the film's strength is it's strong characterizations, and that leads all the way to the colorful cast of secret villains. Ennio Morricone's score is as strong here as ever, as has been recognized by Tarantino and others who have pilfered from the soundtrack. As the background of the film is in a chase, the scenery also changes often. The great American wilderness has rarely been shown as this vast in Italian westerns. Alongside with it, Corbucci contrasts different pilgrims living in various settlements. The point of the film is that laws and values may change, but they may not always seek for what is best for the individual. Man should trust more on his moral compass than to the values others put upon you.


Face to Face (Faccia a faccia, 1967)
Director: Sergio Sollima

Boston University's history professor Brett Fletcher (Gian Maria Volonté) travels to the west to get over his lung disease. However, his vacation changes drastically when the bandit Solomon Bennett (Tomas Milian) kidnaps him. Pairing up with an outlaw brings new life force for the professor, particularly as he watches the impulsive Bennett lose his temper and kill people. The pair become accomplices and form a big band of bandits. Soon the student starts to become even blood-thirstier than the master. But unknown to the bandits, the Pinkerton detective Charles Siringo (William Berger) has gone undercover to the gang and is looking for the right moment to capture Bennett and to take Fletcher back to civilization.

Sollima's film, written by himself and Sergio Donati, is a morality play, looking at the thin line between romantic outlaws and murderous sociopathic bandits. But the side of the law isn't necessarily any better, either. The characters are three-dimensional, and all quite unpredictable. The film certainly has the rebellious attitude of many political westerns, but plot-wise certainly doesn't thread the same tracks as most other spaghetti westerns. The film is reportedly slashed down from its orginal three hour running time to a measly 97 minutes. It would benefit to develop some of its themes with a little more time. Now it seems like Fletcher turns to a life of crime a little too easily and other changes in the act of the characters aren't grounded up well enough, either. The extra running time would turn this small stage play into a true western epic, but the missing scenes have long vanished to the sands of time. The short end result isn't Sollima's best, but that's probably because of the producer Alberto Grimaldi's strict rules about running time.


Run Man Run! (Corri uomo corri, 1968)
Director: Sergio Sollima

Sollima concluded his trilogy of political westerns with a sequel to The Big Gundown, featuring the return of Tomas Milian's Cuchillo. He meets the revolutionary Ramirez (José Torres) in prison and hears from him about a treasure of 3 million dollars, reserved for the Mexican revolution. Ramirez fears for his life, and even though Cuchillo manages for them to escape, Ramirez is soon shot dying with the secret of the treasure's whereabouts. Cuchillo does get a clue, and goes to get rich. But there are also plenty of other shady characters interested in the treasure on his tail, most notably the ominous gringo Cassidy (Donal O'Brien). Cuchillo resorts to his throwing knives only as an extreme measure, but with a combination of luck, and Cassidy watching out for him, he manages to survive to the treasure. But the long road there has made him change his mind about how to spend the money.

Run Man Run! is certainly the most comedy-filled of Sollima's westerns. The bumbling, thick Cuchillo was quite unusual for a leading man still in the 60's, before the comedic westerns took over. The more stoic Cassidy is left to a lot smaller role. Donal O'Brien's role was originally reserved for Face to Face's William Berger, making Sollima's trilogy conclusion a meeting point for characters from both of his earlier westerns. Scheduling conflicts made Berger drop out, and Sollima to write the role smaller. But Milian isn't a bad lead himself, I figure it's about time for sleazy Mexican thieves to be on the spotlight for once. For a revolutionary western, this makes the development from down-on-their-luck bandits to freedom fighters seem most natural and fluid. Indeed, Sollima himself happily considered the film to be his most revolutionary and anarchistic.



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